Gram Parsons’ career is a case of what might have been. He could’ve and should’ve enjoyed a long and successful career. Sadly, that wasn’t the. He only released one solo album during his career and died aged just twenty-six. However, Gram squeezed a lot of living into twenty-six years.
For many people, Gram Parsons’ epitomises the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. He lived every day like it was his last. The same can be said of his career.
By the time he released his solo album GP, which will be rereleased on June 10th 2014, Gram had been a member of some of the hugely influential bands. Gram founded The International Submarine Band, was a member of The Byrds and formed The Flying Burrito Brothers. After leaving The Flying Burrito Brothers, he signed to A &M Records as a solo artist.
When recording of Gram’s debut album got underway in 1971, things weren’t going well. Gram decided to take a break. However, this was no ordinary holiday. He headed to the South of France to hang out with Keith Richards who was recording Exile On Main Street at Nellcôte.
Back then, Keith was allegedly a heavy heroin user. Gram and Keith Richards became soul mates and partied constantly. They bonded over their love of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. This didn’t please some people, including Mick Jagger. He asked Gram to leave, in attempt to rid the sessions of the drug users. Ironically, Mick Jagger had done Gram a favour. When Gram returned home he met Emmylou Harris, who’d play an important part in GP’s sound, which Gram referred to as “Cosmic American Music.” Before I tell you about GP, I’ll tell you about Gram’s life.
Gram Parsons was born Ingram Cecil Connor III in November 1946 in Winter Haven, Florida. His mother Avis, was the daughter of a wealthy businessman, John A Snively, who made his fortune in citrus fruit. Ingram Cecil Connor, Gram’s father, was a famous and highly decorated pilot in the US Air Force. Both Gram’s parents were alcoholics, and his mother suffered from depression. Sadly, when Gram was twelve, his father committed suicide. Later, Gram’s mother remarried, Robert Parsons, and Gram took his stepfather’s surname. In July1965, Gram’s mother died of cirrhosis, caused by her heavy drinking. She died the day before Gram was due to graduate from Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida.
Whilst all these problems with his family were happening, Gram became more interested in music. He’d been interested in music since he saw an Elvis Presley concert in 1957. In his early teens, he’d formed bands, playing cover versions of rock ‘n’ roll song. Aged sixteen, he started playing folk music, and then in 1963 he formed his first professional group The Shiiohs.
The Shilohs were influenced by groups like The Kingston Trio and The Journeymen. They mostly played in coffee bars and high schools, but on several occasions, played in New York’s Greenwich Village. This included an appearance at Fred Weintraub’s club The Bitter End, in Bleecker Street. When The Shilohs split up, Gram headed to Harvard University to study theology, leaving after one semester.
After The Shilohs split up, Gram formed the International Submarine Band while at Harvard University. They were a folk group, and wee active between 1966 and 1968. the group signed a recording contract with Lee Hazlewood’s LHI Records, and recorded several singles and one album entitled Safe At Home. Since the album’s release in March 1968, it’s credited with being one of the first real country rock albums. Before the album was released in March 1968, Gram left the band in February, to become a member of The Byrds.
By 1968, Gram Parsons had been recruited as a member of The Byrds, after David Crosby and Michael Clarke had left the band at the end of 1967. Initially, Gram was hired as a pianist, but soon became their rhythm guitarist and sung vocals. However, Gram wasn’t considered a full member of the band by Columbia, the band’s record label, even though he was contributing as much as any other member. Instead, Gram and Kevin Kelley, another new member were paid a salary. Only Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman were full members when the band signed their new recording contract. Gram played on The Sweetheart of The Rodeo album released in August 1968. Whether or not Gram was a full member of the band, he like Kelley, were listed as members on the album and in press coverage. While on tour in England in the summer of 1968, Gram quit The Byrds over plans by the band to tour South Africa. He was opposed to South Africa’s apartheid policy. During that tour, Gram met and befriended Keith Richards. He would become a close friend, is credited with reintroducing Gram to country music.
After leaving The Byrds, Gram headed back to Los Angeles, where he and Chris Hillman formed The Flying Burrito Brothers. They recruited pedal steel player Sneaky Pete Kleinow and bassist Chris Ethridge. Having completed the group’s line up, they recorded their debut album The Gilded Palace of Sin, which was released in February 1969. Although the album wasn’t commercially successful, it was well received and is seen as one of the most important alternative country albums ever. Before they recorded their second album, the band underwent personnel changes.
Chris Ethridge left due to the band’s lack of success. Chris Hillman became bass player, Bernie Leadon joined to play lead guitar and ex-Byrd Michael Clarke became the new drummer. Burrito Deluxe, released in April 1970, was the groups second album. Like it’s predecessor it wasn’t a commercial success, and to make matters worse, the critics didn’t like the album. After the failure of the second album, Gram was disillusioned, and he left the band. He and Chris came agreed that this was for the best. During the time the band had recorded Burrito Deluxe, Gram’s drug use was much worse, he wasn’t writing as many new songs and he’d spent much of his time partying with the Rolling Stones.
Gram signed a recording contract with A & M Records in 1970, and Terry Melcher was hired to produce the sessions. So Gram moved in with Melcher and the sessions begun. However, they were unproductive and Gram headed to France where he lived for a short time with Keith Richards while the Rolling Stones were recording Exile On Main Street. On his return to America in 1971, he married girlfriend Gretchell Burrell.
After playing a one-off reunion concert with The Flying Burrito Brothers, Hillman took Gram to hear Emmylou Harris in concert. Quickly, the pair became good friends and within a year, Gram and Emmylou headed to the recording studio to have another attempt at recording Gram’s solo album. By now, he’s been signed to Reprise Records by Mo Ostin. As well as Emmylou, Gram enlisted James Burton, who previously, had played with Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley. Together Emmylou and James played an important part in GP’s sound.
For Gram’s solo album eleven songs were chosen. Gram penned Still Feeling Blue, A Song for You, The New Soft Shoe and Big Mouth Blues. He also cowrote She with Chris Ethridge and How Much I’ve Lied with Pam Rifkin. Other tracks included Joyce Allsup’s We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning, Rick Grech’s Kiss The Children and Peter Wolf and Seth Justman’s Cry One More Time. Along with Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard’s Streets of Baltimore and Darrell Edwards, Charlotte Grier and George Jone’s That’s All It Took, these songs became GP.
When the recording of GP began in September 1972, at Wally Heider Studios, Hollywood, Gram couldn’t have hoped for a better band. They included some of the top country session players. This included a rhythm section of drummers Sam Goldstein, John Guerin and Ronnie Tutt, bassists John Conrad and Rick Grech plus rhythm guitarist Barry Tashian. James Burton played electric guitar and dobro, Al Perkins and Buddy Emmons pedal steel guitar, Alan Munde banjo and Byron Berline fiddle. Glen Hardin played piano, organ and was bandleader. Adding backing vocals on Kiss The Children were Ron Hicklin, Tom Bahler, Mitch Gordon and Lewis Morford. Hal Battiste plays baritone saxophone on Cry One More Time. Emmylou Harris sung harmonies and duetted with Gram. He produced GP with Ric Grech. GP was completed in October 1972 and released in January 1973.
On its release in January 1973, GP was critically acclaimed. However, GP failed to chart. It didn’t even trouble the charts. Gram must have thought that he would go on to enjoy commercial success. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. By the time his sophomore album Grievous Angel was released, Gram would be dead. GP, which I’ll tell you about, was the only album released during Gram’s lifetime.
Still Feeling Blue opens GP. Fiddles, guitars and the rhythm section combine before Gram sings. A pedal steel guitar and banjo join in, completing the authentic country sound. The tempo is quick, Gram’s vocal is wistful and Emmylou Harris adds backing vocals. Her backing vocals compliment Gram’s heartbroken vocal. James Burton’s guitar and Byron Berline’s fiddle are at the heart of the song’s sound. They helps drive arrangement along. Gram’s lyrics are full of longing and sadness. They’re about a woman that’s left him, and how he’s still suffering, missing her, wondering why she left him? Gram’s soul-baring vocal is at the heart of the song’s sadness and success.
A guitar plays at the start of We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes In The Morning. Drums and fiddle accompany Gram as he sings. Here, his voice isn’t as strong as on the opening track, during parts of the track. He’s joined by Emmylou who shares the lead vocal. Her voice compliments Gram’s perfectly, and sometimes, her lilting voice soars high as she sings the lead. Behind them, the arrangement is mostly driven by guitars, with drums playing subtly behind them. The pedal steel guitar played by Al Perkins is really atmospheric, perfectly suited to the song. That, and Gram and Emmylou’s vocals are what makes this a quite beautiful track.
When A Song For You opens, the track has a dramatic feel and sound. Piano and guitar play, then when Gram sings, his voice sounds fragile and gentle as he sings the lyrics. The arrangement wraps round his voice like a blanket, as Emmylou accompanies him. An acoustic guitar, fiddle and pedal steel guitar accompany them. It’s a lovely understated arrangement, that’s perfect for the song. The understated, subtle arrangement is the perfect foil for the vocals and allows them to take centre-stage.
The Streets of Baltimore begins with a pedal steel guitar playing, before Gram sings. When he does, his voice is much stronger, and behind him, a lovely arrangement is unfolding. Lead and pedal steel guitars, fiddle, piano, drums and percussion play. They all play behind Gram, never overpowering his vocal. It’s much stronger, sometime soaring high as he sings the lyrics. They’re about a man moving to the bright lights of Baltimore with his wife, only to discover she loves the bright lights of Baltimore more than she loves him. Gram brings the lyrics the lyrics to life. So much so, you can almost imagine the story unfolding before your eyes, resulting in an evocative and poignant song.
She is a song he cowrote with Chris Ethridge who Gram played with in The Flying Burrito Brothers. A piano and guitar play slowly and dramatically at the start of the song, then Gram sings. When he does, his voice is laden with emotion, as he sings about a talented young girl singer, growing up in the plantations the southern states, picking cotton. During the song, Gram gives one of his best vocals on GP. Behind him, a really atmospheric, subtle arrangement plays. Drums, bass, fiddle and steel guitars combine masterfully, providing the perfect soundtrack for Gram’s vocal. Quite simply, She is one of the most beautiful tracks on the album, made all the better by the subtle, atmospheric arrangement.
That’s All It Took is a songs that sounds straight out of Nashville. It begins with peddle steel guitar, piano and rhythm section playing, before Gram sings about love, and falling in love. After his vocal drops out, Emmylou then sings the lead vocal. They’re like ying and yang Then when they sing together, their voices are perfectly suited, especially for this song. Emmylou seems to bring out the best in Gram, and it’s as if he lifts his game when he sings with her. Later, when their voices drop out, the fiddle, then the pedal steel guitar takes the lead. This is the perfect contrast to the vocal. Then as Gram and Emmylou rejoin, the song draws to a close. It finishes with a flourish Gram, Emmylou and the rhythm section combining to create a track that epitomises what Gram called “Cosmic American Music”
Guitars, rhythm section, piano and fiddle combine to produce a beautiful atmospheric and nostalgic sound at the start of The New Soft Shoe. This sound continues when Gram sings, his voice is emotive, his delivery has a heartfelt quality. Gram’s lyrics have a strong narrative, they tell a story from many years ago, one he brings to life as he sings them. As Gram sings, the band play subtly behind him. Just a guitar, fiddle, drums and piano combine with backing vocals. This allows Gram’s tender, heartfelt vocal to take centre-stage on this quite beautiful, melodic song.
When Kiss the Children begins, a fiddle plays the introduction. It’s accompanied by drums, piano and guitar, before Gram sings. As he sings, it’s immediately noticeable how much stronger his vocal is. Here, the band sing backing vocals, as they accompany him with a slice of authentic country music. Fiddles, guitars and subtle drums provide the backdrop for Gram and his backing vocalists. This is another cover version, of a song written by Rik Grech. It’s a tale of a hard living man, who likes to drink, fight and carouse. Gram and his band bring the song to life. His vocal and the band’s performance, give it an authentic country sound.
Cry One More Time bursts into life with Gram singing and baritone saxophone playing. The use of the baritone saxophone to accompany Gram is a masterstroke, which lifts the song totally. Without them, it wouldn’t be the same song, it wouldn’t be half as good. During the track, the piano and guitar play important roles. Meanwhile, Gram produces a despairing, heartbroken vocal, as he sings about how everything is going wrong. His girlfriend is about to leave him, he loves her and can’t take it, so he needs another beer. On this track, the band really raise their game. It’s as if this spurs Gram on. He seems to lift his game to another level, to match the playing around him. Everything about the track works, Gram’s vocal, the band’s playing and the songs lyrics. This is easily, one of the best tracks on GP.
A guitar, dobro, fiddle and drums open How Much I’ve Lied, a track with a lovely country feel to it. Gram’s voice, is strong and clear as he sings about being unfaithful, and having to tell his partner about it, as he can’t continue lying to her. It’s a heartfelt, emotional song as Gram comes clean, telling his partner how he’s betrayed. Behind him the arrangement is quite subtle at times. Other times, it fills out, and become much fuller. It’s a mixture of guitars, dobro, fiddles and drums. A piano joins the arrangement, as do backing singers who accompany Gram. Here, the arrangement and Gram’s vocal do the song justice. They bring the lyrics to life.
GP ends with one of the album’s best tracks Big Mouth Blues, which has one of the best arrangements on the album. The track has a really rousing, uptempo opening with guitars and drums and combining brilliantly. Then Gram sings, his voice loud at the front of the mix, keeping up with the now frantic pace. A baritone saxophone plays, punctuating the track in bursts. Some great guitar solos are played, and Gram occasionally hollers announcing their arrival. He seems to let them take centre-stage, not worrying about being upstaged. To round off the arrangement, a piano plays adding the finishing touches. By the end of what’s a frantic, rousing track, you realize that you’ve heard Gram Parsons and his band at their best. Here, they sound like the best bar band you could ever dream of hearing. They’re tight, polished and professional. As for Big Mouth Blues, it’s the perfect way to end what has been a tremendous album.
Gram Parson was undoubtedly a hugely talented artist. He was a vocalist, guitarist and talented songwriter. Like many other rock stars, he died far too young. He died aged twenty-six, after completing the recording for the follow up to GP, Grievous Angel. The sad thing about his music, is that it wasn’t successful during his lifetime. It was only after his death, that people recognized his talent, and started buying his albums. Critics had always recognized Gram talent, it’s just a pity the record buying public didn’t realize sooner. Now, his music is hugely popular, and GP and Grievous Angel are now afforded the status of classic albums. Whenever lists are released of the best albums, Gram’s two solo albums are included. His music has been hugely influential among a new generation of alternative country artists. In some ways, Gram Parsons was the founding father of this genre, and these artists owe a debt of gratitude to him. If you’ve never heard Gram Parson’s music, then GP which will be rereleased on 10th June 2014, is the perfect place to start.
GP is an introduction to the Gram Parsons, one of the most talented artists of his generation. He could’ve and should’ve enjoyed a long and successful career. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. He only released one solo album during his career and died aged just twenty-six. However, what an album GP is. GP is a critically acclaimed fusion of Americana, country, folk and rock. This was described by Gram as “Cosmic American Music.” Gram’s album of “Cosmic American Music,” GP is timeless and flawless and is the perfect introduction to one of the legends of American music, Gram Parson, who squeezed a lot of living into twenty-six years.