"Unknown no longer, Gram Parsons' vision of blending country with rock's attitude and beat evident on new tribute album."

09 Jul "Unknown no longer, Gram Parsons' vision of blending country with rock's attitude and beat evident on new tribute album."

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
By Mark Guarino Daily Herald Music Critic

They say the best path to fame is death involving drugs, booze and art. That was the magic formula that did in Gram Parsons Sept. 19, 1973, in a motel room in Joshua Tree, Calif. Parsons was 26 and a largely unknown songwriter, who worked with well-known bands (The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Rolling Stones). Today, Parsons is still not a household name, although his songs of dreamy romance set upon a country rock landscape are more so.

But before now, Parsons’ best-known contribution to music was his choice of harmony singers. The year before he died he was introduced to Emmylou Harris singing on the Washington, D.C., folk club circuit and subsequently recruited her to record his two solo albums, “G.P.” and “Grievous Angel,” with him. Their brief partnership recreated country harmonizing for a rock audience and gave country music rock’s attitude and backbeat.

It’s a sound that’s firmly kept Harris in Nashville’s left field as country music proceeded to be affected by more outside influences such as disco, pop and stadium rock. But she’s led her own little fight to keep Parsons name and songs alive. If you’ve seen her in concert any time during her career, she still performs his songs, especially recreating their harmonies on the chilling duet “Love Hurts.”

So when Paul Kremen, general manager of Almo Sounds (the L.A. label that launched the careers of techno rockers Garbage and traditional country revivalist Gillian Welch), wanted to do a Parsons tribute album, it was natural he sought both Harris’blessing and involvement. After all, the timing seemed right – the audience for country rock is wider than ever, especially with the interest in alternative country over the past five years.

Harris was a little less optimistic.

“There are tribute albums to everything that moves,” she said from her home in Nashville. “(I thought) will it be good enough? What is a tribute record?”

She answered those questions herself when she realized the album could be less a polemic salute to Parsons but more an introduction to his songs. The roster of “Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons” (Almo Sounds, * * * * ), also shows Parsons’ affect on today’s music.

After all, aren’t modern day left-of-center rockers like Wilco, the Mavericks, Whiskeytown, Cowboy Junkies, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Victoria Williams bringing country music back to its roughshod origins just like Parsons did? The album, due in stores Tuesday, also recreates the trademark Parsons/Harris harmonizing, several with Harris herself recreating her role. Aside from the pairing of Boston rock icons Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield and Lucinda Williams and David Crosby, Harris sings with Beck, Sheryl Crow and Chrissie Hynde.

Originally she hadn’t planned to participate on the record at all.

“I sort of already have been doing my tribute to Gram over the years,” she said.

But after Hynde asked her to join her, Beck and Crow followed. Then it made sense. “I felt in the capacity of a harmony singer that it was actually in a sense more appropriate anyway, considering my history with Gram.”

Like most tribute albums, the only thing holding back “Return” is that the songs sound removed from their original source.

Most sound too polished and not as rickety and innocent as Parsons’ own versions. But maybe that’s a good thing – the point of any cover album is to guide the listener back to the original recordings.

The way the artists on “Return” discovered Parsons is unique to each.

Gillian Welch has made a career out of fashioning the Carter Family-type moroseness for her generation. She fell in love with the backwoods sound of early country music in the mid-’80s when she was a student at UC Santa Cruz . It was while investigating the country and bluegrass canon that she stumbled upon Parsons’ songs.

“There was a kind of world-weary feeling in ‘Hickory Wind’ (the song she chose),” she said. “It reminded me of ‘Lost Highway’ (by Hank Williams).

“For me, it sounded like he had taken the emotional content of Hank Williams, but then it had this sort of rock ‘n roll, Rolling Stones sensibility,” she said. “So I heard it as modern but with an undeniable love of the old stuff.”

Ryan Adams of Whiskeytown has often been linked to Parsons, not necessarily because of the tortured romanticism both shared in their songs but also because of the fast way both lived their early lives. Adams is 24.

It was no surprise Adams came to Parsons’ music through hearing tales of his life.

“I always loved reading stories about him,” Adams said. “I think it’s kind of incredible that he pursued music as hardcore as he did at what length he did it at and what price he did it at. He just became a gypsy.”

Although Harris suggested a song for Whiskeytown to record, Adams, in Woodstock, N.Y., recording an album due out in January, decided to go with the bleakly romantic “A Song For You.” It’s eerie how both versions are almost identical.

For Adams, who collects bootlegs of the singer, Parsons was “exposing people to country songs.

“He’s definitely a gateway,” he said. “He was trying to inspire people as he is inspiring now.”

Study Parsons’ life and that indeed becomes obvious. Like a zealous convert to a new religion, Parsons, a wealthy Harvard-educated Southerner, made it his mission to rethink a different country music for people like himself who had never heard it before.

He was born into wealth in Florida, briefly attended Harvard but skirted off to California to record with his first group, the International Submarine Band. Soon he was with the Byrds and recorded “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” which later became the definitive blueprint for every country rock album to follow. Later Parsons formed the Flying Burrito Brothers and recorded two albums, “Gilded Palace of Sin” and “Burrito Deluxe.” It was during this time Parsons met Keith Richards and hung out during the Stones’legendary “Exile On Main Street” sessions that first fused the Brit’s country experiments with “Wild Horses,” “Dead Flowers,” and “Country Honk.”

“I think (Parsons) always knew country music as soul music in its purest form, but it suffered from political incorrectness being associated with the South,” Harris said. “He also knew he had to bring something new to it. You can’t just go out and say ‘I’m going to be Hank Williams’20 years later. So it was channeled through him. If he had lived, he would have reached all kinds of different kinds of unlikely people.”

Harris, of course, was his most famous convert. When they met, she was a “kind of pristine” folk singer, she said. “You were not going to catch me working with a drummer. I thought drummers were soul killers and got in the way of the lyrics,” she laughed. With Parsons, she learned “to color outside of the lines. It was like going from zero to sixty in three seconds,” she said.

The legendary tour the two did together (captured on the still available “Live, 1973” album) really showed how mature beyond his years Parsons was in terms of band arrangements, lyric writing, and, especially on songs like “Hickory Wind” and “$1000 Wedding,” his finely nuanced country vocals.

Although Harris said Parsons was cleaned up on that tour, his previous excessiveness “had weakened him.”

“Gram paid the price,” she said. “It was a tragedy and it was a waste. We need those things that are going to touch us and move us and make us think about our lives and the world around us in a different way.”