My reviews of albums Gram Parsons released while he was alive (no archival stuff here), and albums released by bands he was leading or contributing to in a major way. I would like to a Byrds review page or a Burritos review page only I reviewed enough of each band’s oeuvre yet to justify it.
1968 albums featuring* Gram Parsons
International Submarine Band: Safe at Home (9/10)
This record invented country rock. As such, it’s one of the milestone records of the 1960s. (Country infected popular music in the 1970s and the country rock phenomenon of the late 1960s and early 1970s and Safe at Home is a big reason why.) But with the benefit of hindsight I am tempted to criticize the record a little more than I would normally criticize something so influential.
Normally I try my best to avoid using hindsight to judge something. Though it is obviously impossible, I try as much as I can to put myself in the place of listeners encountering music on the day the record came out, instead of 50 years later (or what have you). But I feel slightly justified in trying not to do that with this record simply because this record was not popular (and barely promoted). Though it invented the genre, nobody knew that. Sweetheart of the Rodeo came out a few months later and non-critics assumed that it invented country rock instead. I’m trying to rationalize that the Byrds’ popularity makes this record slightly less important.
I’m trying to do that because, frankly, Parsons got much better. This is like Gram Parsons the performer in utero. He lacks the dynamic voice he would have with the Burritos. (I’ve never heard the original Sweetheart of the Rodeo recordings with Parsons instead of McGuinn so I don’t know whether he had improved by then.) The recording quality is also not as good as those later records and so the dynamics of the band are less impressive.
I can’t say I love their version of “Folsom Prison Blues” either.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that Parsons’ later music is significantly better.
But this record still invented a genre – it’s pioneering and it’s arguably more “rock” than what the Byrds did a little bit later. I just wish it was as good as the Burritos records or Parsons’ solo stuff.
The Byrds: Sweetheart of the Rodeo (9/10)
Note: Parsons contributions were mostly scrubbed from the official version of this record.
This is not the first country rock album, as the International Submarine Band’s debut came out 5 months earlier. (Also, some have claimed there were even earlier country rock albums than that record, though I have yet to hear any of those.) But it’s the first country rock album by an established band. And it’s by an established band that was, until very recently, playing psychedelic music partially inspired by jazz and Indian music. So even if it’s the first, it’s the boldest statement of the early country rock records.
It’s a good selection of songs. And though there are better “country rock” versions of some of these songs out there – Parsons has recorded better versions of a few of these for example – those usually came later, as the genre was maturing. These songs sound better than the International Submarine Band’s attempt at a very similar sound; part of that is a bigger recording budget and part of that is McGuinn and Hillman just being better at arrangements than less established musicians.
Both the Burrito Brothers and Parsons by himself arguably put out better records later on, but those records (their contracts) might not have been possible had the Byrds not dared to buck the trend and make something so unbelievably uncool and sincere when they did.
1969: The Flying Burrito Brothers: The Gilded Palace of Sin (10/10)
I think it’s safe to say that this is the greatest country rock album of all time. It’s considerably more “rock” than The Byrds’ more famous effort the year prior and, perhaps more importantly, it’s not just rockier versions of traditional country songs, but original material, written as country and rocked up. It’s a blueprint for other bands, one of which notably became extremely famous by copying these guys and removing the rough edges.
Anyway, if you own one country rock album…
1970: The Flying Burrito Brothers: Burrito Deluxe (9/10)
Years ago I wrote: Still great but it’s got nothing on their debut.
I have long heard this album as essentially the second half of The Gilded Palace of Sin because I used to own a CD that compiles these two albums plus singles as a collection of everything Parsons did with the Burritos. As a result, the record’s clear inferiority to the debut has usually been lost on me, as I sort of regarded the whole thing as a double album whose second record was just not quite as good as the first.
It’s true, the material is definitely not as strong as strong as the debut and there is a definite switch in vibe provided by the change in membership and more democratic songwriting duties but, for me, the record is still a borderline-classic of country rock. I like that they changed their sound a little bit, even if it was not the original intention. I like how they show off a little more versatility. I don’t find the non-Parsons material as clearly inferior to the Parsons stuff as so many other people do. Parsons’ material here is mostly inferior to his earlier material and also some of his solo stuff but I do feel like Leadon’s contributions are severely underrated.
And then there’s “Wild Horses”. If it weren’t for whatever sounds like a dulcimer on the Stones’ version – it might be a oddly tuned acoustic guitar – I might prefer the Burritos’ version. (Shock! Horror!)
Yeah, I probably overrate this. But I love it.
1973: GP (9/10)
I came to country through country rock (and, to a lesser degree alt country) so I am a sucker for country music meshed with rock. For some reason, I just cannot find straight-up country as appealing as country rock. Maybe that will change as I experience more and more “real” country, but it hasn’t so far.
When I think of the country rock albums that have shaped my view of country rock, this one is right up there, second only to the Burritos records Parsons made before it.
The song selection is great, featuring music from a bunch of different places, but rendered as one coherent whole by Parsons and his band. The aesthetic is appealingly fragile – so much so that when I hear country music that isn’t this fragile I am underwhelmed – and everything is basically note-perfect.
I don’t know if it’s quite up to the standard of the Burritos’ debut record – both in quality and in influence – but it almost is. It’s a pretty great record.
Grievous Angel (8/10)
I think one reason why this record blows everyone away is because we all know how close to death Parsons was when he recorded it. If you take that out of it, I think it’s probably fair to say it’s not his best work.
Not Parsons’ best is pretty damn good, still. There are a few too many covers but some of them are pretty stellar, especially “Love Hurts.”
I have always struggled with Parsons as a songwriter – he wrote such strong melodies and often wrote really compelling lyrics, but then he regularly confuses his story. Take “$1000 Wedding, “for example, which is one of my favourite songs of his. I’m not 100% sure it’s a great song because he got confused. Yes, “supposed to be a funeral” sounds good but it doesn’t make sense to me, given the rest of the very vivid picture. (There are many Parsons songs like this.)
But the arrangements and performances basically always make up for any issues I have with the lyrics. Parsons has the reputation he has in part because few country singers of his day (or really, any singers) allowed themselves to sound so damn vulnerable. And, as always, the playing behind his and Harris’ voices is suitably unpolished.
A fitting final record.