In late 1960s Los Angeles, a new era was forming. At the dawn of rebellion on the Sunset Strip, the tail end of the 60s saw the birth of a new counterculture. Rock and roll was shaping into progressive rock, psychedelic flower power was blooming and youth culture was dominating the streets of the Golden state.
It’s no wonder that someone in their early twenties would want to call Los Angeles their home – after all, revolution was in the air. One of these adolescents was Gram Parsons, a then 21-year-old hungry for what the city had to offer. Parsons - who on paper had an upbringing a little easier than most (his trust-fund paid for his short stint at Harvard University, where he dropped out in his first term) - upped and left Cambridge, Massachusetts with his first band at his side and stars in his eyes.
As a Florida-raised rich kid, Parsons – born Ingram Cecil Connor III - wasn’t from a remotely conventional country background. In fact, it wasn’t until he heard Merle Haggard for the first time, whilst studying at Harvard, that he discovered country.
His move to Los Angeles was influenced by the belief that his music would be better understood on the West Coast. At the time, The Doors were causing havoc, Buffalo Springfield were turning the youth onto politics and The Byrds were introducing a style of harmony that would become the backbone to the sound of the 70s.
The city’s scene was also echoing influences of the Bakersfield sound. Its fusion of country with rock and roll was right up Parsons’ street - it had the storytelling songwriting of traditional Nashville country but was reliant on a defined backbeat and a rock and roll attitude.
In his six years as a prominent musician in Los Angeles, before his death in 1973, Parsons became the unlikely hero of country and a founding father of folk rock. From his influence on The Byrds to his painstaking solo work with Emmylou Harris, Parsons and his nudie suits defined a golden era of country.
Almost 50 years on from his death in a Joshua Tree motel, Parsons' legacy is still paramount. We look back on some of his most important recordings.
Despite his wealth, Parsons’ upbringing was far from easy; he lost both parents to alcoholism at a very young age. This sets the tone of one of the earliest recordings of his music. His band The Like formed during Parsons’ time at Harvard. It’s clear with ‘Just Can’t Take It Anymore’ that Gram’s country influence was beginning to take form.
Bringing together various musicians from the Boston folk scene, Parsons formed the International Submarine Band in 1966. Feeling frustrated at their lack of success, Parsons finally packed his bags and convinced the group to move to Los Angeles. ‘Sum Up Broke’ is a great introduction to ISB’s jangly and quintessential 1960s sound. With his folk music still at the backbone, ISB started playing around with more pop elements in their recordings.
Noted as one of Parsons’ best-known songs, ‘Luxury Liner’ came from ISB’s only record together, Safe at Home, released after the band had split up in 1968 on Lee Hazelwood’s LHI Records. ‘Luxury Liner’ captures Parsons truly coming into his own as a songwriter.
‘Luxury Liner’ wasn’t the only notable song from ISB’s record. ‘Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome’ is paramount in Parsons’ career. The longing lyrics, backed by pedal steel, would soon become Parsons’ signature sound.
Parsons had a somewhat magical country touch, and The Byrds were the next group to fall for his charms. Appearing on just one record by the band, Sweetheart of the Rodeo went on to become The Byrds' most notable album. Parsons, hired as a potential replacement for David Crosby and Michael Clarke, became an equal contributor to the band with Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn.
‘You’re Still On My Mind’ is a prime jukebox cut from Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Originally McGuinn planned for the record to be a diverse double LP of American popular music; it was to include bluegrass, jazz, country and western, rhythm and blues and rock. But Parsons had other plans, persuading the band to do the recording in Nashville, where the record become a fully-fledged country masterpiece.
After Parsons’ departure from The Byrds (which had a lot to do with the band’s planned tour of South Africa and Parsons stance against the apartheid), he took a break and struck up a close friendship with Keith Richards, reintroducing the Rolling Stones to country music, which would then influence some of their greatest songs.
Returning to L.A, Parsons sought out fellow Byrd Chris Hillman and together formed The Flying Burrito Brothers. ‘Sin City’ from The Gilded Palace of Sin found a new Parsons; his songwriting and view on country having changed. Parsons sought to amalgamate the Bakersfield sound with psychedelic rock which, at the time, was taking over California.
‘Hot Burrito #1’ is one of Parsons’ best vocal performances. Parsons gives his all in the recording, Hillman even stating: “there was a lot of soul; he was a very emotional singer. But those vocals were tearjerkers – they give you chills". With grief and heartache pouring out amidst a slow and haunting melody, the song displays Parsons at his most sincere and beautiful.
Revisiting his close relationship with the Stones, ‘Honky Tonk Women’ is another great example of the Parsons touch. A cover of The Stones’ hit from 1969’s Let It Bleed, Parsons and the Burrito Brothers’ rendition is on par with the original. Ridden with soul and a sleazy attitude, Parsons does more than justice to the song - he redefines it with an infectious performance.
No stranger to wearing his heart on his sleeve, ‘Still Feeling Blue’ is an emotive and heartbreaking tune with a hell of a country attitude behind it. Parsons’ debut solo record was a long time coming; he signed to A&M and attempted to do sessions with Terry Melcher, but their combined reliance on cocaine and heroin made the sessions unproductive.
Losing interest, Gram rejoined the Stones for a UK tour (not performing, merely drinking and snorting) which eventually led to the end of his relationship with the band. He did eventually wean himself off of heroin and joined the Burrito Bros for a one-off show.
Whilst with Hillman, he saw Emmylou Harris sing in a club in Washington, D.C and the ensuing relationship between the two made for one of country music’s most iconic partnerships.
Along with the previously mentioned ‘Hot Burrito #1’, ‘She’ is Parsons at his finest. His vocals and lyrics weave into some sort of fever dream; his voice floats around the delicate melody with the classic yearning and haunting sound he became so known for.
‘Love Hurts’ is a beautiful rendition of Boudleaux Bryant’s song that was a hit for the Everly Brothers. Released on Grievous Angel, it flaunts the powerful harmonies of Harris and Parsons, cementing them as an iconic duo.
Together, they changed the meaning of the song - slowing it down, it became a tale of battling with a broken heart while confiding in each other. Take each vocal alone and they could easily tell two different tales, but it’s Parsons’ crackle and tender voice that gives the song it’s true feeling of heart break.
Though not a song penned by Parsons, Emmylou Harris’ ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ is the only song that could end this list. It’s a painstaking listen. The effect Parsons had on Harris was undeniable, and ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ is Harris recounting the years of pain and turmoil she endured after Parsons death.
“I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham / I would hold my life in his saving grace / I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham / If I thought I could see, I could see your face,” Harris sings. It was the only song she wrote directly about Parsons until 2011, perfectly summarising his influence.
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