Thursday, June 4, 2009

Gram Parsons & The Flying Burrito Brothers: Paving the Way for Country Rock in the Sixties and Beyond

If there was one band that paved the way for country music to be blended with rock n' roll in the 1960s and beyond it was The Flying Burrito Brothers. The band formed in 1969 with guitarist and vocalist Gram Parsons and electic guitarist/bass guitarist Chris Hillman both of whom had quit their previously highly successful band The Byrds, who were actually declining in popularity as the 1960s progressed. The Flying Burrito Brothers other members included pedal steel guitarist "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow, and bassist Chris Etheridge. Chris Hillman switched to guitar from his usual bass which he played with The Byrds. The Flying Burrito Brothers debut album The Gilded Palace Of Sin released in April 1969. The songs on The Gilded Palace Of Sin were all incredible southern-sounding country songs with a tinge of rock in them, all being recorded by an L.A. band, which made it all the more amazing. Parsons and Hillman harmonised perfectly together on soulful tunes like "Dark End of The Street," and "Do Right Woman," showcasing their talent together. Still, despite great original songs like these, The Flying Burrito Brothers never took off as a band as The Gilded Palace Of Sin debuted at a woeful Number 164 in America. Still many popular musicians at the time, such as Bob Dylan along with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones praised the album highly. Richards and Jagger would end up forging a friendship with Parsons and even offer to have him along on tour with them and on their recordings of albums like Exile On Main Street. Dylan who had also recorded his best country rock album that year titled Nashville Skyline said "Their record knocked me out!"

To truly understand the The Flying Burrito Brothers and their music one must understand the life of Gram Parsons, who was the genius behind the band. Parsons wasn't actually from L.A. but from a wealthy southern family in Waycross, Georgia, where he was raised.His family's wealth did not keep them from disintegrating when Gram was a child, as his father abruptly committed suicide two days before Christmas in 1958, which led to his Mother's rapid decline into alcoholism and death. Gram found his solace in music after attending an Elvis Presley concert in 1957 he picked up a guitar, and soon was in a southern rock n' roll cover band that played songs by The Kingston Trio and The Journeymen. Gram attended Harvard University studying Theology, but departed after just one semester. Ironically Gram was never really exposed to country music despite being from the South, and it wasn't until his time spent in Boston, Mass. at Harvard that he began to delve into country after attending a Merle Haggard concert. Soon after, Parsons formed The International Submarine Band and relocated the band to Los Angeles. The International Submarine Band released just one album Safe At Home which featured the song "Do You Know How It Feels," which Parsons would eventually re-record and release with The Flying Burrito Brothers on The Gilded Palace Of Sin.

By the time Safe At Home had been released though Parsons had already moved on to bigger and better things with The Byrds, who recruited him to replace David Crosby on the bands sixth record Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Parsons was such a talent to have in the studio playing keyboards and recording vocals that he had a huge influence on bassist Chris Hillman, who sided with Parsons over guitarist/vocalist Roger McGuinn on how the album should sound. Parsons virtually took over the highly succesful band he had just joined writing the best song off the album "Hickory Wind". McGuinn was furious as he had always been band leader which had been proven when he fired Crosby. Still Roger McGuinn did somewhat get his way in the end when most of Parsons vocals on the album were erased off the album due to the fact he was not under contract with Comumbia but another label. This makes Sweetheart Of The Rodeo a much weaker record than it would have been and on it's release it was shunned by rock purists and country rock listeners alike who couldn't relate to what Parsons was trying to do in combining the two elements of country and rock. As time goes on though Sweetheart Of The Rodeo has only gained reputation as a classic Byrds album, it was only at the time that Byrds fans were expecting something more psychedelic and were in shock at the result of Parsons taking over The Byrds and changing their sound.

Gram Parsons with an acoustic guitar onstage

Eventually Parsons was fired from The Byrds because he didn't show up for a concert in South Africa in 1968. During this time Parsons was partying and jamming a lot with guitarist Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones near Richards house in Stonehenge. The two would listen to obscure country records and play guitar together for days. Parsons later claimed that he actually wrote "Honky Tonk Women" one of The Rolling Stones hits off their Let It Bleed album. Parsons was truly captivated by the glamor of meeting The Rolling Stones during The Byrds European tour, and his unique rock star personality began to emerge. Eventually Chris Hillman followed Parsons out of The Byrds joining him in forming The Flying Burrito Brothers. The band began recording some truly great songs such as "Sin City," "Wheels," and "Christine's Tune," which was about a well known L.A. groupie named Christine Frka whose company Parsons enjoyed.

