Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Gram Parsons
If like us, you’ve spent a fair chunk of your time relishing in the garage rock ‘n ’roll that dominated the sixties and seventies then chances are the name of Gram Parsons is one that will be well known to you. If, however, you need an introduction to the cosmic creator of country rock as we know it, then let us take you through the ultimate beginner’s guide.
With the genre of rock music struggling to hold the same gravitas it once did, we are doing our bit to help educate our readers on some of the genre’s greatest ever artists and, perhaps most importantly, their foundational figures. While some of these acts are rightly known as icons, we’re a little concerned that they will remain just that—icons. For us, the real pleasure of such stars is the art they created so we are handing out a crash course in some of music’s finest, this time we’re bringing you the six definitive songs of Gram Parsons.
Usually, when we compile these lists, we try to bring you a short education in the acclaimed artist we’re focusing on, bringing some of the lesser-known songs from their widespread careers. Sadly, in this edition of ‘Six Definitive Songs’, the timeframe we have to work from is tragically too short. However, even with his short time, we have great songs from his career with The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and on to his solo work, all of which see the singer popularise what he called ‘Cosmic American Music’.
Parsons, born in Winter Haven, Florida, developed an interest in country music while he attended Harvard University. While education may have seen Parsons develop a taste for learning and experimentation, his real love was always music. He started the International Submarine Band in 1966 before the group disbanded before their debut album Safe at Home. However, things would really kick on when he joined The Byrds in 1968 and became one of the integral members of the group, delivering the spellbinding record Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
Parsons left the group in 1968 and, along with former Byrds man Chris Hillman, formed the influential band The Flying Burrito Brothers. The group’s debut LP, The Gilded Palace of the Sun, was released in 1969 and saw Parsons and Hillman be heralded as giants of the music world. However, it wouldn’t last and, after a sloppy cross-country tour and a hastily recorded LP Burrito Deluxe, Parsons was fired from the band.
He quickly bounced back and, with some help from the country legend Emmylou Harris on vocals, delivered a stupendous record Grievous Angel which confirmed him as one of the leading lights of the country-rock sound. As his drug and alcohol abuse continued to dramatically affect his life and he died in 1973 at the tender age of 26, following an opiate overdose while staying in Joshua Tree in California.
Described as enormously influential, below we are bringing you six definitive songs of Gram Parsons.
Six definitive songs of Gram Parsons:
‘One Hundred Years From Now’ (1968)
When Gram Parsons joined The Byrds and took a left turn away from psychedelia, he still managed to turn the band toward his own cosmic sound. Perhaps one of the great moments from the band’s 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo was Parsons’ brilliant song ‘One Hundred Years From Now’.
“100 years from this day, will the people still feel this way? / Still say the things that they’re saying right now?” sings Parsons with a country croon like no other, “Everyone said I’d hurt you / They said that I’d desert you”. There’s a descending steel guitar hook which will certainly grab you if the lyrics don’t.
‘Hickory Wind’ (1968)
One of only two Parsons vocal performances on Sweetheart of the Rodeo ‘Hickory Wind’ is rightly revered as one of the great Gram Parsons ballads. Steeped in mysterious Americana, there’s a melancholy melody that runs throughout the song and leaves us imagining “the feel of hickory wind.”
Parsons may have joined The Byrds as a pianist but, with this track, he gave the unequivocal leader Roger McGinn food for thought. Parsons was displaying the guile and gilding of a songwriter way beyond his years and was slowly gaining more and more prominence within the music industry.
“It’s his signature song, just as ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’ is Gene Clark’s signature song,” partner and Byrds man, Chris Hillman said. “If Gram had never written another song, ‘Hickory Wind’ would have put him on the map. The song says it all – it’s very descriptive, with vivid imagery. It’s actually quite literary, but Gram was, we know, a very bright kid. If you know the guy’s life story, however, he conjured up that scenario – it’s right at home. Gram was shuffled off to a prep school, lots of money… that’s a lonely song. He was a lonely kid.”
‘Hot Burrito #1’ (1969)
When Hillman and Parsons eventually left The Byrds, setting the group one a new direction as they did, one wholly influenced by Parsons, they started their enigmatic band, The Flying Burrito Brothers. While the sounds that emanate from the band’s output were always pushing the envelope, Hillman thinks there are two songs which far outweighs the others.
“I only heard two great vocals out of that guy: Hot Burrito #1 and Hot Burrito #2,” Chris Hillman said of Parsons. “The rest of it was good, and there was a lot of soul; he was a very emotional singer. But those two vocals were tearjerkers – they give you chills.” Based around the melody from bassist Chris Etheridge, ‘Hot Burrito #1’ is by far the best song on their record The Gilded Palace of Sin.
‘Older Guys’ (1970)
From the band’s second LP, Burrito Deluxe, Parsons was clearly beginning to find his own groove. While the track shows Parsons at his peak, behind the scenes, the singer and musician was slowly crumbling and the band around him knew it. It wouldn’t be long before he was kicked from the band, with many suspecting his growing substance abuse was the reason.
However, on ‘Older Guys’ there’s no sign of that. There are pop sensibilities in this song that Parsons rarely shows but clearly had up his sleeve, ready to go, whenever he wanted. It’s one of the few songs which sees Parsons’ audience smile rather than cry and is destined to define the singer forevermore. “The older guys tell me what it’s all about / The older guys really got it all worked out / Since we got the older guys to show us how / I don’t see why we can’t stop right now.”
Having left the Burrito Brothers, using his wealthy parents and their trust fund as a way of financing his time hanging out with The Rolling Stones. By 1972, he was finally ready to return and signed a record deal with Reprise Records. GP was the album and although he failed to recruit Merle Haggard as a producer, he did secure a foothold in the industry once more.
The way he did was with the kind of emotionally raw and utterly compelling songs like ‘She’, one of Parsons’ most beautiful. “She, she worked and she slaved so hard / A big old field was her backyard in the delta sun / Ah, but she sure could sing, ooh, she sure could sing,” he sings providing a crystalline vision of his story.
‘Love Hurts’ (1974)
GP may have signalled Parsons’ intent to push forward but Grievous Angel, the follow-up LP was simply marvellous. Full of incredible songs, perhaps the best track on the record was a cover. For us, this is the definitive cover of the Boudleaux Bryant song, ‘Love Hurts’.
Though the Everly Brothers cover of the track in 1960 is beautiful, Parsons’ takes the track into a slow direction, bringing the speed down but turning the emotion up, completed by the duet of Emmylou Harris. As Parsons’ vocal quivers Harris’ is clear as a bell, creating one of the seminal songs of an impressive career.