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Gram Parsons: the father of country rock lives again

By Brian Steinberg, July 1999

Gram Parsons walked down 20,000 roads and has come straight back home to you. When the 26 year-old musical boy wonder died so many years ago, few could have predicted his efforts then would still have a bearing on rock n' roll and country music.

After all, this would-be cosmic cowboy and father of country rock achieved notoriety by bringing out a then-unknown Emmylou Harris to sing backup vocals, while trotting out songs like "Streets Of Baltimore" by Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard or "I Can't Dance," by Tom T. Hall. The time was the mid-1960's and the early 1970's, when country music and things that twang took a back seat to druggy psychedelia and feel-good pop.

And yet, Parsons' influence - he died in 1973 in a hotel room in Joshua Tree, Cal. of alcohol and heroin - remains as strong today as it ever has. Take it from Paul Kremen, co-producer of the new 13-song tribute "Return of the Grievous Angel" disc, who waited earnestly between sets at a reunion of Emmylou Harris and her Hot Band in 1995 and was struck by how a tape of Wilco's first album played during the intermission reminded him of the Parsons sound.

"The influence was so obvious," Kremen recounts. "I was a huge Uncle Tupelo fan and the whole No Depression movement was sort of breaking," he says, referring to the name many have given to the swirling rise of artists and music devoted to country's rootsy side over the last few years. "This guy was alive and ticking and had a massively profound influence, much more than The Eagles had."

Kremen was just starting a job as general manager at the Almo Sounds label, a record company owned by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss - the founders of A&M.

Rather than put together a tribute album, Kremen says he wanted to create a platter that was more of a celebration. He recruited Harris, who got her start singing on Parsons' solo albums, "G.P." and "Grievous Angel."

The pair put together a "master list" of sorts, he says, of about 30 artists. "A couple of them couldn't do it. Some didn't want to do it. Some schedules got in the way," he says.

Among the almosts: Keith Richards, the Rolling Stone whom Parsons inspired to write "Wild Horses." Kremen says the musician was interested, but could not take part due to touring.

As for the final line-up, which includes The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams, Wilco, Harris and others, Kremen says, "Some of it was rather haphazard, and some of it was very conceived."

When it came to Whiskeytown, for example, the volatile combo headed by Ryan Adams, Kremen says the band "didn't wait for me to say yes." They turned in a version of "A Song For You" worthy of the final cut.

Kremen and Harris also made certain to involve a host of others who had worked with Parsons in his heyday.

Former Byrds (Parsons was hired as a sideman for a project that turned out to be the revolutionary, back-to-country's-roots album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo") Chris Hillman and David Crosby are on hand, as are musicians like Chris Etheridge, who wrote songs with Parsons, and Bernie Leadon, a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers (another project in which Parsons took part) and former Eagle.

The diversity of talent involved shows the many paths the young Parsons took during his too-brief career.

As Chris Hillman remembers, the Harvard dropout "had a lot of talent, " but "didn't have the best sense of discipline about his work, and that's where we differed. If he had had that sense of discipline and worked harder, he'd still be with us right now and would have gone on to superstar status."

Hillman, who can casually toss out an anecdote about The Byrds hiring Parsons as a sideman, says he was glad to take another crack at "High Fashion Queen," a song he originally sang with the Burritos in 1968. "I never thought we got it right the first time," he says. "It was supposed to be a country shuffle."

He trades verses with Steve Earle on the latest version and says he is pleased by the way the selection turned out. "That's the way the song was written in 1968, and it took a few years to get it right."

As it turns out, Parsons' songs turn up again and again, mostly because he found so many different forums for them. He recorded with the International Submarine Band, The Byrds for a brief period in 1967-68 and the Flying Burrito Brothers, which he co-founded with Chris Hillman, a bandmate from The Byrds, before tackling two albums of his own.

He appeared hellbent on tearing down the walls between country and rock, sensing an innate connection between songs from the Opry and straight-from-the-soul R&B. His success can't be measured by his own efforts, but by the way others tried to emulate him and still do.

Gillian Welch, the young singer who has made a name for herself with two rustic-sounding albums filled with detailed songwriting, says she first heard Parsons "when I was in college" and got involved in the project because she was asked to sing "Hickory Wind," a slow weeper of a tune that Harris had particular concerns about recording.

"She wanted us to do it because she knew we wouldn't do it too fast. She was afraid people would do it too fast, and she knew we wouldn't." The singer and her musical partner, David Rawlings, recorded the selection without any overdub in Nashville. "It was live to two track from my living room," she recalls.

"It's my favorite song of his," says Welch. "It's just the greatest song. It reminds me of that Hank Williams tune 'Lost Highway.' It kind of resembles 'Lost Highway." Welch says she thinks "Hickory Wind" is the kind of song "everybody can relate to."

Many of the artists appear extremely reverential in the way they perform their selections. Even Beck shucks his trademark samples and studio wizardry for a down-home duet with Harris on "Sin City."

When it came time for the Cowboy Junkies to try their hand at "Ooh Las Vegas," band member Michael Timmins says, the group decided to "make this much more psychedelic sounding." The result? A modern-sounding version that carries Parsons' tale into the modern day.

"Whenever we cover a song, we try to change it around," he explains. "We call them 'interpretations' as opposed to covers."

The decision to take part in the "Grievous Angel" project, Timmins says, was "something that was a no-brainer for us."

After all, Parsons was "the first to do something to bring a strong country element to rock music. That's influenced so many people down the road. People are influenced by him without even knowing it. He's an innovator...the influence is felt over the years and decades to come. That's why he's still around, because he's an original."