The Classic Album Project: The Flying Burrito Bros (1971)
Standing in the shadow of Gram
“The Flying Burrito Bros” (a.k.a. the blue album) is one of those albums that just appeared in my collection; I have no recollection of buying or receiving the album and yet it’s always been there. It’s the third Burritos album and the first without band co-founder Gram Parsons (my ode to Gram is here).
Chris Hillman must have felt a lot of pressure to deliver a solid album without Gram’s substantial presence. While the Burritos were never a “successful” band they had a lot of buzz after their first album and the legend of Parsons was already growing. Rather than shoulder the burden alone Hillman brought in the unknown Rick Roberts (later of Firefall) to help with guitar, vocals, and most importantly, songwriting.
The blue album marks a departure from the “Cosmic American” music that defined the first two Burritos albums. Cosmic American music, as envisioned by Gram, was a mélange of country, rock, soul, rhythm & blues and psychedelia. This album is straight-forward country-rock, with a sound dominated by Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel guitar. Unlike some country-rock albums, the blue album is a true blend of the two styles, rather than sounding like rock songs with a fiddle or country songs with a heavy backbeat.
Listening to this album is the aural equivalent of sitting in front of a warm fire on a chilly, rainy day. The mournful songs of lost love and road fatigue are buoyed by Jim Dickson’s clean production. While derided as sounding “too slick” back in the day, 40 years later the album sounds warm and polished, with a nice mix between the instruments and the vocals.
Side A opens with a great cover of Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever”, setting the thematic and musical tone for the album. Next up comes the staggeringly beautiful Roberts tune “Colorado”, which is one of the best Burritos songs ever recorded. Roberts’ vocals are pushed to the limit, showing flashes of the heart-rending honesty that defined Parsons’ vocal approach. “Hand to Mouth” at first seems to be another mellow tune until taking an unexpected turn into mid-tempo jam territory. Befitting a Gene Clark cover “Tried So Hard” features some nice vocal harmonies. The first side closes out with another Roberts-Hillman composition “Just Can’t Be”, which (with a little more fuzz box) would fit perfectly on The Gilded Palace of Sin.
Side B starts off with an absolutely perfect rendition of Dylan’s “To Ramona”, where the lushness of the arrangement seems to heighten the intensity of the lyrics. “Four Days of Rain” is another stand-out Roberts tune, lending itself to a tight performance by the band, with some great drumming by Michael Clarke. “Can’t You Hear Me Calling” is a decent, but not spectacular, honky tonk rave-up. “All Alone” is yet another wonderful Hillman-Roberts collaboration that ebbs and flows nicely. The album finishes with the killer track “Why Are You Crying?” which posits music as the solution to all of the loneliness, longing, tears and broken hearts expressed over the preceding 30 minutes. (Of course, it also begs the eternal question of why he offers to bring his guitar to sing her a song and then delivers a banjo.) Bernie Leadon’s banjo playing is invigorating and makes you wish, like love itself, that the song would last forever.
When I first heard this album I knew nothing about Gram Parsons or the Burrito Brothers. While I’d later come to know and love those first two albums, to me, this album defined the Burritos – a weird Byrds spin-off band that somehow made country music cool to a kid in New Jersey. (It didn’t hurt that they all sported great jewfros on the cover.) “The Flying Burrito Brothers” is a definitive and essential country-rock album that should be in everyone’s collection.
White Line Fever: 3
Hand to Mouth: 3
Tried So Hard: 3
Just Can’t Be: 3
To Ramona: 4
Four Days of Rain: 4
Can’t You Hear Me Calling: 2
All Alone: 4
Why Are You Crying: 4
“The Flying Burrito Brothers” (1971): 3.4
Previously: The Classic Album Project: Introduction
Next: Peter Gabriel “So” (1986)