Wednesday, July 7, 2021

CD Odyssey Disc 1486 and 1487: Gram Parsons

This next review is a two-in-one, which is what I do when I have two standalone studio albums on a single reissued CD. Makes for a longer review but hey – it’s two records!

Disc 1486 is…. GP
Disc 1487 is…Grievous Angel

Artist: Gram Parsons

Year of Release: 1973 (GP), 1974 (Grievous Angel)

What’s up with the Cover? The re-release wizards have gone with cutting the two original album covers down, meaning we get some of the original experience, but not all of it.

GP: What you keep: Gram Parson sitting like some kind of hippy royalty in a high-backed chair. What you miss out on: a table with a flower on it, and a full bottle of liquor.

Grievous Angel: What you keep: Gram Parson’s Giant Head. What you miss out on: Not much. Three big coloured stripes behind what is otherwise Gram Parson’s Giant Head.

How I Came To Know It: I don’t remember specifically. Gram Parsons is so interwoven with the artists that followed in his footsteps it is hard to recall a single thread that led me back to him. The most likely path was through Emmylou Harris, and all the cover versions she does of his songs.

How It Stacks Up: While I have Gram Parsons as part of the many other bands (more on that later) I only have these two Gram Parsons albums as a solo artist. That’s because those were all he released as a solo artist. Of these two albums I put “Grievous Angel” slightly ahead of “GP”.

Ratings: GP: 5 stars; Grievous Angel: 5 stars

In just a seven-year span (1968-1974) Gram Parsons walked a restless musical journey, releasing six albums with four different bands. He started with the International Submarine Band, then joined the Byrds, before co-founding the Flying Burrito Brothers and finishing up his with two solo records, “G.P.” and “Grievous Angel.”

None of these records would chart in their day, and Parsons would not even live to see the release of his final record. Despite this lack of commercial success, Parsons is today a legend, and his influence on music has blazed new paths in rock, folk and country music that are still revered and revisited to this day.

By the time Parsons had settled on his solo career, he had solidified the sound he’d crafted through those early records. It was a mix of fifties rock and roll, folk crooning and what nowadays would be considered modern country, but at the time may well have elicited expressions of “just what exactly is that?” Forget labels when it comes to Gram Parsons; the man just made beautiful music.

Before I get into specifics for each record, it is worth noting some things they have in common. The first is Parsons’ incredible stylistic range. Crooning FM radio folk tunes nestle comfortably beside old school country and a Bakersfield swing.

Parsons heartfelt vocals somehow manages to simultaneously channel schmaltzy lounge singer, teen heartthrob and travelling troubadour. And just when you think a song couldn’t be sung any sweeter, a young Emmylou Harris enters to drop sublime backing vocals that elevate things to a whole other level with her signature angelic quaver.

Both these records will break your heart, in part because you know they are Gram Parson’s last, and in part through the sheer brilliance of the work. Gram Parsons balled up heartache, regret and a weary but intense passion into two of the best records you will hear. It is a tragedy that we lost his talents so young, but a blessing he went out on such a high note.


GP’s only sin as a record is it is a half-step behind “Grievous Angel,” but it still stands on its own as one of country music’s great records. It may jerk a few fewer tears out of me, but it still has plenty of songs that hit where it hurts.

We’ll Sweep the Ashes in the Morning” is one of music’s finest metaphors for a clandestine and guilt-ridden affair. Parson’s juxtaposes the burning fire of desire with the guilty feeling in the morning, where the couple must face their moral failings in the light of day. The light and trilling tune belies the seriousness of the issue, and captures both the devil-may-care attitude of lovers, and the regret of adults. Emmylou’s work on the tune – which is sung as a duet – captures the obvious chemistry between the two.

Streets of Baltimore” showcases the misery of a man that agrees to move to the city with his wife, where he can never fit in. Trying to stay with her, his choices only tragically drive her farther away.

She” is a classic tune, with one of the finest melodies in music, with the song climbing in triumph, only to slip back down like a drink of cool water as Gram sings, “but she sure could sing”.

But the best line on the record is from one of its more obscure songs. “Kiss the Children” features a jealous and angry man, the song ending ominously with:

“Son don’t play this crazy game with me no longer
‘Cause I won’t be able to resist my rage
And the gun that’s hanging on the wall, dear
Is like a road sign pointing straight to Satan’s cage.”

Yeesh. Pure menace.

Grievous Angel:

As good as “GP” is, “Grievous Angel” is one half-step better.

Return of the Grievous Angel” introduces piano to the mix, grounding some loose high harmonies from Gram and Emmylou. The tune is a crazy mix of country twang and hitchhiking travel tune. The melody climbs all over like a twisting mountain road. Just when you think it can’t get any better, you’re treated to some sublime guitar and violin soloing, proving these tunes are not just about vocals and lyrics, but complete works of art.

“$1000 Wedding” is one of those songs that says more with what it doesn’t tell you than what it does. A joyous day turns tragic, ending in hard drinking and words of cold comfort from a priest. The way the tune drops down as Parsons sings “Supposed to be a funeral/It’s been a bad bad day” will break your goddamn heart.

Parson’s cover of “Love Hurts” is better than the Everly Brothers original, and easily the equal of Nazareth’s classic version (albeit very different). Not an easy feat.

But the greatest moment on the record is “In My Hour of Darkness,” a song cowritten by Parsons and Emmylou Harris. This song is both plea and answer, anguish and solace. If you’ve ever lost anyone, this song will bring that moment back with stark immediacy, but also give you a great big hug. Parsons and Harris sing the chorus like a church choir in a way that will make even an atheist feel a little religion.

Just like the lyrics suggest, I’ve turned to this song many times in my hour of darkness. I even read the following verse at my stepfather’s funeral:

“Then there was an old man
Kind and wise with age
And he read me just like a book and he
Never missed a page
And I loved him like a father
And I loved him like my friend
And I knew his time would shortly come
But I did not know just when.”

Hearing it tears me up and when you listen you’ll tear up too. Not for my memory, but because you’ve got your own, and great art is universal.

Both these records are great art that were underappreciated in their time. Nevertheless, they have sent ripples across the decades that followed, and we are all the richer for it.

Best tracks:

GP: All tracks but particularly We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning, A Song For You, Streets of Baltimore, She, Kiss the Children, How Much I’ve Lied

Grievous Angel: All tracks, but particularly Return of the Grievous Angel, Hearts on Fire, $1000 Wedding, Love Hurts, Ooh Las Vegas, In My Hour of Darkness

No comments: