The Fiercest Beasts Could All Be Put To Sleep: Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel Turns 45
Let’s discuss Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel, arguably the single most towering achievement in the occasionally maligned genre of country-rock, which has in point of fact yielded some of the most enduring music of the past fifty years, ranging from the Byrds to Neil Young to The Dream Syndicate to The Mekons. Grievous Angel turns forty-five this year (45!) and has lost none of the lush majesty that made it an instant classic and an immersive deep-dive into the psyche of a remarkably gifted and lamentably troubled singer-songwriter. Indeed, time has only deepened the allure of these nine songs, which taken together represent a kind of guided tour of American music, drifting through genre excursions, mysterious histories and furtive confessions with a logic dreamlike and singular but inarguably coherent. Parsons spoke often of his ambition to create a “cosmic American music”, and here he has succeeded beyond argument or petition. Whether covering the Louvin’ Brothers “Cash on the Barrelhead” or Tom T. Hall’s “I Can’t Dance” or rendering dark and prayerful originals like “In My Hour of Darkness”, Gram’s understated mastery and painstakingly studied grasp of the traditional songbook elevates nearly every track to a tour-de-force level of grace.
It is hard to separate the release of Grievous Angel from its tragic circumstances.The album was recorded in the Summer of 1973. Parsons died of an overdose at the absurdly, pointlessly sad age of 26 before it could be issued in January of 1974. Consequently, it is tempting to freight the record with some last rites significance, or to think of it as a sort of self-directed elegy. While that’s understandable, the impulse should be curtailed. Gram’s OD was a farcical, avoidable and excruciatingly unfortunate episode detailed in forensic fashion in David Meyer’s essential 2007 bio 20,000 Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music.
Grievous Angel was no pre-planned funeral, but indeed a game-changing bolt of inspiration from an artist leveling up even after the stupendous achievements of his earlier work in The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Talentwise, Gram’s loss was immense even by the standards of self-inflicted rock music tragedies. But for a bit of better luck or judgment he might still be with us today, a good bet to have produced a catalog the rival of any living artist. The stupidity of it all could make a strong man lose his mind. Nevertheless, Grievous Angel possesses great joy amidst its deep-blue sadness, and ultimately remains a profoundly humane meditation on guilt, love, sin, memory and ultimately forgiveness. Let’s take a track by track look.
Return of the Grievous Angel
This startlingly lovely opener is the result of a collaboration with the poet Tom Brown, whose terrific words put a fine point on Parsons’ complicated relationship to his rebel-conformist impulses. A southern child of considerable privilege, he had means enough to briefly attend Harvard before deciding it was the road or nothing for him. Even still, the anxiety of his parents’ expectations and the early death of his mother never ceased to haunt him. That terrible ambivalence is the story of this great song- the exhilaration of being “out with the truckers, and the kickers, and the cowboy angels” – set against the knowledge that there will be no meaningful peace until you are truly at home. Parsons’ wealth also allowed him to curate and pay for the backing band of his dreams, including the legendary guitarist James Burton of Elvis Presley’s TCB band, one of the finest players in the history of the tradition. Gram clearly identifies with Elvis, and the verse here about The King “unbuttoning that old bible belt/ and lighting out for some desert town” takes on a special resonance as Burton accompanies with a brilliantly lyrical solo. The temptation, corruption and ultimate redemption of Presley serves as a kind of leitmotif for Grievous Angel. Gram saw himself in that reflection as well.
Hearts on Fire
A stunning duet between Gram and Emmylou Harris, whose presence on both of Gram’s two solo records went a long way to establishing her as one of the great vocal talents on the American stage, a place she continues to occupy to this day. Bravura performances highlight a track that respectfully updates the high intensity emotional casino of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Special recognition to Al Perkins for some beautifully non-intrusive work on pedal steel.
I Can’t Dance
Perhaps owing to his considerable facility as both a writer and interpreter of great ballads, Parsons’ stature as a skillful and exuberant renderer of the reckless and the devil-may-care tends to be undersold. Look no further than this riotous, stomping cover of “I Can’t Dance” for evidence that the demons could always dissipate long enough to boogie. ZZ Top buys Dr. John an illicit late night drink and nobody anywhere complains.
On a very short list of the most moving and challenging songs in the English language, “Brass Buttons” takes the Oedipal anxieties of Lennon’s “Mother” and raises the ante to heights suggesting the outer extremes of Philip Roth. A beguiling melody and a mournful progression leads us through a subterranean emotional hellscape where no accommodation can ever be expected to fill the pain of a loss unspoken. Confessional songwriting rarely comes so raw. Scariest and most touching lyric: “My mind was young until she grew/ My secret thoughts known only by a few.”
A noir-mystery and a misfit masterpiece. Timeless, genre-less and quite possibly the saddest song ever written. A complicated narrative describing absolutely everything and nothing at all. I’ve never met anyone who claims to understand what precisely happens to the characters in “$1000 Wedding”, but that feeling of uncertainty only makes the harrowing Southern-Gothic vibe more shiver-inducing. It is a shaggy dog tale, with no real resolution, a fearful prayer against the demonic, and a final reckoning with the inevitable. Like a Carver story set to music, the lyrics are pared down only to evoke, a masterwork of cautious gesture and fearful suggestion. Probably the best song Gram Parsons ever wrote, and one that belongs on any responsible list of the 20th Century’s greatest.
Cash On The Barrelhead/ Hickory Wind
Recorded in the studio with live audience reaction overdubbed, Parsons’ decision to interpolate the Louvin Brothers’ comedic jailhouse classic with his original composition “Hickory Wind” (which first appeared on The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo) is a gambit clearly intending to situate himself amongst the titans of the country tradition. Forty-five years later it seems less like a savvy act of hubris and more like a prophecy, as the songs compliment each other wonderfully and the faux-barrelhouse atmosphere adds levity and texture to the proceedings. As ever, both tracks are abetted mightily by Harris’ powerhouse harmonies.
A triumph of understated subtlety, Gram and Emmylou’s reading of the Boudleaux Bryant standard eschews the bombast of subsequent versions in favor of something darker and more despairing, stripping the song to its existentially desperate core. Evoking the gorgeous but eerie androgyny of the Everly Brothers’ 1960 version, Gram and Emmylou circle each other’s upper range, with the pedal steel introducing a third competing element like an interloping lover. Arresting, scary stuff.
Ooh Las Vegas
Gram’s fascination with Sin City dates at least as far back as well, the Burrito Brothers’ “Sin City” with its apocalyptic reveries of gilded palaces consumed by deadly earthquakes. Here his concerns are slightly more quotidian: he’s broke as a pauper and can’t stop gambling. Atop a deliriously ingratiating soul-shuffle and abetted by some killer Burton picking, Parsons’ wry take on his predicament rings familiar to anyone who ever had trouble walking away from a losing hand:
“Well, the Queen of Spades is a friend of mine
The Queen of Hearts is a bitch
Someday when I clean up my mind
I’ll find out which is which”
In My Hour of Darkness
A stunning closer that brings it all back home, Parsons’ final track is an episodic evocation of tragedy and a prayer for deliverance. Importantly, however, the tone is hopeful, even winsome as he relays the tales of those who have passed too soon, closer in spirit to a Dixieland-style send-off than a bleak requiem. Again, he evokes Elvis in a verse he most certainly understood could be about both of them:
“Another young man safely, strummed his silver stringed guitar
And he played to people everywhere, some say he was a star
But he was just a country boy, his simple songs confess
And the music he had in him so very few possess”
Soon enough, both would be gone.
Parsons never achieved anything remotely approaching the commercial success of his dear friend (and sometimes enabler) Keith Richards, though it seems likely that he may have soon enough. Within a couple of years of his passing, The Eagles would achieve seismic fame with a spit-polished and decidedly less weighty version of Parsons’ visionary music, aided by guitarist Bernie Leadon who played in the Flying Burrito Brothers and guested on Grievous Angel. Within music circles, Parsons’ legacy and impact has always been massive. During his lifetime, the Stones borrowed heavily from Gram’s idiosyncratic melding of styles – it is impossible to imagine them arriving at the unique crossroads of blues, soul and country that characterize Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street without his example. Soon after Parsons’ death, Dylan would evince a similarly heavy debt on the Emmylou Harris-aided exotica of Desire.
As the decades have passed the influence has only grown stronger. It is variously impossible to imagine everything from the work of Dwight Yoakam to Uncle Tupelo to the Drive-By Truckers without Gram leading the way, to name only a very few distinguished acts. Like the Velvet Underground, Parsons was a little too offbeat to connect to mainstream audiences in real time, but the reverberations of his extraordinary talent continue to shake the very firmament. We celebrate him and we grieve.