Gram Parsons

     GP (Reprise, 1973)
      Grievous Angel (Reprise, 1974)
     Sleepless Nights (A&M, 1976)
    Gram Parsons: The Early Years 1963-65 (Sierra, 1979)
    Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels Live, 1973 (Sierra, 1982)
      GP/Grievous Angel (Reprise, 1990)
     Another Side of This Life (Sundazed, 2000)
    Warm Evenings, Pale Mornings, and Bottled Blues (Raven, 1991)
      Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: the Gram Parsons Anthology (Rhino, 2001)
    The Complete Reprise Sessions (Rhino, 2006)
     Gram Parsons Archive Vol. 1: Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969 (Rhino, 2007)

International Submarine Band
     Safe at Home (LHI, 1968)

Various Artists
    Conmemorativo: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (Rhino, 1993)
     Return of the Grievous Angel: Tribute to Gram Parsons (Almo Sounds, 1999)

Gram Parsons didn't completely master country music in his brief life, but he had a much firmer grasp on the genre than his rock contemporaries. Although Parsons virtually invented country rock during his stints with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, his sound barely resembles the sleek, glamorized radio fare churned out by bands like the Eagles just a few years later. Parsons concocted his notion of country soul, or "Cosmic American" music, after pursuing folk as a teenager, with the Shilohs (rereleased on The Early Years). During a quick stint in college in 1965, he dug in to the relatively bitter literary side of the urban-folk revival, documented on Another Side of This Life, which edges closer to the GP of legend.

Parsons then formed possibly the first country-rock (rock as in R&B) aggregation, the International Submarine Band, and recorded an album that was promptly ignored (a remastered version is now available). Parsons's next stop was the Byrds, but by the time fans began to accept the band's country turn on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, he had already ended his brief, influential tenure. Soon joined by Byrds bassist Chris Hillman, Parsons went further down the country road with his new band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, staying long enough to contribute to two albums. Material from this period, along with later solo recordings, makes up Sleepless Nights. Parsons continued in a pure country direction for his abbreviated solo career. He died in 1973, just after the completion of his second solo album.

Parsons didn't cast off the rock influence so much as outgrow it. On GP, Parsons finds a soul mate in backup singer Emmylou Harris. The album's melancholy edge cuts deep on songs like "Streets of Baltimore" and "New Soft Shoe," though GP could stand a touch of Gilded Palace of Sin's warped humor. That dolorous charge is what cultists have come to idolize about Parsons, of course. Grievous Angel displays the full range of his talents. Emmylou Harris is front and center, singing pristine harmony to Parsons' quavery lead—a far cry from the salty "he said, she said" duets of early-Seventies mainstream country. This space-cowboy/earth-mother duo works wonders with familiar material ("Love Hurts") and its own neotraditionals ("In My Hour of Darkness"). On "Brass Buttons" and "$1000 Wedding," Parsons pinpoints the telling details of heartbreak with surgical precision. And a cover of Tom T. Hall's raucous "I Can't Dance" adds a welcome what-the-hell dash of spirit to an otherwise somber—but never depressing—album. Paired on a single-CD reissue, GP/Grievous Angel form a monumental document. (The Complete Reprise Sessions includes the two albums and adds some not-terribly-enticing bonus cuts.)

Parsons' influence just kept spreading deeper and wider. For groups like the Jawhawks and Wilco and performers like Gillian Welch, Parsons assumed the role that Hank Williams had held for Parsons' generation: a primal country muse, gloriously doomed and nearly inviolable. A bit too romanticized, this version of Parsons drags down Conmemorativo. But the surge of interest encouraged Emmylou Harris, among others, to put forth a more rounded portrait that's brilliantly represented on Return of the Grievous Angel, which is an ideal supplement to the splendid Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels retrospective. It's a shade slow-moving for a legend with rock & roll bones, but it swiftly makes the case for Parsons as a songwriter and interpreter based deep in the American grain. In memory, Parsons now suggests a younger, forever-unfinished brother of Johnny Cash, with one foot in sacred water and the other on blood-soaked ground, nursing love dreams and a wound that cannot heal.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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