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Gram Parsons

The Gram Parsons Anthology: Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels – 2001 (Rhino)

Reviewed by Joel Bernstein

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CDs by Gram Parsons

Gram Parsons hated having his music called country rock. His dream was to create real country music that would please both mainstream country audiences and rock audiences (and even R&B audiences, since he also injected a dose of classic soul into his music). His singing - heavy on passion but lacking in all the things mass audiences need - precluded him from ever being more than a cult figure. In Emmylou Harris he found the perfect vehicle for his vision. Her angelic voice was able to satisfy country fans of all stripes and get played on album rock stations as well. How times have changed!

Parsons might be in tears if he saw how rigidly compartmentalized the music world has become. Harris' music is barely known to a new generation. Like most of the newer artists who, with varying degrees of justification, cite Parsons as their guru, Harris has been herded to the small radio ghetto called Americana to quietly live out her artistic days.

The link between Parsons and Harris led to this pair of two-disc sets on the same day, even though the artists are very different in their impact and sound. The Parsons set skips over his early folk and rock records that some other packages start with, and picks up with the International Submarine Band album (including one previously unreleased track from those sessions) - now considered groundbreaking but barely heard in its day. It follows him through The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Fallen Angels and his solo albums, with Harris featured prominently on the later recordings. Parsons wrote fine songs and had a great ear for quality material and cohorts. But this package can't hide, and sometimes seems to emphasize, that he wasn't much of a singer in any respect other than pure emotion. Given the almost robotic sound of many popular singers even in Parsons' day, but more so today, passion counts for a lot - but it's not everything. When he goes up against a song like The Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," Parsons is as overmatched as a little leaguer batting against Pedro Martinez. To be fair, the worst tracks were never released in his lifetime, and maybe they would have stayed buried if he'd lived longer.