When the album I’m going to write about was released, it was critically acclaimed, but commercially, was a failure. Gram Parsons referred to his music as Cosmic American Music, a mixture of country music and rock ‘n’ roll. GP was his debut solo album, released in January 1973. It would be the only solo album released during his lifetime, the follow-up Grievous Angel being released after his death in January 1974. Although his life was tragically short, dying aged just twenty-six in September 1973, he lived a full life. During his career, he 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. However, when sessions for his debut solo album didn’t go well, he headed to France and lived with Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones for a short time. On his return, he met Emmylou Harris who sung vocals on his solo albums GP and Grievous Angel. Before I tell you about Gram’s debut solo album GP, I’ll tell you about his 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. Richards 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 Hillman 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. This album became GP, and on its release in January 1973, was critically acclaimed, although it wasn’t a commercial success. The follow-up to GP was Grievous Angel, with Emmylou and James Burton playing on the album. Sadly, this album was never released during Gram’s lifetime. He died in September 1973, of a drug overdose in Joshua Tree, California, aged just twenty-six. Grievous Angel was released in January 1974, and like GP was critically acclaimed, but commercially unsuccessful. Since Gram’s death, his music has become increasingly popular, and belatedly, his music is being appreciated by a wider audience to appreciate his huge talent. Now that I’ve told you about his career, I’ll tell you about his debut solo album GP.
GP opens Still Feeling Blue, a track that has an authentic country feel. It opens with fiddles, guitars and rhythm section combining before Gram sings. A pedal steel guitar and banjo join in, giving completing an authentic country sound. The tempo is quick, Gram’s voice is strong and clear, with Emmylou Harris singing backing vocals. During the track, James Burton’s guitar playing is excellent, and Byron Berline’s playing helps drive the song along. Here, the arrangement is quite full, with Gram having assembled a really tight band for the sessions. Gram’s lyrics are really good. They’re about a woman that’s left him, and how he’s still suffering, missing her, wondering why she left him. A combination of Gram’s vocal, and strong lyrics from Gram, plus a good tight performance from the band make this a great track to open the album.
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 such a lovely 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 perfect for the song. This has always been one of my favorite tracks from GP because of the arrangement. To me, it’s one of the best tracks on the album, because of great vocals and a lovely subtle arrangement.
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 sings the song really well, bringing the lyrics to life so much, you can almost imagine the story unfolding before your eyes. Although not written by Gram, it’s an evocative song, great lyrics, sung brilliantly by Gram.
After the second cover version of the album, Gram sings She, 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 track 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 he sings, Emmylou then sings the lead, before the pair 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. When their voices drop out, the fiddle takes the lead, then the pedal steel guitar. This is a good contrast to the vocal. Later, Gram and Emmylou rejoin as the song heads to the end. It finishes with a flourish Gram, Emmylou, guitar and drums combining.
Guitars, drum, 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, a mixture of guitar, fiddle, drums and piano. Backing vocals accompany Gram’s soft vocal throughout the song. During the song we hear a tender vocal from Gram, very different to other songs on GP. I’ve always liked this side of Gram, and the subtle arrangement highlights the tenderness of his vocal. Combined with some great lyrics, this is a really lovely, tender and nostalgic 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 really 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 good ole boy, who likes to drink, fight and generally be a hell-raiser. Gram and his band sing and play the song brilliantly. 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, there is some wonderful piano and guitar playing. Meanwhile, Gram produces a really strong 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 play brilliantly, and 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.
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 out the best in some really thoughtful, sad and emotional lyrics.
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 of this amazing 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. Big Mouth Blues is 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’s music, I would recommend both GP and Grievous Angel as a starting point. Both are available on one disc on Reprise Records. There are many other albums around featuring Gram’s music from the various bands he was in. One in particular is worth buying The Flying Burrito Brothers debut album The Gilded Palace of Sin. Like GP and Grievous Angel, it can be found on a disc that includes both The Gilded Palace of Sin and the follow-up Burrito Deluxe. Of the two, The Gilded Palace of Sin is a far superior album to Burrito Deluxe. Regardless of which Gram Parson album you choose, you’ll be privileged to hear some wonderful Cosmic American Music, Gram’s mixture of country music and rock ‘n’ roll. Standout Tracks: Streets of Baltimore, She, Cry One More Time and Big Mouth Blues.