In the inaugural issue of No Depression -- a fanzine out of Seattle that has somehow grown to embody the genre of "insurgent country" -- the editors wrote: "We claim Gram Parsons as our unholy ghost, minister of the shotgun wedding of country and rock 'n' roll long before the Eagles crashed the reception." Not just a cornball tip of the cowboy hat, but an aesthetic and political stance -- which, for No Depression, is both remarkable and obvious. If Parsons didn't invent country rock (or a progressive, electrified country that happens outside of Nashville), he certainly went far in setting up its parameters. And apart from Los Angeles record executives in banana-colored Maseratis, who would ever want to claim the Eagles as a point of origin?
For those of you unfamiliar with Parsons, here's the thumbnail bio. A handsome, rich, fragile Southern boy raised dysfunctionally in Waycross, Georgia, Parsons went North to Harvard for college, then to Greenwich Village in the mid-Sixties to sing in the folk scene. He soon headed to L.A. to help engineer the country/rock crossover that was, thanks to Dylan's recent electrified folk, in many ways predestined. He played in the International Submarine Band, joined the Byrds for an album, formed the Flying Burrito Brothers with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman, then went solo for a couple of albums (with Emmylou Harris appearing for the first time as backup). In 1973, at the age of 26 and worn out from touring (and partying with Keith Richards), Parsons OD'd and died at Joshua Tree National Monument in California. Some friends stole his coffin from a Waycross-bound train and nearly got away with torching it in the desert.
Just when Parsons was on the cusp of fame (much to his chagrin, by all reports), he died. His following through the Seventies and early Eighties remained cultish: nasal-inflected collector-types shelling out the bucks for first-press vinyl and bootlegs, passing along in hushed tones the "ice cube up the butt" story. (If you haven't heard, ask your hippie aunt.) But his influence was enormous -- seen not just in the emergence of horrifying Hollywood cowpokes like Poco, but also in the first wave of disgruntled Nashville emigrants to Luchenbach -- er, Austin. By the time CD technology finally facilitated his re-releases and some of the long-rumored "previously unreleased," Parsons was finally getting his due as a trailblazer. And by now most alternacountry fans, as noted above, claim him as the figure who rescued the "white man's blues" (as alternacountry is too often, too quickly, called) from the bucktoothed reactionaries.
The Parsons legend must have turned into a minor moneymaker as well. In 1990 Columbia released a Byrds boxed set with several "lost" tracks featuring Parsons, and now it has reissued the final four Byrds albums individually (with even more "lost" tracks): The Notorious Byrds Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo (both from 1968); and 1969's Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde and Ballad of Easy Rider. While all of these albums show the Byrds in various, sometimes complicated, stages of late-Sixties collapse, Sweetheart is the album on which Parsons steps in for a just-fired David Crosby and sutures his love of sin and salvation to Roger McGuinn's psychedelic folkie jingle-jangle. Because of this (and because of Clarence White's oft-overlooked country guitar work), the album has a less dated feel than the others; as a cultural artifact, it's both interesting and pleasurable. The same cannot be said of the others. (I guess you had to be there.)
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Take the Louvin Brothers' waltz "I Like the Christian Life," a song originally included to introduce Byrds fans to (and probably brought to the studio by) Parsons, which, owing to recording-contract intricacies, was re-recorded with McGuinn on lead. What does one make of hippie maximalists paring back to a reliance on Spartan Appalachian harmonies? Of a fire-and-brimstone spiritual being sung by incense-burning bacchanals, sans smirk? Aside from a very pretty cover job, you're left with a reclamation of a prim, unyielding Jesus by the groovesters. Weird. One might think of it as penance proffered by the guilty lovemongers, an approach that even today, in these post-everything doldrums, extends beyond contrivance to remain psychologically complex and emotionally affecting. On the Sweetheart reissue, you get to hear Parsons doing it on a "lost" track (in rehearsal, take number eleven). Unfortunately, his version isn't a whole lot more tortured than McGuinn's, and neither rivals the creepy tone given to us by Ira and Charlie in the original -- which, granted, most of us wouldn't know about if not for Parsons's or the Byrds' boosterism.
Immediately following "I Like the Christian Life" comes William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water." What are we to make of a Memphis soul song originally released on Stax in 1961, then covered by an agonized Otis Redding in '65, now countrified with a pedal steel and a honky-tonk piano? A sympathetic hand extended across the racial divide (Stax was integrated to begin with) or the further appropriation of "race music"? Nestled between the Louvin Brothers and Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd" as it is, is "You Don't Miss Your Water" a call for a roots music/working-class solidarity made by entitled white kids -- one of whom (the trust-funder, Parsons) hailed from plantation aristocracy? All these questions, artfully posed 30 years ago about class, race, and various forms of interconnected American popular music, remain unanswered to this day.
"Life in Prison," a Merle Haggard cover, highlights Mr. Okie from Muskogee's sympathies with the condemned (as opposed to his baiting of the liberals or displaying his racial "insensitivities"). And most of the other material is similarly borrowed, including two lonesome Nashville country standards, two de-jangled Bob Dylan basement-tape tunes, and a "vintage"-style traditional by Hillman and McGuinn. "Hickory Wind" and "One Hundred Years from Now," the only original material on this album, were penned by Parsons himself. The former -- with its reduced instrumentation, plaintive minor-key steel, and Parsons's thin (at times frail) baritone -- highlights what country can do so much better than rock: render a nostalgia as fierce as the loneliness that causes it. In fact, when I listen to Parsons sing, here and even more so on his later work, I often become worried that he's going break into tears midtune, that the song will collapse and he'll be even more shamed and forlorn than he was when he started. "One Hundred Years from Now" still fosters an odd tension when it asks, "One hundred years from this day, will anybody change their mind and find out one thing or two about life?" The damned-to-hell soul of hillbilly finally squares off against rock's exuberant opportunism -- one of the reasons this album remains superior to so many "insurgent country" recordings that have arrived in its wake.
Thus it should come as no surprise that No Depression lays claim to Gram Parsons as its "unholy ghost" and to Sweetheart of the Rodeo as an originary alternacountry moment. Cut through the hero worship and it's essentially right. What's troubling is that a fanzine as celebrated as No Depression, a fanzine that has begun to stand in as a label for the hybridized genre it supports, seems incapable of doing anything but cheerleading. And often poorly. (Read the "stream-of-consciousness" review of Richard Buckner in issue No. 8 if you don't believe me.) Indeed, something we might describe as "insurgent country" is afoot: from Wilco, Son Volt, and OP8 to Freakwater and Palace. But where in the hell is the accompanying critical voice? Isn't this the reason for starting a fanzine in the first place? Is it to create a space for an unthinking defense of a contemporary art form or for the intelligent critique of an offering that is hackneyed, revivalist, dead? A space not only to promote a "movement," but to develop its aesthetics? (Or at the very least to declare a moratorium on bar-rock boogie?) Father Parsons, the "unholy ghost," certainly attempted as much in his day.