“In the early Seventies, when many people thought rock and country went together like cod and ice cream, Gram Parsons was proving them wrong with the melodic blend he liked to call “”cosmic American music.”” As he said, “”I think pure country includes rock & roll — I don’t think you have to call it country rock.”” Parsons went to Nashville to play the Grand Ole Opry and went to France to hang around with Keith Richards. Onstage, he liked to wear a Nudie suit — one side sported a cross, the other marijuana leaves.
When Parsons died at age twenty-six in 1973, his friends stole his coffin, brought it out to the Joshua Tree desert and set it on fire. Parsons left behind a huge legacy but little music: basically, one great Byrds country album (1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo), a couple of albums with the Flying Burrito Brothers and two exquisite solo albums — light on twang, heavy on heartbreak — 1973’s GP and 1974’s Grievous Angel.
What made those two discs so special wasn’t just Parsons’ gift for turning a lonely phrase. He had recruited members of Elvis Presley’s touring band and hired an unknown young woman by the name of Emmylou Harris. Although she was ostensibly singing backing vocals, song after song seemed like a lovelorn duet. Their intertwined harmonies sounded like they were getting as close as possible, just so they could twist the knife in each other’s hearts. When they sang “”Love Hurts,”” you believed them.
Since GP and Grievous Angel have been repackaged many times, most economically on a single CD, what distinguishes this three-disc collection? The first two discs have the two albums, larded with excerpts from an uninformative Parsons interview. It’s the third disc that has the unreleased treasures: alternate vocal takes for fifteen songs, from “”Streets of Baltimore”” to “”In My Hour of Darkness.”” On these scratch vocals, you can hear Parsons and Harris finding their way inside each song, sometimes singing a bit more tentatively, other times with a greater sense of wonder at how their voices meld. None of these outtakes will make you hear any of Parsons’ music in a new way, but all of these songs are worth hearing a second time.”