The Burritos exuded a decadence that
was memorialized by Barry Feinstein's
cover photo. But that decadence
condemned the line-up to an early grave,
followed three years later by Parsons himself.

As writes about The Gilded Palace Of Sin, "As a songwriter, Parsons delivered some of his finest work on this set; "Hot Burrito # 1" and "Hot Burrito # 2" both blend the hurt of classic country weepers with a contemporary sense of anger, jealousy, and confusion, and "Sin City" can either be seen as a parody or a sincere meditation on a city gone mad, and it hits home in both contexts." The lines Parsons wrote go,

"This old towns made of sin, it will swallow you in if you've got some money to burn. Take it home ride away. You've got three years to pay. And Satan is waiting his turn. This old earthquakes gonna leave me in the poor house. It seems like this whole towns insane. On the thirty-first floor a gold plated door won't keep out the lords burning rain."

"Hot Burrito # 1" was undoubtedly a killer ballad written by Parsons, possibly his best ever. With Parsons writing incredible lyrics and singing in the voice of a hurt country rocking weeper.

"I'm the one who showed you how to do the things you are doing now. He may feel all your charms, he may hold you in his arms, but I'm the one who let you in. I was right beside you then. Once upon a time you let me feel you deep inside. And nobody knew, and nobody saw. Do you remember the way you cried. I'm your toy, I'm your own, boy, but I don't want nobody but you to love me. No I wouldn't lie. You know I'm not that type of guy."

As Peter Dodgett wrote about The Gilded Palace Of Sin in Mojo magazine a few months back in a forty-year tribute issue to the music of 1969 , "Three decades later the album stands as arguably the finest country rock album of all time and the apotheosis of the willful, wasted but unique talent of Gram Parsons." At times it does seem that Parsons gets most of the accolades for forming the Burritos and composing their music though which is really not accurate as fellow ex-Byrd Chris Hillman was just as much a part of the creation of The Gilded Palace Of Sin as Parsons. Parsons moving voice singing isn't the only reason he gets most of the credit for being the genius in the band: but also the fate that he died at such a young age and left behind a body of work that was so incredible it has left many of his fans and rock historians to ponder how much more incredible country rock music he might have composed in a longer lifetime. Hillman commented in the Mojo article, stating, "I think Gram had some talent but no discipline. What made us all angry was he was seduced by all the trappings he hadn't earned. You know I'm gonna get a limousine. Why? We're playing five shows in a bar! And then he was romancing Mick and Keith. It was embarrassing." Parsons dedicated friendship with The Rolling Stones did pay off a bit though when The Stones booked The Flying Burrito Brothers to open for them at the historic free Altamont concert. This was supposed to be a Woodstock type concert in California featuring other great bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jefferson Airplane, and The Grateful Dead.) It ended up being quite the opposite of peace and love as a young black man was stabbed by a member of The Hells Angels Motorcylcle gang who were acting as security guards at the event. At this point Parson's use of drugs and alcohol had increased to the point where he wasn't writing too many new songs and he was spending most of his time partying with The Rolling Stones, who were temporarily relocated in America to record Let It Bleed.

The Flying Burrito Brothers: Top left to clockwise:
Gram Parsons, Chris Etheridge,
"Sneaky" Pete Kleinklow, and Chris Hillman

