The term “legend” is tossed around pretty carelessly these days. If you write a good book or win a few games the next thing you know you’re a legend. But in my estimation, a true legend is that rare individual that makes an indelible impression on our culture-at-large. Whether their gift is for art or science doesn’t really matter. What matters is that their work has an impact on our society that far transcends their life.
In the music world, Gram Parsons is one of those legends. In his short life he changed music forever. He was one of the earliest artists to wed country music traditions with rock and roll attitude and instrumentation, and in the process he elevated both genres. He was never famous but he was influential. During his life he was a huge influence on both The Byrds and The Rolling Stones, among many other bands. In death, he’s influenced countless artists, including my favorite band, The Black Crowes.
Gram Parsons died on September 19, 1973 at the age of 26. His professional music career began eight years earlier when Gram was (briefly) a theology student at Harvard. In Boston he formed The International Submarine Band with John Nuese. Their only album, Safe at Home, is considered the first country-rock album, even though Gram never called his music country-rock. He preferred to think of it as Cosmic American music, a blend of country, gospel, soul, rock and the blues.
After the ISB went nowhere, Gram hooked up with Chris Hillman and The Byrds for their classic album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, hung out with Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones (he “gave” them ‘Country Honk’, they gave him ‘Wild Horses’), formed The Flying Burrito Brothers, recorded two solo albums (featuring a young Emmylou Harris) and died far too soon. Gram’s death was as tumultuous as his life, but you can read about that elsewhere.
Gram Parsons’ music is deceptively simple. At first listen it doesn’t sound like much. But his melodies, his voice and his words have a way of burrowing into your consciousness, demanding another listen.
Aside from some early demos, Gram played on just 6 studio albums (all which are well worth owning) and wrote a mere 35 or so original songs. And while some of his covers are amazingly beautiful, for the purposes of this Top 12 list we’ll only be including songs that Gram wrote. Now, you would think that it would be easy to pick a top 12 out of 35 songs, but it was actually incredibly difficult. As you can see from the song-by-song ratings (below), Gram literally did not write a bad song. He was that good.
Gram Parsons’ Top 12 Songs (in chronological order):
1) 100 Years from Now (Sweetheart of the Rodeo): The archetypal country-rock song, it’s a great vehicle for The Byrds, with McGuinn’s and Hillman’s voices harmonizing wonderfully.
2) Hickory Wind (Sweetheart of the Rodeo/Grievous Angel): Both versions of this song are incredible. The gentle shuffle, the steel guitar, the layered vocals, it’s beautiful.
3) My Uncle (The Gilded Palace of Sin): Hillman’s mandolin drives this fun, bouncy tale about heading to Vancouver to dodge the draft.
4) Wheels (The Gilded Palace of Sin): I’m always a sucker for that fuzzbox guitar sound, but throw in a little roadhouse piano and some great harmonies and you’ve got a winner.
5) Hot Burrito # 1 (The Gilded Palace of Sin): While Chris Ethridge’s bass line is monstrous on this tune, its Gram’s powerful and emotional vocals that turn it into a masterpiece.
6) Hot Burrito #2 (The Gilded Palace of Sin): Featuring that trippy, fuzzbox guitar again (Hey, it’s 1969!) HB#2 is a great psychedelic rocker.
7) A Song for You (GP): Gram’s strong religious faith was a driving force in his life and he was never afraid to express his beliefs through song.
8) She (GP): A testament to the power of true love, She features one of Gram’s most powerful vocal performances.
9) Return of the Grievous Angel (Grievous Angel): In addition to the strong vocals, Grievous Angel is compelling because of its complex compositional structure.
10) Brass Buttons (Grievous Angel): Perhaps my favorite GP song of all time, Brass Buttons is a tragic song about Gram’s mother. The lines: “and the sun comes up without her/it just doesn’t know she’s gone/ooh, but I remember everything she said” may be the saddest lyrics ever writer.
11) $1000 Wedding (Grievous Angel): In yet another tragic tale, Gram’s restrained performance gives the song weight, depth and sincerity. By the way, if you listen to the demo version, it’s clear that the bride ‘passed away’.
12) In My Hour of Darkness: (Grievous Angel): A tale of two young men that died before their time, this tune is both beautiful (due to Gram’s harmonies with Emmylou) and haunting – a fitting coda to Gram’s short, sweet life.
Gram Parsons Album-by-Album Song Ratings
(Ratings scale: 1 = poor; 2 = average; 3 = good; 4 = great)
The International Submarine Band: Safe at Home
Blue Eyes: 3
Luxury Liner: 4
Strong Boy: 3
Do You Know How It Feels: 4
Average Score: 3.5
The Byrds: Sweetheart of the Rodeo
100 Years From Now: 4
Hickory Wind: 4
Lazy Days: 3
Average Score: 3.7
The Flying Burrito Brothers: The Gilded Palace of Sin
Christine’s Tune: 3
Sin City: 4
My Uncle: 4
Hot Burrito #1: 4
Hot Burrito #2: 4
Do You Know How It Feels: 4
Hippie Boy: 3
Average Score: 3.8
The Flying Burrito Brothers: Burrito Deluxe
Lazy Days: 3
High Fashion Queen: 3
Man in the Fog: 3
Older Guys: 3
Cody, Cody: 4
Down in the Churchyard: 3
Average Score: 3.2
Gram Parsons: GP
Still Feeling Blue: 3
A Song For You: 4
The New Soft Shoe: 4
Kiss the Children: 3
How Much I’ve Lied: 3
Big Mouth Blues: 3
Average Score: 3.4
Gram Parsons: Grievous Angel
Return of the Grievous Angel: 4
Brass Buttons: 4
$1000 Wedding: 4
Ooh Las Vegas: 4
Hickory Wind: 4
In My Hour of Darkness: 4
Average Score: 4
Overall ‘Gram Parsons Originals’ Average: 3.6