Gram Parsons is something of a golden inter-connector, a conduit between the worlds of country music and rock ’n’ roll. You can add folk music to the mix to, given his late teen years as a member of the Shilohs in South Carolina. Through the International Submarine Band, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons coalesced the various strands of roots music into the prototype of what we now call Americana music. In his own words he described it as “Cosmic American Music”.
Parsons was something of a latecomer to country music, only really falling under its spell when he discovered Merle Haggard while at Harvard University in the mid ‘60s. It clearly had an impact on him, shifting his musical sensibilities and widening his musical abilities. As a result he would pass the baton on to others, including reigniting Keith Richards’ interest in country music when the two of them became firm friends.
The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) and The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969) are absolute landmarks of country rock and they were the albums that gave Parsons the experience and confidence to step out under his own name with his two solo studio albums – GP (1973) and Grievous Angel.
Parsons’ first solo record was undeniably strong, featuring classic songs such as ‘A Song For You’ and ‘She’, and importantly, introducing Emmylou Harris as a backing singer. The success of their musical chemistry on that album, and on-stage, led to Harris being credited with lead vocals on Grievous Angel and as a songwriter on the devastating ‘In My Hour Of Darkness’. That decision to share the spotlight was crucial in elevating the album to the deserved status it now commands. The sound of their voices beautiful contrasting and harmonising, adding a depth and sensitivity that Parsons hadn’t previously reached on his recordings.
Grievous Angel is far from your standard singer-songwriter collection. There are songs from Parson’s mid-60s folksinger days (‘Brass Buttons’), ‘Hickory Wind’ had already been recorded with The Byrds, the lyrics of ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’ were by the Boston poet Thomas Brown, ‘I Can’t Dance’ was a Tom T. Hall classic and the mid-album medley of The Louvin Brothers’ ‘Cash on the Barrelhead’ and Parsons’s ‘Hickory Wind’ was a fake live recording with canned applause. Though it may have been a sign of the scarcity of original material at the time it also showed Parson’s magpie tendencies, drawing from all corners to corral his own style, embedding himself in a greatest hits compilation in his mind.
There are five songs in particular that are moments of pure genius on the album. Opening with ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’ Parsons sets the scene alongside Harris in a timeless Johnny and June country sway, complete with violin, pedal steel and the guitar of James Burton. The pair sing about the open roads and returning to the arms of a loved one, the song containing the immortal lines “Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels, and a good saloon in every single town”.
‘Hearts on Fire’ dials into a 60s feel with unflinching lyrics about a dead relationship, the magic coming in the way the pair sing with a sweet, sad melancholy, belying the weight of lines such as “My love has turned to hatred, sleep escapes me still, God, please take this heart of mine ’cause if you don’t the devil will.”
‘Brass Buttons’ has timeless classic written all over it. That intro piano melody, the heartache of the pedal steel and the sweet and soulful vocal delivery of Parsons. In it he presents vividly intimate details about the memory of a lover departed. It’s a delicate and perfectly composed song, one of Parsons’s finest and one that would be given a new lease of life with The Lemonheads’ excellent cover in 1990.
‘Love Hurts’ isn’t a Parsons song, it was written by Boudleaux Bryant and previously recorded by The Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison before Parsons and Harris put their stamp on it, stripping it of its pomp and overt drama and dialling into the soul and tenderness of the song. It clearly made a big impact on Harris as it became a staple of her live set and she would go on to re-record it twice for later solo albums.
The last song on the album, ‘In My Hour of Darkness’, is another towering highlight. Credited to both Parsons and Harris, it takes the record back to an authentic, almost hymnal honky tonk place where it’s hard, in hindsight, to separate the events that were about to unfold, from the in-memoriam/farewell styled lyrics, particularly of the middle verse:
“Another young man safely strummed his silver string 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.”
It was only a matter of weeks before Parsons would depart this mortal coil, dying of a morphine and alcohol overdose at the Joshua Tree Inn in California at just 26 years of age
In the wake of Parsons’s death, his widow Gretchen reportedly removed Harris from the front cover of the album (which was originally credited to “Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris” and featured a photograph of the two of them) and relegated her to a credit on the back cover. In doing so she also changed the album title from Parsons’s intended Sleepless Nights.
Grievous Angel was released posthumously a few months after Gram Parsons’s death, in early 1974.