Gram Parsons “Grievous Angel”

Ultra Fidelis’ Musical Favorites

parsons-angel(Reprise LP, Rhino LP, Warner/Reprise CD)

What is it about Gram? I remember the first time I heard about The Flying Burrito Bros. This, of course, was months before I actually heard them. Nobody was allowed to learn of Gram Parsons and actually hear him in the same sitting. It just wouldn’t work without the mythology first.

Our band was headed unalterably toward “country.” Exactly what a bunch of Wisconsin high school kids were doing leaning a good five hundred miles south was something we probably couldn’t have explained, but this stuff had us by the hearts. Great songs, tasty instrumental solos and a mother lode of unfamiliar history combined to draw us further and further down a road we knew nothing about. We came in the C,S,N,Y door which most everybody did and there was Poco, the Eagles and all the others, but Gram was it. This was the guy responsible for scaring Mr. Byrds, Roger McGuinn, to such an extent that the real versions of the songs on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” were redone with old Mr. Spaceman singing lead. Kinda like Milli Vanilli overdubbing Nat King Cole. The guy who inspired the Stones and for whom they wrote “Wild Horses.” The guy who discovered Emmylou Harris singing folk music and molded her into the ultimate vocal foil for his plaintive, pain-ridden man-child.

The first time the stylus set down on The Burritos’ “Guilded Palace of Sin” I was… Well, I was a MESS. Here was a band that gave every indication it was the next cynical product of The Star Making Machine and yet the music was, and this is a little hard to explain, but it was me. How a Northern boy of sixteen raised by two Northerners could find such resonance in the music of the South was as stunning to me as it was certain. I didn’t know how to tell anyone how much this music meant to me, but it was speaking loud and clear.

I immediately bought “Burrito Deluxe.” You could hear Gram getting ready to leave the band, but still terrific. Then “GP”, the first solo album. Uh-oh. Absent the need to co-lead a band with Chris Hillman, Gram was spectacular. What he wrote sounded like it came from some amalgam of the Grand Ol’ Opry and The Great American Novel. What he didn’t write sounded as if he did.

Then I remember getting a call from a friend saying, “Look in the paper. Gram’s dead.” Within a week I was flipping through the records at Ludwig van Ear and there was the odd cover with Gram’s head looking out from three shades of aquamarine and the title, “Grievous Angel.” I grabbed it, haunted, like holding ashes from a cremation and it struck me, for the first time, how strange and big the world was. As someone was busy dying, his latest work was being shipped around the country in UPS trucks.

The record was mesmerizing. Heightened, no doubt, by its posthumous aura, it was, nevertheless, the finest pop music I had ever heard. It remains so to this day. The pedal steel opening of “The Return of the Grievous Angel” always causes my blood pressure to plummet. Oh, just let them keep singing these songs. Let this record never end and let them show me something new each time. “Them.” Gram, Emmylou and, essentially, Elvis’ touring band ‘cause Merle Haggard had a schedule conflict. Now I love old Merle, but I think he may just have been the least bit scared. Uncertain, maybe. You have to imagine this hippie mirroring back country music to the stars of the day in a way that would make them think, “Well, now, have I really done my best to be true to the muse each and every time I wrote, sang or performed like I swore to my mama I would?”

The voice is really the thing. It soars, almost high enough, then cracks. It whispers, then talks, but each time it’s a note, inarguably right and unique. At arm’s length, it can fail. Good thing there’s no staying an arm’s length away from Gram. You’ll either run away or come in. If you come in to “Grievous Angel”, you’ll hear the best (country) song ever written, “$1000 Wedding.” Get to know “Brass Buttons” about Gram’s mom. Discover a duet straight from heaven, “Love Hurts.” In fact tonight, listening as I write, I heard Emmylou hum a note just before the lyrics begin, sounding like a combination of making sure she’s on pitch and being moved to vocalize involuntarily by the guitar and their impending performance, perhaps an admission of truth beyond mere art. But highlighting a few is unfair to the phenomenally high quality of the whole because every song, every performance on here just works. And, although you would never have guessed, Elvis’ boys couldn’t be a better fit.

This is a recording which always rewards each visit, hundreds for me. Not “demonstration quality,” whatever that is, but easily good enough to let the delicate soul of the music shine through. It pays big dividends to proper high-resolution playback and is reason enough to pursue the World’s Greatest Stereophonic Music Reproduction System. Sonically, there is suddenly little reason to chase expensive, hard to find and often beat up original Reprise vinyl versions. Rhino has released a 180-gram LP which, despite every copy I’ve opened being warped, sounds excellent. Then there is the Warner/Reprise CD. This is the compact disc that made me realize the medium had come of age when I looked in the bin and saw that now familiar blue-green image only in miniature. Coupled with the nearly-as-essential “GP” on one disc and sounding as good as your CD player will allow (damn fine tonight on the Sondek CD 12) this may be the ultimate way to meet Gram Parsons, ’cause it ain’t gonna be so easy finding “GP” on vinyl. In any format, this record makes my Desert Island Short List. In fact, some nights, it would be on my list of one.

-Jon

 

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