What of the claims that are now made for Sweetheart Of The Rodeo? Clinton Heylin: “I know that Rolling Stone in 1968 had a whole cover story on country-rock based on Sweetheart, maybe the Band’s Music From Big Pink, and certainly Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, which really was the first true country-rock album (leaving aside Moby Grape). Of course, the problem with Sweetheart is that it’s pretty lame, certainly compared with the first Burritos album. It’s redeemed by a handful of tracks but it never works as a cogent whole. In this, it truly is a Byrds album, none of which satisfy me from beginning to end – hence, the reason why they’re not the American Beatles, or even the best band in LA.”
Roger McGuinn says, “Gram was going to do the leads but there was a contractual problem with the company that he had been signed to and so we put my vocal on another track and used those. The threat of a law suit went away and so we were able to use his again.” But not for some years. Gram’s original lead vocals were not wiped. They were issued on the 4-CD box set, The Byrds (1990), while some rehearsals were featured on the enhanced CD of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1997).
The tapes reveal how faithful McGuinn had been to Parsons’ intentions, right down to duplicating his drawl on The Christian Life although McGuinn’s is more tongue in cheek. I prefer McGuinn’s vocals but then I have always loved his voice. Of more interest are the outakes: Tim Hardin’s You Got A Reputation, Gram Parsons’ Lazy Days, an instrumental All I Have Is Memories and the traditional Pretty Polly. Although Johnny Rogan is excited as you can now play the album in two forms – the original release and the Parsons mix – there is not much difference.
The Byrds were scheduled to play European dates in May 1968. Sweetheart Of The Rodeo had not been released and Pete Frame, who has prepared Rock Family Trees of the Byrds and Gram Parsons, recalls, “The Byrds played to a full house at London’s underground club, Middle Earth, which was housed in a cellar in King Street, Covent Garden, and the line-up was McGuinn, Hillman, Kelley and Parsons. Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull came in to witness the gig and were assisted to the front by a minder. Gram was wearing a translucent silky, black shirt and he sat at an electric piano for most of the gig. He played acoustic guitar now and then. He sang lead on several songs, but sang harmony on most, and he left all the talking to McGuinn and Hillman. Also in the line-up – though only on the numbers which suited the banjo – was Doug Dillard. They played past favourites plus a whole tranche of country numbers, which neither I nor most of the audience were expecting. In 1968, country & western was a backwater style as far as most British rock fans were concerned. The Notorious Byrd Brothers, which I consider to be one of the greatest albums ever released, had only just come out and they appeared to have changed their style completely since then.”
When Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was released, it only made No 77 on the US album charts and did even less business here. However, You Ain’t Going Nowhere did make the UK Top 50, the only record with Gram Parsons to do so. A few months later, country-rock would be in full swing with Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline which had a guest appearance from Johnny Cash. Roger McGuinn reflects, “We were just experimenting: we were doing what we felt like doing. We weren’t thinking in terms of trends, but maybe we were receiving what was in the air at the time, a subconscious thing. Lots of people were doing the same sort of thing including Bob Dylan, but I wasn’t in touch with him at the time and we never discussed anything. Some people thought he was going mad when he did those country things, but I think it was a good direction and he was doing good stuff.”
In July, the Byrds were back in London for a show at the Royal Albert Hall, and it was to be followed by dates in South Africa. Miriam Makeba had been encouraged the tour as she thought that American musicians should see how bad the racism was. On the day after the Albert Hall concert, Parsons refused to leave his hotel room. Roger McGuinn reflects, “I thought Gram would leave the Byrds, but I didn’t expect him to go so suddenly and the reason why he went was not exactly honest. He said that he was upset over apartheid and going to South Africa, which was not the truth. He was fully aware of where we were going and that our contract called for us to play for mixed audiences in South Africa. We weren’t taking sides on the racial issue and, in fact, we were trying to help out. The reason for him staying in London was because he wanted to be with Mick and Keith, and anybody who knew him will tell you that.”
Both McGuinn and Hillman were furious at Gram leaving the Byrds, particularly because he simply wanted to stay with the Rolling Stones. The Byrds went to South Africa without him and their roadie, Carlos Bernal learnt Gram’s parts for the tour. The press coverage had such headlines as “The Byrds Say South Africa Is Sick, Backwards And Rude”. The audiences gave them catcalls and they left following drugs charges. The authorities impounded their money and said that they would have to face the magistrate first.
