When Gram Parsons began collaborating with folk-rockers the Byrds in 1968, the resulting LP was the hugely influential country-rock classic, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. He soon left the group, followed closely by original member Chris Hillman. The pair formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, further cementing their roles as godfathers of the music genre now simply known (and recognized by inclusion in the Merriam-Webster dictionary) as Americana.
After contributing to two of their albums, Parsons’ tenure with the Flying Burrito Brothers ended. He then embarked on a solo career but it would be early 1973 before his album GP was released. Among the musicians who played on the album were the leader of Elvis Presley’s TCB Band James Burton, and a singer from Birmingham, Alabama: Emmylou Harris. Living near Washington, D.C. at the time, in 1969 Harris had recorded a solo LP, Gliding Bird, which showcased the influence folk singers such as Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell had on her, but it was Parsons who introduced her to the country music that shaped her artistry and has earned her the unofficial title of Godmother of Americana Music.
As a member of Parsons’ band the Fallen Angels, Harris honed her harmony skills and performed duets with him on such iconic tunes as Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts,” one of the tracks recorded in summer 1973 for Grievous Angel, the follow-up to GP. But in the early hours of September 19th, 1973, in Room Eight of the Joshua Tree Inn in Joshua Tree, California, Parsons was dead, the official cause listed as drug toxicity. He was 26.
Precious few clips of Parsons and Harris on stage together exist, but the above performance in black-and-white from Houston’s Liberty Hall and dated February 25, 1973, certainly highlights the intensity the pair created with their voices and their rock-influenced energy. Opening with Parsons singling out legendary steel guitarist Ben Keith, the band hits the gas on Dave Dudley’s ode to truckers, “Six Days on the Road,” and while the picture and the music fades before the song ends, there’s some bonus color footage of Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ doing a weepy and theatrical lip-synched version of “Hot Burrito #1 (I’m Your Toy)” during an appearance on a public-access TV series in Philadelphia. Dressed in their best rhinestone-studded Nudie suits, for whatever reason a couple of the band members gamely switched places for the performance, with bassist Chris Ethridge seated at the drum kit and drummer Michael Clarke playing bass. Also featured is “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow on pedal steel. Of this band’s original members, only Hillman is still living.
The spirit of Parsons and much of the work associated with Harris throughout the past 43 years looms large over this week’s proceedings as the 17th Americana Music Festival and Conference gets underway in Nashville. Since its official formation in 1999, the Americana Music Association has supported the efforts of roots-based musicians, creating wider acceptance for alternative country, folk, bluegrass and blues artists and more. This week’s event will feature more than 200 live performances throughout Music City and the crown jewel in the week-long celebration, the 15th annual Americana Honors and Awards, will take place Wednesday, September 21st, at the Ryman Auditorium, with Jason Isbell and Lucinda Williams leading the slate of nominated artists.