A second album with The Flying Burrito Brothers album followed The Gilded Palace Of Sin and was titled Burrito Deluxe. It featured another member of The Byrds, Micheal Clarke, on drums and Bernie Leadon on guitar, which led to Hillman returning to his usual bass guitar. Burrito Deluxe had only one memorable song on it, a cover of The Rolling Stones "Wild Horses," which actually hadn't been released by The Stones yet. It eventually would appear off their Sticky Fingers album but The Flying Burrito Brothers version was the first to be released although not a lot of people had heard it since almost nobody bought the album and it failed to make the U.S. charts. Parsons was so disappointed with the sales of the first two Flying Burrito Brothers albums that he abruptly quit the band and tried to record a solo album. Because Parsons had began using heroin the sessions proved to be fruitless, with Parsons unable to record at all without sounding terrible.Parsons realized the sessions were amounting to nothing, so checked out the tapes, packed his bags and left America, moving in with The Rolling Stones. He stayed at the mansion Villa Nellcote, The Stones had bought in France to record Exile On Main Street. and avoid being taxed by the English government. During the sessions The Rolling Stones may have intended to use Parsons, but unfortunately he was constantly indulging in massive quantities of marijuana, psychedelic mushrooms, cocaine, heroin, and alcohol, so he was of little use. However, Parsons did claim he sang in as part of the back-up choir in one of the best songs off Excile On Main Street, "Sweet Virginia." Eventually Anita Pallengerg, Keith Richards longtime girlfriend did kick Gram out Villa Nellcote because of his constant drug use, and the fact Gram was always arguing with his girlfriend Gretchen Burrell.

Gram Parsons with his infamous "Nudie Suit"
with a marijuana leaf on it

Gram Parsons returned to the U.S. playing one final show with The Flying Burrito Brothers in Washington D.C. in 1972. After this show Chris Hillman recommended that Gram go see the country folk singer Emylou Harris perform in a small club in Washington D.C. Gram was so impressed that he invited Emylou back to L.A. with him to help him with another attempt at recording a debut solo album. It came as surprise when Reprise records immediately signed on Gram Parsons, once they learned he was planning to write a solo album. After all, his first attempt had been a complete failure. Parsons had also gained over thirty pounds in just the two years since his Flying Burrito Brothers days, as excessive alcohol consumption and eating too much fried southern food had taken its toll. Overall though, Parsons was in much better health now having kicked heroin with the help from his friend, former Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech.

A clean and revitalized Gram Parsons recorded GP with Emylou Harris, and Elvis Presley's backing band. They sounded terrific: this was by far his best work composed since The Gilded Palace Of Sin. As writes about GP, "Parsons also discovered that rare artist with whom he can be said to have genuinely collaborated (rather than played beside), Emylou Harris; Gram and Harris' spot-on harmonies and exchanged verses on "We'll Sweep out the Ashes in the Morning" and "That's All It Took" are achingly beautiful and instantly established her as one country music's most gifted vocalists." Parsons "A Song For You" and "A New Soft Shoe" were also beautiful songs and are masterful examples of passion-filled love ballads, finding balance with understatement. Allmusic also points out that, "On GP, Parsons' ambitious vision encompassed hard-country weepers, wistful ballads, up-tempo dance tunes, and even horn-driven rhythm and blues. He managed to make them all work, both as individual tunes and as a unified whole. This album remains one that is hauntingly beautiful and has only gotten better with the passing years."

Gram Parsons during the GP era

Parsons soon hit the road with Emylou Harris although he was too poor to afford to take Elvis's bakcing band along. Parsons and Harris toured as The Fallen Angels with several successful performances including one in Houston, which was recorded and had guest apperances by Neil Young and Linda Ronstandt. Around this time Parsons hired a sketchy road manager named Phil Kaufman who had spent time in jail with Charles Manson on Terminal Island. Parsons had met Kaufman through The Rolling Stones and asingned him the job of keeping him clean while tourning. Kaufman did a good job of this disposing of any drugs he found Parsons had smuggled into his hotel rooms and also only letting him drink small amounts of alcohol before he went onstage so inebreation wouldn't affect his performance as it had in past tours with bands like The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Despite a fairly succesful tour thanks to Emylou Harris who had forced Parsons to practice and had also helped organize the setlists with him, the record sales for GP remained low. It was unfortunate that audiences perceived Parsons music as being "too authentic" and prefered other country rock bands like The Eagles. This comparison was a particular thorn in Parsons' side, as The Eagles featured Bernie Leadon, his former bandmate in The Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons also commented that he couldn't stand The Eagles sound and didn't understand why it was so big.

