Sleepless Nights has been collected from two sources. Nine of the tracks come from early 1970 sessions in which the Flying Burrito Brothers, led by Gram Parsons, sought to record a nononsense country album, covering such standard fare as “Green, Green, Grass of Home,” “Crazy Arms” and “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.” The remaining three songs are from the sessions for Grievous Angel, the final Parsons solo album, spotlighting him and Emmylou Harris in duets of the Everly Brothers’ “Brand New Heartache,” the gospel-etched “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night” and Bordeleaux Bryant’s achingly lovely “Sleepless Nights.”
The tracks with Harris, with their superb accompaniment and splendid singing, are the strongest, but the Burritos’ tracks form the main body of the work, and with few exceptions the renditions are sluggish and dispirited. The reasons are found in the historical backdrop: Parsons was about to leave the Burritos, a broken and disappointed man. He and fellow Burrito-to-be Chris Hillman had left the Byrds after Sweetheart of the Rodeo, not because the group didn’t want to go 100% country but because a new vehicle for Parsons’s vision of a synthesis of country, rock and R&B was felt necessary. In a spotty career, the Burritos’ first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin, was the only time everything clicked for Parsons. Its commercial failure was something that Parsons never seems to have gotten over. Burrito Deluxe was a very uneven followup, sometimes brilliant (“Cody, Cody,” “Older Guys”), other times glaringly amateurish. (How Parsons blew “Wild Horses,” which Keith Richard had handed him well in advance of the Stones’ version, is something I’ll never understand.)
Sleepless Nights, then, as a relatively straightforward country album, was probably intended as a last ditch attempt to save the Burritos by relegating them to the role in which they’d been pigeonholed from the beginning. But the band sounds musically weak, and Parsons himself seems to be inching toward the exit sign. Only one song, “Sing Me Back Home,” the story of a prisoner walking down death row, captures the Burritos’ original magic. Sleepless Nights isn’t recommended to anyone unfamiliar with Parsons’s work, but rather for those who lived and died with the Burrito Brothers as they vainly struggled to break new ground in pop music.