Gram Parsons: The Godfather of Americana

Given everything that “Americana” has turned out to be, Gram Parsons’ legacy is not just deserved, but overdue. Everything he touched helped nurture a genre that has become a mainstay not just in North America, but throughout the world. He fronted The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, demonstrating a fragility that impressed Rolling Stones’ songwriter Keith Richards immensely. Parsons created an act that was as much focused on his voice as it was on the guitar underneath.

Sweetheart of The Rodeo featured one of his most impressive compositions, “One Hundred Years from Now”, which featured Roger McGuinn on second vocal. Parsons was an integral member of The Byrds to the public, although McGuinn and Chris Hillman considered him to be more of a session player, and paid him accordingly. (Hillman stated that the reasons were purely pragmatic; “..that was the only way we could get him to turn up.”)

But listening to the album now, it’s easy to discern a certain admiration from the band towards the more spontaneous singer now performing up-front. His time with The Byrds came to an end, inspired in part by a conversation he enjoyed with Mick Jagger concerning the band’s forthcoming tour in South Africa.

Never one to sit idly by, he carried on this passion for country music with The Flying Burrito Brothers, a band that melded gospel with folk, blues, and some strands of rock ‘ n ‘ roll. The Gilded Palace of Sin was released in 1969, at a time when folk was pivoting in a number of interesting directions, yet its influence was assured, such was the commitment to the vocal performances and guitar arpeggios.

The occasionally dreamlike atmosphere was typical of its commitment to the song catalog that had built America during the 20th century. The album stands as one of the most impressive debuts of its ilk, pinpointing a direction mirrored by many in the years that followed.

“Juanita” held some gorgeous lyrics (“No affection were the words that stuck on my mind/When she walked out on me for the very last time,” are practically Lennonesque in their demonstration), but there was no shortage of aphorisms on the album. The band found it difficult to get onto the airwaves, but according to Hillman, they enjoyed playing outlaws, as it propelled their image further.

We haven’t talked about his work with Emmylou Harris. Grievous Angel was a wonderful confluence of Harris’ secondary vocal, melding beautifully off Parsons’ more rugged vocal. My personal favorite? It has to be “Hearts On Fire.”

Punctuated by Bernie Leadon’s jaunty guitar lines, the song proved to be something of a blues standard, showcasing the pair’s elegant gift for harmonizing together. What it might have led to isn’t worth speculating on, because Parsons died on September 19, 1973. At 26, he was devastatingly young, but there’s no denying the power in his voice which was bolstered by a passion for his surroundings, and a genuine, unvarnished love for music.

It’s been fifty years, but his legacy lives on and should be celebrated accordingly. I’d start with any of the three albums I mentioned in this article, but he never released a dud. When I interviewed Pamela des Barres in 2021, I was impressed by her choice when she nominated Parsons as her favorite singer. “People ask me who my favorite band is, and it’s The Flying Burrito Brothers,” she smiled. “People are always surprised: they expect me to say the Stones or Zeppelin… I’ve never been more moved musically than I was by Gram Parsons [singing for] The Flying Burrito Brothers.”

-Eoghan Lyng

Photo: Gram Parsons (public domain)


Other Posts You Might Like

1 comment on “Gram Parsons: The Godfather of Americana

  1. And where can I read that interview with Des Barres?

Leave a Reply (and please be kind!)