Gram Parsons next album was also recorded with Emylou Harris, was titled Grievous Angel. Unfortunately Parsons fondness for drugs and fast living were catching up with him again during the recording of this album, and he would never live to see it released. The album has attained classic status through the years, (even more than GP), although it is arguably not a better album than Parsons previous effort. Parsons may have been slowing down a bit as a songwriter, but he made that up for that by re-recording some of his older gems like "Hickory Wind," which he had written all the way back in 1968 and recorded on The Byrds Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Parsons cover of "Love Hurts," sounded so incredible vocallly that you might forget Roy Orbisson sang it. Parsons also wrote three of his best songs ever off Greivous Angel, "Return of The Greivous Angel," "1,000 Wedding," and "Brass Buttons," where he showcased his still achingly, beautiful country-weeping voice, which along with the powerful lyrics can almost bring tears to the eyes they are so beautiful,

"Brass buttons green silks and silver shoes. Warm evenings, pale mornings, bottle blues. And the tiny golden pins that she wore up in her hair. Brass buttons green silks and silver shoes. My mind was young until she grew. My secret thoughts only known by a few. It was a dream much too real to believe again too soon. And all the time I think she knew. Her words still dance inside my head. Her comb still lies beside my bed. And the sun comes up without her now. It just doesn't know she's gone. And I remember everything she said." writes about Gram Parsons beautiful song, "In My Hour Of Darkness," off of Greivous Angel, "And while he didn't plan on it, Parsons could hardly have picked a better closing gesture than "In My Hour of Darkness." Grievous Angel may not have been the finest work of his career, but one would be hard pressed to name an artist who made an album this strong only a few weeks before their death — or at any time of their life, for that matter.

Gram Parsons on his mororcycle in Joshua Tree National Park,
California the site where he died on September 9, 1973 from a
lethal mix of heroin and Tequila.

At this time in his life, Parsons had separated from Gretchen Burrell, with whom he had had a tumultuous short lived marriage, after moving back to America from France. He spent most of his weekend time in Joshua Tree National Park in southeastern California, a place he had been infatuated with since the late 1960s. Parsons enjoyed going out there with friends and dissapearing with them in the desert for days, while wandering around on psychedelic mushrooms or LSD. Just before his 1973 tour was about to begin, Parsons decided to take one more trip to Joshua Tree but this time he would not return. Less then two days after arriving in Joshua Tree Parsons died from a lethal drug and alcohol overdose, a combination of heroin with tequila. Gram was just twenty six years old. Aparently before his death, Parsons had made a pact with his road manager Phil Kaufman that if he died he did not want to be buried in the ground. He wanted to be cremated in Joshua Tree and have his ashes spred over the famous Cap Rock. Parsons southern family planned to have his body flown back to Louisiana for a private funeral and burial but Phil Kaufman had other ideas. Kaufman was ready to stick to his pact he had made with Parsons.Probably he was also angry that he and many of his friends Parsons was closest to hadn't even been invited to the private funeral. Somehow Kaufman, with the help of a friend, managed to get hold of a hearse and steal Parsons' body from Los Angeles International Airport. They took Parsons back to Joshua Tree, where they poured gasoline over his body, and attempted to cremate him. Once the match was lit however it set off a huge explosion and was not a cremating process. The Police were on the scene in a matter of minutes and chased the black hearse, but somehow Kaufman managed to out run them on the highway. Days later Kaufman was arrested, but since there was no law at that time against stealing a dead body, he wasn't prosecuted for a crime and only fined $750 for stealing the coffin. There is a memorial site in Joshua Tree National Park for Gram Parsons at the exact rock where his body was set ablaze; it is known as The Gram Parsons Memorial Hand Traverse. Fans of Parsons still visit the site and write personal messages to him on the rock which the park service occasionally sand blasts clean.

One thing is clear: despite the tumultuous short lived life of Gram Parsons he belongs in the country music Hall Of Fame. Emylou Harris was inducted into The Hall Of Fame in February of 2008, sparking Parsons' fans to form The Gram Parsons Petition Project; an attempt to get him inducted but to no avail thus far. With all the music he wrote in such a short time with the International Submarine Band, The Byrds, and his best work with The Flying Burrito Brothers and later on with Emylou Harris as a solo artist. Gram Parsons is the definition of a cult country rock legend. It is surprising to hear that so few people have heard of him, and yet it makes sense when you consider that he never achieved mainstream commercial success with any of the albums he made in his lifetime. Death may have made him more of the legendary fallen greivous angel he is perceived to be by those who admire him, but in life is where he truly shined.

Gram Parsons with pink hat and tie-die ontage with Chris Hillman
with The Flying Burrito Brothers

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