To make matters worse, in October 1968, the Byrds discovered that their manager had not been keeping the books correctly. Totally disillusioned, Chris Hillman left the band, but he, once again, became friends with Gram Parsons and they planned their next move together.
Cosmic American Music
Back in Los Angeles, Gram Parsons wanted to form a group that would encompass country, soul, gospel and rock, which he would call not country-rock but “cosmic American music”. He shared his concept with Chris Hillman and they found they could write together. “It developed that way,” says Hillman today, “but at that point Graham was a pretty normal kid. He was focused, ambitious and disciplined and he was good to work with. We wrote some great songs together.”
Chris and Gram had both separated from their partners which gave their songs an edge. David Crosby’s girlfriend, Christine from the GTO’s had been teasing them about their relationships and they wrote a song, Christine’s Tune, in retaliation, a lively song with a Bo Diddley beat. Taking a joke name for Las Vegas, they wrote Sin City, and Hillman put in references to the Byrds’ manager, Larry Spector, who did have an office on the 31st floor. When Gram received his call-up papers, he wrote about Uncle Sam in My Uncle, the references to his family in the first verse being double-edged. In the event, he was able to call upon his stepfather to free him from this.
Their most covered songs has been Wheels. Chris Hillman: “Graham had a motorcycle accident and he limped home with his BSA, an English bike, as he couldn’t ride it. We wrote this song Wheels: (sings) ‘We all have wheels to take ourselves away.’ It’s a funny little song but there is some relevance to it. There are some interesting innuendoes in that song but I would leave them for the listeners to decipher. I never tell anybody what a song’s about. It’s like a painter having to tell a viewer what the paintings are about. The listeners can work it out for themselves!”
The original Flying Burrito Brothers were no longer in town and so they purloined the name. They were joined by the bass player Chris Ethridge, who had played on Safe At Home, and he told Gram that he had two new melodies. Gram supplied lyrics about his relationships: Hot Burrito No.1 (also known as I’m Your Toy) is about Nancy Ross. Hot Burrito No.2 is equally poignant and the Burritos’ record has Gram’s best-ever vocal.
Parsons, Hillman and Ethridge were joined by the steel player, Sneaky Pete Kleinow and, after some trial and errors, the drummer Jon Corneal. One potential drummer had fallen to the floor stoned during a take on their record sessions. I wouldn’t have thought that Parsons would have held this against him, but apparently he did.
Their first album for A&M, The Gilded Palace Of Sin, sounds like a companion to the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo but Hillman doesn’t really agree. “Sort of, but all in all, these groups are like one big, incestuous family.” The album has more of a rock feel, possibly emanating from Parsons’ time with the Rolling Stones. There are two soul music covers – James Carr’s Dark End Of The Street and Aretha Franklin’s Do Right Woman – Do Right Man, the latter with harmonies from David Crosby.
By February 1969, the Byrds only had McGuinn left from Sweetheart, and he had added Clarence White, John York and Gene Parsons. Their Live At The Fillmore – February 1969 is mostly a country music set. Bob Dylan had gone country with Nashville Skyline, which included Lay Lady Lay, and any number of bands was following the same route including Poco. Johnny Rogan: “Dylan is always ahead of the pack and I don’t think that he would know there was a bandwagon to jump on.” Peter Doggett agrees, “It is possible that he was influenced by Sweetheart Of The Rodeo but it is more likely that he was simply ploughing his own furrow and anyway, he loved country music.”
The Burritos went one better than the Byrds as Gram used his allowance to purchase tailormade unique country outfits from Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors. Ever since he came to Hollywood, Gram had been intrigued by the shop and he and Nudie had become friends. He had loved Hank Williams’ suit embroidered with musical notes and noticed how they had become more outlandish and elaborate with Faron Young and Porter Wagoner. None, however, had told their life story on their clothes, but you can summarise Gram Parsons in just one picture – a photograph of Gram in his Nudie suit. As with Rod Steiger in The Illustrated Man, that suit tells the story of his life and, as it happens, his death. There are marijuana plants down the trouser legs, pills on the shoulders, a naked girl on the lapels, a gaudy cross on the back, as well as desert motifs and burning flames. On the surface, Gram embraced country music fashion, but his suit was not what country stars were wearing. The suit was designed more to alienate true country fans than turn them on.
