Classic Album: Gram Parsons - Grievous Angel

Beautifully bruised and elegantly wasted
Gram Parsons - Grievous Angel
Gram Parsons never lived to see the release of his second solo album, nor the acclaim and success that eluded him throughout his life.

By 1973, Gram Parsons had released five albums - every one now considered a classic, but at the time, faced criticism or, even worse, total indifference. Although born in the South - Gram came from a privileged Florida family - his love of country music developed when he moved to Boston after quitting Harvard University, where his days were spent developing his talents as a rock ‘n’ roll and then folk musician respectively.

Forming his first group from the Boston folk scene, The International Submarine Band’s only album, ‘Safe At Home’, though disappearing without a trace in 1968, was arguably the first example of what became known as country rock. By the time of its release, Gram had already moved on, joining The Byrds - at this point one of America’s major rivals to The Beatles - and proceeded to exert an imposing influence on the band, resulting in their (now) revered album, ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’. Its authentic country sound was ahead of its time, and was released into an apathetic youth market not yet hip to country.

Around this time, Gram had become close with Keith Richards. A shared love of chemicals was one bond, but while Keith soaked up Gram’s genuine country knowledge, Gram took inspiration from the Stones’ - and in particular Mick Jagger’s - rock ‘n’ roll posturing. Present around the writing and recording of their ‘Let It Bleed’ album (Gram is rumoured to have written ‘Honky Tonk Women’ with Keith), Gram’s next intended direction would aim to merge country with his beloved rock ‘n’ roll.

The Flying Burrito Brothers, formed with The Byrds’ Chris Hillman, released two albums, ‘Gilded Palace Of Sin’ and ‘Burrito Deluxe’. Both faced critical lashings, and Gram’s increased drug use and unreliability led to his leaving in 1970.

Ahead of launching his own solo career, Gram followed Chris Hillman’s recommendation of checking out a young female singer, as Chris knew Gram was looking for a vocal accompaniment. Emmylou Harris eventually accepted Gram’s invitation to join him, and his debut solo album, ‘GP’, soon followed. Again going unnoticed, Gram persevered with his second solo album. ‘Grievous Angel’ featured the same list of musicians as appeared on ‘GP’: James Burton on guitar, Glen Hardin on piano and Ronnie Tutt on drums - otherwise known as Elvis Presley’s TCB band. Their super session skills injected a tight, professional sound to Gram’s louche delivery.

While on tour in Boston, a student fan called Thomas Brown handed Gram a sheet of lyrics he’d written, telling him that, if he liked them, to keep them and put music to them. His poem, ‘Return Of The Grievous Angel’, recounts someone driving cross country - past the “truckers and the kickers”, with “a good saloon in every single town” - to get to his loved one: “Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down / And they all lead me straight back home to you”.
Both ‘Hearts On Fire’ and ‘Love Hurts’, although not written by Gram, perfectly demonstrate the beautiful marriage of harmonies between his and Emmylou Harris’ voice. Although merely platonic, Gram’s wife resented his relationship with Emmylou. Recently, Emmylou has admitted that had he lived, their friendship might have developed further. It’s easy to hear in these harmonies where their connection blossomed.

Hitting a creative brick wall, Gram delved into his past for two songs. ‘Hickory Wind’ dates back to his tenure with The Byrds, its original version featuring on ‘Sweetheart...’, while ‘$1000 Wedding’ premiered with the Burritos, but came into its own with James Burton’s lamenting guitar and Gram’s mournful singing.
‘In My Hour Of Darkness’ was written in tribute to Gram’s friend and guitarist Clarence White, who died after being struck by a drunk driver in 1973.

At White’s funeral, after leading a moving version of ‘Farther Along’, Gram told his manager Phil Kaufman that he didn’t want such a sombre affair, and that when he died he wanted his body burned in the desert at the Joshua Tree. This was the last song that Gram ever wrote.

Celebrating the completion of recording, and on the eve of a forthcoming tour, Gram headed out to the desert with two female friends to party. Two days later, he overdosed from a lethal combination of morphine and alcohol. Fulfilling his friend’s request, Kaufman abducted Gram’s body from Los Angeles airport - where it was due to be flown to his family’s plot in Florida - drove it out to the desert, poured five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin, and put a match to it.

Thirty-five years later, Gram Parsons is regarded as the architect of country rock. His legacy lives on through the music of disciples such as Ryan Adams, Beck, My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes and Kings Of Leon, while his torch is still carried by Emmylou Harris and her continuing adventures in country.

Beautifully bruised and elegantly wasted, ‘Grievous Angel’ was the perfect swan song of a flawed but shining talent that burned too bright too soon.

Words by Simon Harper

Released: January 1974
Producer: Gram Parsons

TRACKLIST

1. Return Of The Grievous Angel
2. Hearts On Fire’
3. I Can’t Dance’
4. Brass Buttons’
5. $1000 Wedding’
6. Medley Live From Northern Quebec’
(a) ‘Cash On The Barrelhead’
(b) ‘Hickory Wind’
7. Love Hurts’
8. Ooh Las Vegas’
9. In My Hour Of Darkness’

MUSICIANS
Gram Parsons: vocals, guitar
Emmylou Harris: vocals
Glen D. Hardin: piano
James Burton: lead guitar
Emory Gordy: bass
Ronnie Tutt: drums
Herb Pedersen: rhythm guitar
Al Perkins: pedal steel

1974: IN THE NEWS
• The World Cup is held in West Germany. The hosts win.
• President Nixon resigns in wake of the Watergate scandal.
• Lord Lucan disappears.
• Cher divorces Sonny Bono.
• Nick Drake dies of an overdose.

1974: THE ALBUMS
Kraftwerk ‘Autobahn’
David Bowie ‘Diamond Dogs’
John Cale ‘Fear’
The Rolling Stones ‘It’s Only Rock And Roll’
Bob Marley ‘Natty Dread’

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