Gram Parsons' too-brief tenure as the orginial cosmic cowboy has only gained in stature over the 25 years since his fatal overdose in 1973. Only 26, Parsons had already discovered Emmylou Harris, steered The Byrds away from the psychedelic and closer to country and inspired Keith Richards to write "Wild Horses." With a voice equal parts plaintive and plain and a vision that hewed close to old-timey sounds, he wrote songs like "Still Feeling Blue" and "Brass Buttons"- each one an encapsulation of self-affirmation in the face of self-pity, and a recasting of old tradition in new garb.
In the more than two decades since Parsons passed, country music hybrids, once relegated to the California-lite strummings and cynical outlook of The Eagles, have now sprouted everywhere. Uncle Tupelo has come and gone, Whiskeytown has mutated several times, and Emmylou Harris, once Parsons' backup singer, is herself considered a pioneer.
And so, here is a second tribute to Parsons (a first, 1993's Commemorotivo from Rhino, was issued before the modern explosion), packed with versions of his songs from some of the genre's best plus a few surprise guests. Compiled with Harris firmly at the wheel, "Return" mostly hews close to the originals. Emmylou and The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde turn in a beautiful version of "She," Elvis Costello rings in with a version of "Sleepless Nights" and former Byrd, Burrito Brother and Parsons collaborator Chris Hillman sings "High Fashion Queen" with Steve Earle. The Rolling Creekdippers - a consortium of Buddy and Julie Miller and Mark Olson and Victoria Williams and Jim Lauderdale - sing "In My Hour Of Darkness" and the similarities between Olsons' voice and Parsons' are eerie and yet appropriate. The highlight has to be Lucinda Williams' rendition of the title track, a poignant tale of hard-won happiness sung in a voice that knows just how hard it is to capture a real, live love. Only the Cowboy Junkies offer a version that differs vastly from the original with their haunting, techno-take on "Ooh, Las Vegas."
No matter. It just goes to show how Parsons' brief oeuvre, once thought to be a founding element of modern country, might just have what it takes to go the distance.