Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Immortals #87 - Gram Parsons

The "Whatever That Is" Immortals post.

(Props if you got that reference.)

I'll admit to being moderately annoyed that this entry is not simply for The Flying Burrito Brothers. It's true that Chris Hillman will get his props in another entry much further down on this list, and that there is no single figure more closely associated with his referred musical style on this side of the nearest Urban Outfitters, but still- doesn't this just sort of smack of aggrandizement?
Almost nowhere in the annals of his discography does he achieve anything of note without significant collaborative effort.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo
, the final Byrds LP and often cited as the first "country-rock" album, was dominated by Roger McGuinn while his first two albums with the Flying Burrito Bros (a band name he outright stole from his old International Submarine Band-mates), The Guilded Palace of Sin and Burrito Deluxe, were all-star efforts featuring the talents of former Byrds Hillman and Michael Clarke along with incomparable efforts from bassist Chris Ethridge and pedal steel guitarist "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow. And as the Burritos continued to make underrated records following Parsons' departure, Gram made a couple of records with no less a talented co-star than the young Miss Emmylou Harris; records that went nowhere until, decades after his overdose, they were dusted off as a hipster cause célèbre and credited for kick-starting the alt country craze that began in earnest in the 1990s.

Parsons' mythology has almost certainly outpaced any legitimate claim he might have had to being the "godfather" of alt country. Apart from the incalculable influence of the outsider country sounds made in Bakersfield and Lubbock in the mid-20th century, there were simply too many credible
revivalists of folk, rock, blues and Appalachian musics to essentialize as any sort of cohesive "movement" under the patronage of a rich-born, Harvard-educated Southern boy who played with some good bands once he moved to LA.

Yet we know more about Gram than practically any of the other supposed originators of alt country, and a large part of me suspects that it's because he's just so damned easy to glamorize. He was credited years after his early passing as an unheralded genius. He had fascinating, idiosyncratic interests UFOs, Joshua Tree, rodeo tailoring and casual narcotics usage. And it certainly never hurt that he was always the cutest boy in any room he walked into. He was the genuine, original
indie idol. Hell, he was even predisposed to calling his particular take on country, folk, gospel and rock as "cosmic American music", making him the original "whatever that is" alt-pedagogue. I mean, not to diminish all the excellent music that he played in his too-short 26 years, but did any other musician benefit as much from the live fast, die young school of rock legacy-making as Gram?

Still. There's something to idol-worship... isn't there?

Glorious Noise recently pointed to a section of The Observer's press for a new Rolling Stones documentary that made note of the closeness of Mick and Gram:

"Keith and Gram were intimate like brothers, especially musically. The idea was floating around that Gram would produce a Gram Parsons album for the newly formed Rolling Stones Records. Mick, I think, was a little afraid because that would mean that Gram and Keith might even tour together to promote it. And if there is no room for Mick, there is no room also for the Rolling Stones."
My favorite piece of Burrito Bros. trivia is that it was they, and not the Stones, who first recorded and released a version of the Richards/Jagger composition "Wild Horses." The story goes that, during their prolonged European bro-down, Keith played a demo of the song for Gram, and Parsons flipped for it and insisted that he be allowed to record it with for the Burritos' second album, which wound up being released a year before Sticky Fingers. The result is, blasphemy be damned, my favorite version of my favorite Stones song.

Three years later, he'd be dead, and he wasn't even really famous yet.

What if indeed...

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