Parsons release a discovered trove
Amoeba Music in Hollywood is so massive that you can feel overwhelmed. Between the new and used bins in the block-long store, you can find albums by thousands of artists.
But if Amoeba co-founder Dave Prinz had to limit his offerings to a single artist, it might just be Gram Parsons, the absorbing country-rock singer-songwriter who died of a drug-related overdose in 1973 at age 26.
Prinz has been a huge fan of Parsons since the day in 1969 he first heard “The Gilded Palace of Sin,” Parsons’ soulful debut album with the Flying Burrito Brothers.
So, you can imagine Prinz’s excitement a while back when he heard rumors of tapes from two 1969 concerts in which the Burritos opened for the Grateful Dead at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco.
Prinz found the tapes among the 16,000 hours of material in the Dead’s vault, and after considerable lobbying, convinced Owsley Stanley, who oversees the Dead’s material, to license the Burritos material to Amoeba’s record label. It was a coup because Stanley, a.k.a. the Bear, hadn’t licensed anything from his personal vault since 1970.
If you’ve ever been touched by Parsons’ voice -- or that of his protege Emmylou Harris -- you will probably share Prinz’s enthusiasm when you listen to these two concerts. The tunes vary from a glorious version of “Sin City,” the band’s classic tale of innocence and temptation, to country covers, including Hank Williams’ “You Win Again.”
“Gram Parsons Archives Vol. 1: Gram Parsons With the Flying Burrito Brothers: Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969"
The back story: A native of Winter Haven, Fla., Parsons was raised in the South, where he was schooled in country, blues, gospel and rock music. After a brief stint at Harvard, he recorded an album in Los Angeles with the International Submarine Band, a blend of pure country music and country-tinged rock that would serve as Parsons’ lifetime blueprint.
While a latter-day member of the Byrds, Parsons contributed greatly to the country undercurrents of the group’s “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album in 1968. Equally important, he formed a partnership with singer-songwriter Chris Hillman, and they eventually started the Burrito Brothers so they could focus even more strongly on their country-rock vision.
During his days with the Burritos, Parsons was as riveting a presence on stage as anyone who ever worked their way up through the Los Angeles club circuit. On stage, often playing to half-empty houses at the Whisky or other clubs, Parsons was absolutely compelling. Between his angelic voice and his songs about glorious and shattered dreams, he seemed at times like F. Scott Fitzgerald with a guitar.
Sadly, part of that fascination was watching him pouring out his heart while sometimes being barely able to stand because of all the drugs he consumed. David N. Meyer’s new Parsons biography, “Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music,” is far from perfect, but it gives a good sense of the self-destructive demons that followed Parsons for most of his career.
On even his worst night, however, Parsons’ heartfelt mix of country music innocence and rock ‘n’ roll rebellion was stirring. That strength is why Parsons has been cited as an influence by artists as varied as Keith Richards (think “Wild Horses”), Elvis Costello, the Eagles, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.
Speaking about Parsons’ influence, Earle once said, “He made me feel not so weird, that it was OK to have long hair and wear cowboy boots, to listen to country music and rock ‘n’ roll. I mean those weren’t just separate types of music, but the people who liked them were in separate camps back then. Gram saw the humanity in both and brought us a lot closer together.”
The music: Even though the Avalon concerts were just weeks after the release of the Burritos’ debut album, the band did only three songs from the album. To round out the set, Parsons drew upon various country and R&B-rock; tunes, including Chips Moman and Dan Penn’s “Do Right Woman” and Red Simpson’s “Close Up the Honky Tonks.” The package also includes a previously unreleased home recording of Parsons’ “Thousand Dollar Wedding,” which later appeared on his second solo album.
Further study: Parsons’ best showcase is Rhino Records’ two-disc package, “The Gram Parsons Anthology.” It includes samples of his work with the Byrds, the International Submarine Band and the Burrito Brothers, along with both of his solo albums. An indispensable piece of American pop culture.
Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights CD reissues and other historical pop items.