The Gilded Palace Of Sin has an outstanding cover – four guys in Nudie suits and a couple of very tasty girls standing by a shed in the middle of nowhere. When I first looked at the picture, I knew there was no chance being there but it was where I wanted to be. The band and the girls are in the desert at Joshua Tree and this bleak landscape of rocks, shrubs and cacti held a fascination for Gram. In an interview, he said it was like being in another world, and he knew more about that feeling than most. Gram once went with Keith Richards to the vast and quiet desert to look for UFOs – says it all, really.
The Flying Burrito Brothers toured the US by train, effectively booked in wherever there was work. Sometimes they shared the bill with Three Dog Night and sometimes with the Beatles’ film, Magical Mystery Tour. Their stage performances were erratic, largely depending on Gram was feeling that night. There is a clip of Gram singing a highly emotional version of George Jones’ She Once Lived Here on the Fallen Angel DVD, and I wish the whole show had been a DVD extra. Such promising musicians as Bernie Leadon, Glenn Frey and J D Souther, would see the shows. “They were thinking, ‘We could do this but better’,” says Hillman, and the resulting Longbranch Pennywhistle became, three years further on, the Eagles. On their return to Los Angeles, the Burritos made a single, The Train Song, which was produced by Larry Williams and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson.
Al Perkins, who later played in the Burritos and also with Gram, comments, “The Burritos were definitely playing for the rock crowds. We played a lot of universities when I was with them and did some package tours to 1,500 to 2,500 seaters. I don’t think they’d have gone down too well with Roy Acuff’s audience, although they fancied themselves as being in the country music vein, and the Nudie suits were part of that.” A good example of the Burritos’ dilemma would be Hippie Boy, which questions the sincerity of so many country narrations. Chris Hillman does the narration and the backing vocalists include the GTO’s.
Rolling Stones biographer, Stanley Booth: “I was born in Waycross, Georgia and for a long time I thought that Gram was also born in Waycross. He was actually born a few miles away in north Florida. He lived in a neighbourhood close to mine and he went to junior high at a place where my mother taught, although she didn’t teach him. I’d done a review of his first album with the Burritos and I was in the house where Bill and Charlie were staying. Mick and Keith came into the room with this tall and tanned feller with blond frosting and wearing a celestial country outfit. He was just glowing, a radiant personality, and I thought later he was probably like Brian Jones before his deterioration, so that appealed to them. I suddenly realised that it was Gram Parsons and here were two boys from Waycross, Georgia up in the Hollywood hills with the Rolling Stones. I came to love Gram and he was a very dear person. He would drop little lines on me, and I have to think about each one of them as they were portents.”
Both the Rolling Stones and Gram Parsons gained from their friendship. The Stones learnt a lot about country music, although Keith Richards says on the Fallen Angel DVD that they had written Wild Horses before they met Gram. Although Gram was not involved in the sessions for their 1972 album, Exile On Main Street, his influence can be heard on Sweet Virginia and Torn And Frayed in which Mick and Keith come to terms with a rock star’s addiction. Strangely, there is no evidence of any drug busts during Parsons’ life. At the time of his death, the drugs were associated with a rock lifestyle, but we now know that Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and many others also took them to excess.
The Flying Burrito Brotheres opened for the Rolling Stones at the free Altamont festival in December 1969 and they can be seen in the concert film, Gimme Shelter. The festival was a disaster as the Stones had employed Hell’s Angels as security guards and the cameras caught them stabbing someone to death. The Burritos are an oasis of calm in the film and Gram was on form that night. Gram Parsons did not often wear his Nudie suit on stage but he did take to feather boas after seeing Dottie West and prancing around like Mick Jagger. He was losing the plot.
Inevitably, the line-up of the band would change. Sid Grffin: “The old blues men and women have a history of alcoholism but those west coast harmony groups have inter-band histories of strife – the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Bangles, the Mamas and the Papas – they all have honey-laden vocals but you wouldn’t want them to show up at your party. Those young 25-year-olds were always on the move and I could never understand why this happened. Go figure.”
The Burritos lost Chris Ethridge and Jon Corneal and their replacements were Bernie Leadon and Michael Clarke from the Byrds. The result was Burrito Deluxe, which was released in March 1970. It wasn’t another Gilded Palace Of Sin, but it had its moments. The Rolling Stones had sent Wild Horses to Sneaky Pete Kleinow to overdub a steel guitar. The Burritos loved the song and the Stones allowed the band not only to record the song, but also to release it before them. Their six minute version was excellent but surprisingly long for a country-styled band. The album also included their single, Cody Cody, which sounded like the Byrds. Their version of Bob Dylan’s If You Gotta Go, Go Now is taken too fast and lacks Manfred Mann’s humour.
