Gram Parsons Discography
Gram Parsons Bibliography
Parsons contributed to Delaney & Bonnie, Motel Shot (Atco, 1971); Jesse Ed Davis, Jesse Ed Davis (Atco, 1971); Steve Young, Rock, Salt & Nails (A&M, 1971); and Fred Neil, The Other Side of This Life (Capitol, 1971). On the Fred Neil album, Parsons played piano and sang on "You Don't Miss Your Water," the William Bell track recorded on Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
According to Ben Fong-Torres, among the ten tracks recorded by Parsons according to A&M's logs, were the following tracks: his own song "Brass Buttons"; Roy Orbison's "Dream Baby"; Felice and Boudleaux Bryant's "Sleepless Nights," a song made famous by the Everly Brothers; Harlan Howard's "I Fall to Pieces," a hit for Patsy Cline; "She Thinks I Still Care" by George Jones; "White Line Fever" by Merle Haggard; and another version of Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman," earlier recorded on The Gilded Palace of Sin (A&M, 1969).*
Previous Stones albums:
The Rolling Stones had hit a creative impasse with the druggy Sgt. Pepper-isms of Their Satanic Majesties Request (Abkco, 1967). It was six months from the end of the Satanic sessions before the band began recording their next album, Beggar's Banquet (Abkco, 1968). The first track released from those sessions, "Jumpin' Jack Flash," announced their return to R&B, but it turned out the Stones had also been listening to blues and country music.
The Rolling Stones had always had a passing interest in country -- Keith Richards lists Roy Rogers as one of his first musical heroes, and the Stones had covered Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On" way back on December's Children (and Everybody's) (Abkco, 1965). That song was arranged as an R&B number, but "Sittin' On a Fence," recorded later that year, had an acoustic-country feel to it.
Still, shortly after the Beggar's Banquet sessions ended in June '68, Jagger told Rolling Stone, "There are a couple country tunes [on Banquet ] 'cause we've always liked country.... Keith has always been country. That's what his scene was. We still think of country songs as a bit of a joke I'm afraid. We don't really know anything about country music really, we're just playing games. We aren't really into it enough to know."*
Despite Jagger's dismissive comments, Beggar's Banquet contains several countrified numbers, none of which sound like throwaways: "Dear Doctor," "No Expectations," and "Factory Girl."
The sessions for that album lasted from March to June of 1968, before Parsons started giving the Stones country music lessons after leaving the Byrds in July. Thus, Parsons doesn't deserve credit for the Stones' return from psychedelia to roots music.
The lessons began in earnest when the Stones came to LA for two months in late '68 to mix down the Banquet tracks. Parsons took them down to the Palomino and played them George Jones albums. This period may have contributed to a few of the country touches added to Banquet during the mixing phase.
Jagger allowed in an interview that Gram Parsons was "one of the few people who really helped me sing country music. Before that, Keith and I would just copy off records."*
The Parsons influence shows up on their next LP, Let It Bleed (Abkco, 1969). "You Got the Silver" dates from the Banquet sessions, but "Country Honk" is post-Parsons. He may or may not have contributed the arrangement, as he claimed once, but he definitely recommended fiddler Byron Berline. "Let It Bleed" features faux-country vocals, autoharp, and some nice honky-tonk piano from Ian Stewart. Other tracks feature sometime original Burritos Leon Russell and Bobby Keys.
By Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones, 1971) the Stones had incorporated country thoroughly into their menu of musical styles. "Dead Flowers" is the only bona fide country song, but country touches appear in "Sway," "Wild Horses," and "Sister Morphine" as well.
(The Stones sent a demo of "Wild Horses" to Parsons in the hopes that Sneaky Pete Kleinow could add some steel guitar to it. When Parsons heard it, he begged the Stones to let him cover it. They agreed, and the song appeared on Burrito Deluxe (A&M, 1970).)
The Parsons influence peaked with Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones, 1972), but persisted even after his death -- listen to "Faraway Eyes" on Some Girls (Rolling Stones, 1978), for example. More recently, Jagger essayed a spot-on Parsons drawl for his guest vocal on "The Long Black Veil," title track of the Chieftains' 1995 album.
Several other musicians:
Other musicians who played on GP (Reprise, 1973) were drummers John Guerin (who drummed with the Byrds briefly in 1973) and Sam Goldstein; bassist John Conrad; pedal steel guitarist Buddy Emmons (the Dillards, Judy Collins, Sandy Denny, Everly Brothers); and pianist Harold Battiste on sax (one of Phil Spector's regular session men). Nominal producer Rick Grech also played bass on several numbers.
