Chris Ethridge, founding member of Flying Burrito Brothers, dies
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Members of the International Submarine Band chose a name for their new group that practically assured it would never rise above cult status. Sure enough, that band disappeared with barely a trace after making a handful of recordings in the mid-1960s. But after ISB members Gram Parsons and Chris Ethridge teamed up with ex-Byrds singer and songwriter Chris Hillman and steel guitarist Pete Kleinow to form the pioneering country-rock group the Flying Burrito Brothers, the ISB won itself permanent footnote status in the history of pop music.
Ethridge, who died Monday at 65 at Anderson Regional Medical Center in Meridian, Miss., of complications from pancreatic cancer, was the group’s bassist, and co-wrote several songs with Parsons, widely lauded as one of the most innovative figures in the marriage of country and rock in the 1960s. Ethridge also spent about eight years in Willie Nelson’s touring band, a gig during which he recorded one of Nelson’s most famous anthems, “Whiskey River.”
“Here’s what people don’t know or don’t remember,” Hillman told The Times on Monday. “Three of Gram’s greatest songs were co-written by Chris: those would be ‘Hot Burrito #1,’ ‘Hot Burrito #2’ and ‘She.’
‘And I’ve always said: Gram Parsons’ greatest recorded vocals were those two [‘Hot Burrito’] songs,’ Hillman said. ‘Maybe it’s my opinion, but I was there and I know I never heard him sing better than he did on those two songs. He just nailed ‘em.”
Hillman said he had spoken by phone over the weekend to Ethridge, who was unable to talk. Ethridge’s daughter told Hillman that her father had been hospitalized with pneumonia following a round of chemotherapy for the cancer, which had been diagnosed in September.
John Christopher Ethridge was born Feb. 10, 1947 in Meridian — where the man known as the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, grew up — and moved when he was 17 to Los Angeles. There he met Parsons and fell in with the burgeoning group of musicians who came of age listening to Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and other seminal rock artists while also cultivating their passion for traditional country, bluegrass and folk music.
Those strains were typically mutually exclusive in Nashville at the time, but in Los Angeles, they merged in the music of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys and other acts.
Ethridge’s daughter, Necia, described her father in 2010 as “a master songwriter and incredible musician. My mother said that he would share credit with other musicians for songs that he primarily wrote.” Hillman, too, noted that Ethridge brought both “Hot Burrito” songs to the Burrito Brothers in nearly finished form. “I think Gram helped with a couple of the lyrics.”
Hillman, who also has played bass in various groups, said Ethridge brought an R&B feel to his bass work, something that he learned playing in R&B and blues clubs in Mississippi in the early 1960s, “before people did that.”
The result was that “he had the feel,” Hillman said. “He was not the fanciest bass player, but that’s not what it is about the bass. He had the groove, he had it right in the pocket.… I learned a lot from him. And he was a real good songwriter. Real good.”
Ethridge left the Burrito Brothers after the group recorded its first album, “The Gilded Palace of Sin,” in 1969, and eventually returned to work as a studio and touring musician, playing with Ronstadt, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne and many others.
In addition to his daughter, Ethridge is survived by his wife, Karen Sue, sons John Christopher Ethridge III and George Zachary Clifford Ross Ethridge; his mother, Eleanor McWilliams Ethridge, brothers Tommy and Joey Ethridge and eight grandchildren. A service will be held Wednesday in Meridian.
— Randy Lewis
File photo of the Flying Burrito Brothers circa 1969 with (top row, from left) Gram Parsons, Chris Ethridge and (bottom, from left), Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Chris Hillman.