Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #17

Gram Parsons – GP

When I think about Gram Parsons, what comes to mind first isn’t his music, or his early death that left him outside the 27 Club by less than two months. No, what is foremost is what came after, when his road manager Phil Kaufman and assistant Michael Martin stole his body from an airport, transported it in a borrowed hearse to Joshua Tree National Park and set it on fire, thereby fulfilling the deceased’s wish to be cremated there. It’s a great story, and not even close to the nuttiest thing Kaufman was ever involved in. For that, you need to dig into his relationship with Charles Manson and his role in getting a Manson album released at the height of his infamy. Kaufman, now 86, had moves.

But this is about Parsons the musician, and, damn, that is a wonderful thing to behold. Parsons was a country rocker – maybe even the first and best example of the type – and this record leans strongly to the country side of that formula, with frequent twangy vocals, heavy doses of fiddle and pedal steel guitar, and lots of songs about lost, forlorn or forbidden love.

The album is a blend of six originals, some co-written, and five covers. The covers are a nice mix, from a classic about losing his love to the city (“Streets of Baltimore”) to a George Jones deep cut (“That’s All It Took”). My favourite is his take on The J. Geils Band’s “Cry One More Time”, a slowed down rockabilly country tune that feels like a relic from the late 1950s that could have been a hit for Fats Domino. It’s probably the least mannered vocal on the record, and includes a nice guitar bridge around the midpoint. Finally, there’s a duet with Emmylou Harris – the answer to the musical question “Who are they talking about when they say someone has a voice like an angel?” – on the we-know-we-shouldn’t-but-screw-it-let’s-do-it of “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning”.

The originals include the languid south-of-the-border feel of “The New Soft Shoe” and “A Song for You”, the latter being the most heartfelt of a collection of fairly impassioned ballads. “She” offers up a sentimental idealized version of the American south, and a bit of slander of the Christ-loving central figure, who “wasn’t very pretty” but “sure could sing”. The highlights are the opener “Still Feeling Blue” and the closer “Big Mouth Blues”. The first blue song has a jaunty hepped-up bluegrass feel with the heart-crushing line “Every time I hear your name I want to die”, while the last is an upbeat rocker about urban malaise that would serve as a great encore tune, sending the audience out into the night in a good mood after all the sadness that preceded it.

Parsons didn’t make much of a dent on the culture during his lifetime, but left behind a half dozen records, including his work with The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, that proved highly influential. His songs have been covered by Harris and such diverse artists as Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, Whiskeytown, Band of Horses and Yo La Tengo. “GP” straddles two worlds, and remains faithful to both rock and country. It’s a record I know I will keep listening to, and that’s as good a marker of greatness as I can imagine.