Some outtakes have appeared on compilations of which the best is Gram’s lead vocal on the Bee Gees’ To Love Somebody. Often the Burritos’ covers were not too strong and it is self-evident why they were not issued at the time. Both Merle Haggard and the Everly Brothers did Sing Me Back Home considerably better.
Predictably, Gram Parsons was being distracted from advancing his career through the Flying Burrito Brothers. As well as drinking and drugging to excess, he had a 16-year-old girlfriend, Gretchen Burrell, and a Harley-Davidson plus his friendship with the Stones. One night Jagger ordered him out of the studio to do his show. He married Gretchen at his stepfather’s house in New Orleans. In Feburary 1970, he was out riding with John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and his bike fell apart at 50mph with Gram being thrown over the handlebars. He spent several weeks in hospital and the band realised that they might be better off without him. One night in June 1970, he turned up just before he was due on stage and launched into a ballad while the rest of them were playing a rocker. Chris Hillman told him that enough was enough and fired him. His replacement was the highly competent Rick Roberts, but the band lost its impetus once Gram had gone.
Another country-rock band, Poco, made Gram an offer but he preferred to spend his time with Keith Richards. Keith wanted to make a solo album with him but that didn’t happen. Gretchen, who was making the Roger Vadim film Pretty Maids All In A Row with Rock Hudson and Angie Dickinson, sent flowers to the band but they froze in the hold of the aircraft, hence their song Dead Flowers. The film did moderately well, despite its ludicrous plot. Hudson plays a school football coach who has affairs with several pupils and kills them so they won’t tell. The nudity was the selling factor.
From time to time, Gram helped out at record sessions and he can be heard on Steve Young’s Rock, Salt And Nails, Jesse Davis and Delaney and Bonnie’s Motel Shot. He also sings Ya Don’t Miss The Water with Fred Neil on Neil’s album, The Other Side Of This Life. Whilst with the Byrds, Gram had suggested an arrangement of the gospel song, Jesus Is Just Alright which the Byrds recorded on the album, Ballad Of Easy Rider.
And from time to time, Gram would rejoin the Burritos for a date or two. Al Perkins had joined on steel guitar and recalls, “When we were touring in the South, Gram came to see us and he sat in that night and he paid me a compliment. He said that if I had been in the group, he might still be there. He called me later to work with him and Emmylou when they did the two albums.”
“Out with the truckers and the kickers and and the cowboy angels”
Doris Day’s son, Terry Melcher, had produced the Byrds and his mother, Doris Day. He told A&M that, with his help, they could recoup their investment in Parsons. He described Parsons as “the white country Hendrix” and he booked Ry Cooder, Clarence White and Spooner Oldham for the sessions. The intention was to make an album which would be a homage to Gram’s country heroes, but Gram cut new songs alongside I Fall To Pieces, Family Bible, She Thinks I Still Care and Dream Baby.
Unfortunately, Melcher, by all accounts a really nice guy, had become as unhinged as Parsons. He had become paranoid since his friendship with Charles Manson as he realised how close he had come to death. Both Parsons and Melcher were drinking and drugging and at one session, Parsons vomited over the piano while Melcher slept at the console.
In March 1971 Gram and Gretchen went to London to hang out with the Stones. Terry Melcher came over with the tapes for some overdubbing, but nothing was completed, or if it was, it was never released. However, Parsons had lost interest as there was talk of him recording for Rolling Stones Records. He became addicted to heroin and one night he was so out of it that he attempted suicide.
Whilst Gram was in London, he went to see the doctor, Sam Hutt. “I was brought up on R&B really and the only countryish thing in my life was the Everly Brothers, and I didn’t see them as country at all. When I met Gram, I still didn’t really like country music but he brought his wife with him and he picked up my guitar and sang You’re Still On My Mind, which was on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Now, I loved the Byrds but I had not bought that album because it was too country for me. When I heard him sing it, it got to my soul and I became excited and I was a convert. I packed in my private practice and became Hank Wangford.”
Around September 1971, the couple stayed in Cornwall with Ian Dunlop from the International Submarine Band and Gram proposed to Gretchen. They were married on their return to America, the ceremony being in New Orleans where Gram’s stepfather, Bob, held a party for the couple. The minister was the Harvard professor who had sent him down from Harvard. Not everything went as well as planned as Gram and Gretchen were thrown off Bob’s boat when drugs were discovered.
