2020 Album Draft- Round 2- Pick 6- Music City Mike -Selects- Gram Parsons- Grievous Angel.
Music City Mike’s blog can be found at – https://musiccitymike.net/
The first time I ever heard the name Gram Parsons was when I read in Circus magazine that he had died. While this created some obvious limitations from my becoming a fan, it certainly didn’t stop me. This was 1973, and I was in process of discovering Country Rock, so Parsons’ musical pedigree had me intrigued. I already owned The Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but I had yet to discover Gram’s influence on that record. Likewise, his next band, The Flying Burrito Brothers was totally foreign to me.
At this time in my life, outside of FM radio, my music listening came in the form of 8-Track tapes. The worn-out family Hi-Fi station with a turntable went the way of the Salvation Army so vinyl records didn’t work for me. While 8-Tracks offered the convenience of play in both my cheap home system and my more-mighty sounding car set-up, they sucked in both their performance and availability. For those who have been there, I’m sure you remember how they had the nerve to introduce an unforgivable pause in a song they split between two of the four playing tracks. It also sometimes took inserting a matchbook to align a tape to the head in the deck to stop the sound of one track bleeding into another. And of course, not all titles made it to this inferior forgotten format.
What this all meant to me and my Gram Parsons discovery was that I was able to somehow find his debut solo record, GP on 8-Track, but not its posthumous follow-up, Grievous Angel . Hearing GP forever changed my music life. I was totally smitten with Parsons’ take on Country Rock. While respecting the tradition of Country, he added a musical spark to it that made it fresh and relevant. He also just looked so cool and as I discovered more photos of him, I even tried to dress like he did. And there was another secret ingredient to discover on that first record—the gorgeous backing vocals of the yet undiscovered Miss Emmylou Harris.
Until I used my first paycheck after graduating college in 1976 to buy a new stereo system with a turntable, I must have poured over the album cover of Grievous Angel in record stores a hundred times. But radio never played it and there was no Spotify back then. Looking back at it now, it seems so silly that I had to wait so long to finally hear this record that today I simply could not live without.
The LP kicks off with one of the coolest Country Rock songs ever, “The Return of the Grievous Angel.” Originally a poem sent to Gram by a fan named Tom Brown, this song sets a spirited tone for the rest of the record. It also serves to display the fact that Parsons is working with one of the best bands of all time. Led by the incredible James Burton, these were the same guys that backed up Elvis, the “King” referred to in the lead-off song. This record is worthwhile even if to just hear Burton’s guitar. You can hear the band rock their best on a blistering cover of the Louvin Brother’s “Cash on the Barrelhead” and on Gram’s “Ooh Las Vegas.”
Back then living in New Jersey, I would have never thought that one day I would encounter some of people involved with this record. But living in Nashville, things like stopping at a red light next to Emmylou Harris do sometimes happen. On Grievous Angel she’s again singing with Gram and this time even gets a prominent “with Emmylou Harris” on the top of the back cover. “Hearts on Fire,” written by another current Nashvillian, Walter Egan, is a duet made in heaven from Gram and Emmylou. Getting to hear Walter and Emmy sing this live together one day was a pinch-me moment that you can watch here. Miss Harris’ backing vocals shine throughout the record, but the real show-stopper with Gram is on the classic Boudleaux Bryant song, “Love Hurts.” The next time you hear that awful version by the band Nazareth, listen to Gram and Emmy’s version to clear your musical palate.
But the real beauty of this record is found in three heartfelt Parsons’ originals. While GP wasn’t the most prolific when it came to songwriting, his efforts rarely fell short of classic. My go-to song has always been the sadly beautiful “Brass Buttons.” For me, the song works on several different planes. Is it a lost love or one who has tragically passed on? Or here is one from left field, how about the loss of a mom? Any way you look at it, Gram’s frail and sincere County voice takes control of a song that should be enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame along with the Nudie suit he wore with the Burritos. (Yes, the suit is here in Nashville, and I pay homage to it whenever I get the chance.)
The other two GP classic ballads are “In My Hour of Darkness,” a co-write with his singing partner in which he lets his faith shine through. In fact, it’s one I’d love to hear my church choir sing. And then there is the mock-live version of “Hickory Wind.” While this may very well be Gram’s greatest song in the eyes of many, I’d choose the Sweetheart of the Rodeo version over the one on this record.
For me, putting Grievous Angel on my turntable has become a ritual of respect for the one artist I would choose my time machine to take me back to see live. It’s a record that’s complete with both great Country Rock songs and beautiful ballads to cover all the bases of my emotions. I just wonder what would have happened if I ever had found it on 8-Track a few years earlier.