To read about the last days of Gram Parsons and the Burritos, see The Flying Burrito Brothers: 1969-1970. Or to skip back to his tenure with the Byrds, see Gram Parsons and the Byrds: 1968.
The Lost Album:
In the summer of 1970, Gram Parsons fell in with Terry Melcher. Like Parsons, Melcher was a charismatic young guy with a major self-destructive streak and a ready supply of money with which to indulge it. The two spent much of their time together, getting high and fiddling with songs. In June 1970, Parsons contributed faint backing vocals to "All the Things" on the Byrds' (Untitled), (which Melcher produced). (Later that year he contributed to LPs by several friends.)
That summer, Melcher pitched a solo Parsons album to Jerry Moss of A&M, with Melcher as producer. Despite A&M's history of trouble with Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Moss bit. In retrospect, the sessions seem promising. With a first-rate group of musicians that included guitarists Clarence White and Ry Cooder, and pianist Earl "Les" Ball, Parsons recorded ten tracks, most of them covers.
Before long, Parsons's abuse of cocaine, downers and booze became too much even for Melcher. Frustrated at the lack of progress on the project, Melcher abandoned the album, and A&M pulled the plug on it. In October, Parsons signed out the master tapes for these sessions; they have not been seen or heard since.
Up and Down with the Rolling Stones:
Luckily, Parsons had an ace-in-the-hole, or so he believed. Keith Richards had been receptive to the idea of producing a Parsons album for the band's new label, Rolling Stones Records. With his young girlfriend Gretchen Burrell, Parsons moved to London. Parsons spent most of his time with Richards, listening to country music, playing songs together, and getting high. By this time both musicians were using heroin.
When the Stones mounted a farewell tour of England in early 1971, Parsons went along; when the Stones became tax exiles and moved to the Riviera, Parsons followed. Richards rented an estate called Nellcôte in Villefranche, a coastal town between Nice and Monaco, and Parsons was his houseguest for weeks on end. In order to accommodate Richards's increasing heroin addiction, the Stones set up a recording studio in the basement of Nellcôte and used it for all the sessions that would become Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones, 1972).
The Parsons influence on Exile seems more pronounced than on previous Stones albums. "Sweet Virginia," "Torn and Frayed," even "Tumbling Dice" show the influence of the country music Parsons had been playing for Richards. Associates of Parsons like saxman Bobby Keys (one of the original original Burritos) and Al Perkins appear on the LP. And although he isn't credited, Parsons later claimed to have contributed backing vocals to "Sweet Virginia." (The backing vocals aren't distinct enough to say for sure if he's right.)
Exile on Main Street remains the Rolling Stones' finest hour. Keith Richards gives Parsons a small share of the credit: the country-influenced songs "wouldn't have been around if it weren't for Gram."*
Notwithstanding any positive musical influence he may have exerted and the fact that he paid for his own drugs, Parsons wore out his welcome after several weeks. Jagger had become jealous of the friendship between Parsons and Richards, but the real problem was Parsons's intake of drugs and alcohol. His excesses made him more trouble than he was worth, even for Richards. Having severely tested the limits of the Stones' hospitality, he and Gretchen Burrell returned to the States -- no closer to recording a solo LP for Rolling Stones Records than when he left.
Soon after their return, the two were married in New Orleans, where step-father Bob Parsons hosted the small ceremony at his home. The wedding was nothing like the grandiose Hank Williams-style nuptials Parsons had dreamed of with Nancy Ross.
In the fall of 1971, Parsons called Chris Hillman, still with the Flying Burrito Brothers. The two arranged for Parsons to appear with the Burritos at a concert in College Park, Maryland. Hillman also insisted that while Parsons was in the area, he should go check out a woman folksinger that Rick Roberts and Kenny Wertz had discovered in a Washington D.C. club. Hillman thought she would make a great duet partner with Parsons. Her name was Emmylou Harris.
Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris:
Parsons and his new wife went to check out Harris at a tiny club called Clyde's in D.C. Only three other people were there to see her, and her repertoire was mostly folk music with only a hint of country. Still, Parsons was immediately impressed by the beauty of her voice. He joined her for the second set, then they repaired to a friend's house and he sang with her some more.
"Chris Hillman was so enthusiastic when he told me about Emmylou that I just had to go and see her... and I was knocked out by her singing. I wanted to see just how good she was, how well she picked up country phrasing and feeling, so after her set... I introduced myself, and we sang one of the hardest country duets I know -- 'That's All It Took.' Emmy sang it like she was falling off a log."* As the night ended, he assured her he wanted her to sing on his solo album, which his friend Keith Richards would produce.