Gram returned to LA and put on weight by giving up drugs and sticking to alcohol. In 1972, Gram wrote to a friend, “My feeling is that there is no boundary between types of music. I see only two types of sound – good ones and bad ones.” By now, he had the idea of recording country duets with a female voice.
Here Chris Hillman and Rick Roberts could help him out. In October 1971, they heard a young female in Washington DC, Emmylou Harris, and told Gram about her. He was guesting with the Burritos at the time and went to hear her. Emmylou Harris had been looking for a break for some years: “Washington is a wonderful town for music: there are a lot of college students there and there is a real interest in music. You could really work on who you were and what you did. You didn’t make a lot of money but certainly it was as much money as I could make waiting on tables and with the help of my parents caring my infant daughter, I was able to establish some sort of name for myself around the club circuit. I could make $100 a week which would pay the rent and pay the groceries and it was playing at one of those clubs that Gram first heard me.” They found that they could harmonise perfectly together, and Gram introduced her to the music of the Louvin Brothers.
The Burritos’ manager, Eddie Tickner, arranged a deal with Reprise for an album to be produced by Merle Haggard. James Burton: “I was working with Merle Haggard, and Merle called me and asked me about Gram Parsons. Gram and I worked together on the Byrds records, that is where I first met him, and Merle called me and said, ‘Do you know this guy Gram Parsons?’ I said, ‘Yes’, and he said, ‘Is he an okay singer?’ I said, ‘He’s a real good country singer’, and Merle asked if I would be interested in co-producing a record with him, and I said, ‘Sure’, and nothing happened. Then a couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from Gram and he jumped through the phone and he said, ‘Man, I got a record deal with Warner Brothers.’”
In June 1972, Gram and Gretchen returned to London and worked with Ric Grech of Family and Blind Faith on a solo album. They stayed on his farm in Sussex and Parsons invited Grech to produce the album. By then, Bernie Leadon had become part of the Eagles and they had created an ultra-commercial version of the Byrds and the Burritos: effectively, country music for people who didn’t like country music. The Eagles were being feted, but Gram’s comment was “Life is tougher than that.”
Back on the west coast, Gretchen insisted that they leave their rented bungalow at Chateau Marmont and move to Laurel Canyon. She thought that this could help Gram to shake off his drugs habit and judging by the picture of Chateau Marmont in Wired: The Short Life And Fast Times Of John Belushi, this was a sensible move. Gram told Reprise that he wanted Elvis Presley’s band for his album and they told him to use his own money. And that’s just what he did. (There is a reference to Gram meeting up with the King in Return To The Grievous Angel, although he did not write the lyric.)
In August 1972 Gram went to see Elvis Presley at the Hilton International and he asked his accompanying musicians, Glen D Hardin, James Burton and Ronnie Tutt, if they would like to work on his album. They agreed. Unfortunately, the lifestyle had now got the better of his voice, which was sounding desperate and frail. Just listen to the way he sings A Song For You.
Emmylou Harris had never sung harmony before, but she soon picked up what was required: “We never worked anything out: we just sat down and sang. Gram never told me to sing one note or another, sometimes he might say, ‘At the end of the song, instead of going up high, let’s go down low.’ We did that on We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning, but we never really worked on anything. He would start singing and I would jump in. I discovered a natural affinity for harmonies and the fact that I was so unschooled meant that I didn’t choose one particular note just because it was correct or because it was the third above or the baritone or the tenor part. I just looked on it as another melody.”
The album features some great ballads (She, A Song For You, The New Soft Shoe), an excellent cover of Streets Of Baltimore and some good rockers including the J Geils Band’s Cry One More Time. By and large, his songs such as Kiss The Children have similar qualities to the covers. The highlights are the duets with Emmylou on That’s All It Took and We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning. Emmylou was paid $500 for her work on the album.
Gram’s biographer, Sid Griffin, recalls, “Gram Parsons is this icon that people mention in interviews but 25 years ago when I was student at the University of South Carolina, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons with his solo work, were hip young Southerners that were nonetheless against the Vietnam war and played country and western music with a rock’n’roll attitude. They were the only people to be doing that and it hit a responsive chord with other hip young Southerners, if I may be so vain. If you were searching for something that wasn’t English like the Who or the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and wasn’t straight country like Porter Wagoner, someone I love now, a good meeting point in the middle ground was Gram Parsons.”