"Gram Parsons, Between Rock and a Country Place"

06 May "Gram Parsons, Between Rock and a Country Place"

The Washington Post
by Richard Harrington

Gram Parsons’ accomplishments became clear only in retrospect. When Parsons overdosed in 1973 at age 26 from a combination of morphine and tequila, his legacy included one groundbreaking album that no one bought by a band that no one had heard of, two bands (the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers) that expelled him, and a pair of critically acclaimed but commercially disastrous solo albums.

But one can’t imagine the biggest-selling album of all time, “Eagles — Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975,” without the pioneering fusion of country and rock that Parsons effected in the late ’60s. The same goes for the work of alt-country insurgents like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. Parsons’ efforts to break down the barriers and strengthen the connections between rock and country are evidenced in “Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology” (Rhino), a two-CD, 46-track collection that serves as a primer on both the country-rock movement and its gifted but self-destructive progenitor.

Growing up in Florida and Georgia, Parsons was surrounded by country and Southern soul, but his initial musical forays were into folk and rock. It wasn’t until a short spell as a Harvard undergrad that Parsons reconnected to long-abandoned cultural roots via the International Submarine Band, whose 1968 release, “Safe at Home,” is recognized as the first to wed country songs to rock rhythms, contemporary vision to traditional form.

Along with a Merle Haggard cover, the Parsons originals from “Safe at Home” underscore his allegiance to Hank Williams (the aching “Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome?”) and Hank Snow (the chugging “Luxury Liner”). In the latter, Parsons sang, “I’ve been a long-lost soul for a long, long time,” a fatalist sentiment hinting at the struggle between sin and salvation that would connect his repertoire to those of Haggard and Williams.

Moving to Los Angeles, Parsons was drafted by the Byrds to replace David Crosby; he stayed only five months, just long enough to shape 1968’s much better-known country-rock cornerstone, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” With bassist Chris Hillman as accomplice, Parsons pushed the Byrds from folk-rock and psychedelic pop into country-rock, but contractual problems minimized his presence, with a number of his lead vocals recut by Jim (now Roger) McGuinn. This new set features his restored leads on the Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life” and the only Parsons originals on “Sweetheart”: the melancholy “One Hundred Years From Now” and his elegiac masterpiece, “Hickory Wind.”

“Sweetheart” turned out to be one of the Byrds’worst-selling albums, supported neither by country or rock radio. The same fate befell “The Gilded Palace of Sin” by the Flying Burrito Brothers, formed by the exiled Parsons and restless Hillman. The common ground between rock and country was most imaginatively cultivated here, as Parsons and Hillman brought the passions and experiences of their generation into country without undermining its traditional heart and soul. Included are such standards as “Sin City,” “Wheels” and the love ballads “Juanita” and “Hot Burrito #1,” with Parsons’ vocals at their most vulnerable.

From “Palace of Sin’s” uneven follow-up, “Burrito Deluxe,” the best track is Keith Richards and Mick Jagger’s “Wild Horses,” so inspired by Parsons that the Rolling Stones let him record it a full year before their version came out.

By 1971, a solo Parsons imagined a postmodern version of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. In Washington, he found folk singer Emmylou Harris, and though she wasn’t particularly country-conscious, Parsons’ instincts were rewarded. Harris’s crystalline soprano, which could be both hardy and ethereal, proved the perfect foil to Parsons’ by-then-frayed baritone. Their partnership seemed instinctive and ancient, a twinning not simply of voices but of souls.

Among the sterling examples of their work, drawn from Parsons’ solo albums and a live set with the legendary Fallen Angels band: the Louvin Brothers’spiritually calming “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night,” and “Hearts on Fire,” an aching original by Washingtonians Tom Guidera and Walter Egan written in the style of the Everly Brothers'”Love Hurts.”

Gram Parsons’ spirit has survived not only through his limited recordings, but also in the enduring career of Emmylou Harris. As Harris sang in 1985’s “White Line,” “The sweetness of the song remains/ I’ll be the keeper of the flame/ Till every soul hears what you’re saying.”

Along with another beautiful elegy, “Boulder to Birmingham” (co- written with Bill Danoff), “White Line” underscores Harris’s commitment to Parsons. But the new “Emmylou Harris Anthology: The Warner/Reprise Years” (Rhino) is also a fine summary of her 15-year, 16-album stint with Warner Bros. from 1975 to 1990 (Note: Nineteen tracks here are duplicated on 1996’s three-CD, career-spanning “Portraits.”)

“Anthology” is testament to Harris’s status as an artist of great vision and integrity, one who has followed her own impulses in championing country music’s heritage (1980’s bluegrass-rich “Roses in the Snow”) and nurturing its new voices (Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Buddy Miller). She’s always had excellent instincts for songs, musicians and producers (marrying two of them, Brian Ahern and Paul Kennerley).

From such early hits as Buck Owens’s “Together Again” and the Louvins'”If I Could Only Win Your Love” to duets with Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, Harris is a consistently brilliant singer, a distinctive stylist who always gets to the emotional heart of a song, one who brings out the best in her musical partners — much as Gram Parsons brought out the best in her 30 years ago.