Parsons went back to Los Angeles. The first thing he did was line up a manager: Eddie Tickner. Tickner had managed the Burritos, though his tenure began only a few months before Parsons got himself fired. Still, he had a reputation as an honest manager and was well-connected in the music business. Tickner checked up on the possibility of recording for Rolling Stones Records and soon concluded that it was unlikely to happen. He got Parsons an interview with Mo Ostin of Warner/Reprise Records, who had tried to sign the Burritos back in '68; soon Parsons had a contract with Reprise.
Tickner's attorney also worked for one of Parsons's idols, Merle Haggard. Parsons stayed a few days at Haggard's Bakersfield home. After they got to know each other a bit, Haggard agreed to produce a Gram Parsons solo album. Almost immediately, problems arose: Haggard's wife left him. Later Parsons also spoke of their different styles of working. Whatever the reason, Haggard did not produce the album.
Instead, Parsons hired Haggard's engineer, Hugh Davies, to serve in the same capacity for his album. As producer, Parsons brought in a friend from England, Rick Grech. Parsons had met Grech when the Sweetheart Byrds were in England; at that time Grech was the bassist in British prog-rock group Family. The two had stayed in touch, and over time Parsons had turned Grech on to country. In fact, Grech had played a bit with Ian Dunlop of the International Submarine Band (and the original original Burritos) after Dunlop returned to England in '69.
Almost a year after first meeting her, Parsons finally sent a plane ticket to Emmylou Harris. He likewise sent for his old pal Barry Tashian, leader of the Remains and another of the original original Burritos. For the rest of his backing group, Parsons wanted Elvis Presley's band -- he had been a great fan of Elvis in his teens, and like many, rediscovered the King through his 1968 comeback special. Tickner got in touch with Glen D. Hardin, the keyboardist and music director of Presley's Las Vegas TCB Band. Hardin and the other Presley sidemen did sessions often, so Parsons was able to sign him up, along with drummer Ronnie Tutt, and guitar whiz James Burton. Parsons, Harris, Tashian and the three Presley musicians formed the core of the band on GP (Reprise, 1973), though several other musicians also appear, including post-Parsons Flying Burrito Brothers Al Perkins, Byron Berline and Alan Munde.
The sessions took place in September and October of 1972, and they went well, with Parsons on good behavior so as not to embarass himself in front of Elvis's band. He had managed to hire such great musicians that they needed little guidance from him: Emmylou Harris mostly worked out her own harmonies by ear, and Hardin and the band arranged most of the tracks spontaneously. Rick Grech was put out of commission by a kidney stone on the first day of recording, so engineer Hugh Davies and Parsons did most of the production.
The album featured six Parsons tunes: "Still Feeling Blue," "A Song for You," "She" (co-written with Chris Ethridge), "The New Soft Shoe," "How Much I've Lied" (co-written with David Rivkin, who was miscredited as "Pam Rifkin"), and "Big Mouth Blues." The covers were eclectic. "Kiss the Children" was by Grech; "Cry One More Time" came from Peter Wolf and Seth Justman of the J. Geils Band. The real highlights of the album are the country covers, though. "That's All It Took" is a song co-written by George Jones, which Jones sang as a duet in 1962 with Margie Singleton, then redid in 1965 with pop crooner Gene Pitney. "Streets of Baltimore" is the second Parsons cover of a Harlan Howard song, this one co-written by Tompall Glaser and made famous by Bobby Bare. Best of all is "We'll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning," a slippin' around song written by Joyce Allsup and recorded in 1969 by Carl and Pearl Butler.
The album was a return to form for Parsons. Emmylou Harris's crystalline harmonies perfectly complemented the heartfelt but sometimes wobbly tenor of Parsons. The band found a sound that hearkened back to the late '50s, when artists like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers routinely crossed the border between country and rock and roll.
Despite the quality of the album, the enthusiastic reviews from many critics, and the huge success of such Parsons-influenced acts as the Eagles and Poco in the two years since Burrito Deluxe (A&M, 1970), GP was a commercial failure. Two singles were released, "She" and "Cry One More Time," to indifference from both rock and country audiences.
The story of Gram Parsons continues in Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris: 1972-1973.
Ten tracks: Fong-Torres, Hickory Wind at 150.
"...[I]f it weren't for Gram." Fong-Torres, Hickory Wind at 159.
"...[A] bit of a joke..." Cott & Clark at 167.
"...[R]eally helped me to sing country... Quoted in Fong-Torres, Hickory Wind at 159.
"...[L]ike falling off a log. Quoted in Frame at 36.
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