The Legend of Gram Parsons, in 12 Songs

Credit…Harvey L. Silver/Corbis via Getty Images

By Lindsay Zoladz

Dear listeners,

For quite some time, I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about an artist whose music means a lot to me: the singer-songwriter Gram Parsons.

When I realized that the 50th anniversary of his death was this year — Sept. 19, to be exact — I thought it would be as good a time as any. Only I didn’t want to focus on the tragic and morbid details of Parsons’s death, as so many people have done for the past half-century. (Parsons died of a drug overdose at age 26 in a Joshua Tree motel.) I wanted to use the anniversary of his death, maybe a little paradoxically, as an occasion to argue that it should not be the defining element of his legacy. The music should be.

My piece about Parsons was published on Thursday, but I wanted to use today’s Amplifier to delve even deeper into his music. That’s right: This newsletter is a Gramplifier. (I had to. I’m sorry.)

A native of Winter Haven, Fla. — and born into a family that made its fortune in the citrus industry — Parsons sought to bridge the divide between the counterculture and the country-music establishment. A Southern boy with a rock ’n’ roll heart, he dreamed of a loftily named, utopian sound he liked to call “cosmic American music,” injecting traditional styles with a bit of the unknown. At his best — in his time with groups like the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, as well as in his later solo work — Parsons made that vision a reality. Though he didn’t find much commercial success while he was alive, his influence continues to ripple.

Today’s playlist contains some of Parsons’s most soulful signature tunes, as well as some tributes and covers by artists he inspired, like Elvis Costello and, of course, his protégée and duet partner, Emmylou Harris, who has been one of the most persistent torchbearers of Parsons’s legacy.

Parsons remains a kind of outlaw figure in the cultural imagination, suggesting an alternative to more complacent country rock, and if you’re unacquainted, discovering his catalog feels like dusting off some dazzling hidden gems. So cue up this playlist and get ready for the return of the grievous angel.

Listen along on Spotify as you read.

1. The International Submarine Band: “Luxury Liner”

An early Parsons composition included on the International Submarine Band’s 1968 album “Safe at Home,” “Luxury Liner” is at once a rollicking road song and a tuneful confession of lonesomeness in the tradition of Parsons’s idol Hank Williams. Emmylou Harris would later help popularize the song — as she did with much of Parsons’s material — when she covered it as the title track of her 1976 album. (Listen on YouTube)

2. The Byrds: “Hickory Wind”

Parsons wrote two songs that appeared on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” his only album with the Byrds, and one of them, “Hickory Wind,” is among his most enduringly beloved tracks. As the music critic Ben Fong-Torres put it in his 1991 biography of Parsons, named after this very tune, “What made the song so universal was its recognition of one of life’s big questions — Is that all there is? — combined with pleasant evocations of youth and the safety a kid felt being at home among the pines, the oak, and the brush.” (Listen on YouTube)

3. The Flying Burrito Brothers: “Hot Burrito #2”

The Flying Burrito Brothers — the third band Parsons joined in as many years — melded country music and psychedelic rock seamlessly on their 1969 debut album, “The Gilded Palace of Sin.” “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow was perhaps the band member whose style best demonstrated this fusion: He played pedal steel through a fuzz-box, as though it were an electric guitar. (Listen on YouTube)

4. Elvis Costello & the Attractions: “I’m Your Toy”

Parsons was a huge inspiration for Elvis Costello’s 1981 country covers album, “Almost Blue,” and on it Costello offered his own renditions of two Parsons songs, including this arresting take on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ goofily titled classic “Hot Burrito #1.” Costello, though, decided to change the song’s name to reference a memorable lyric in the refrain: “I’m your toy, I’m your old boy/But I don’t want no one but you to love me.” (Listen on YouTube)

5. The Flying Burrito Brothers: “Sin City”

We’re talking Los Angeles here, not Vegas. Perhaps the greatest example of the briefly simpatico songwriting partnership of Parsons and the former Byrd Chris Hillman, this twangy ballad captures the mood of late-60s Southern California burnout in the fiery spirit of the Louvin Brothers. (Listen on YouTube)

6. The Flying Burrito Brothers: “Wild Horses”

For better and for worse, Parsons spent a lot of time in the late ’60s and early ’70s hanging out with the Rolling Stones, particularly Keith Richards (who admitted to Fong-Torres, “yes, maybe hanging around the Rolling Stones didn’t help him in his attitude towards drugs”). Parsons taught Richards a lot about American country music, though, and many people claim his influence can be heard on “Exile on Main St.” songs like “Sweet Virginia” and “Torn and Frayed.” That exchange could also be reciprocal, though, like when Richards let the Flying Burrito Brothers record his band’s new song “Wild Horses” before the Stones did. (Listen on YouTube)

7. Gram Parsons: “Still Feeling Blue”

For “GP,” his 1973 debut solo album, Parsons recruited much of his hero Elvis Presley’s red-hot old backing band: the guitarist James Burton, pianist Glen D. Hardin and drummer Ronnie Tutt. They lend an air of experience and polish to Parsons’s own compositions, like the lively country throwback “Still Feeling Blue.” (Listen on YouTube)

8. Gram Parsons, “The New Soft Shoe”

Ostensibly — if somewhat inscrutably — about the auto pioneer E.L. Cord, “The New Soft Shoe,” another highlight from “GP,” boasts one of the loveliest and most wistful melodies Parsons ever wrote. (Listen on YouTube)

9. Gram Parsons, “The Return of the Grievous Angel”

At a tour stop in Boston, a young poet named Tom Brown handed Parsons a sheet of vivid lyrics he’d written with Parsons in mind. They became the basis of the laid-back, lived-in “The Return of the Grievous Angel” — destined to become one of Parsons’s signature songs. (Listen on YouTube)

10. Emmylou Harris, “Boulder to Birmingham”

Emmylou Harris was an unknown folk singer on the Washington, D.C., club circuit when Parsons recruited her to sing backup on his solo records and tour with his band. After his death, she became a solo star in her own right, but she continued to pay tribute to Parsons throughout her career. This wrenching ballad from her major-label debut album, “Pieces of the Sky,” is about her processing the overwhelming grief of Parsons’s loss: “I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham,” she sings in her clarion voice, “if I thought I could see your face.” (Listen on YouTube)

11. Gram Parsons: “$1000 Wedding”

Here is Parsons at the peak of his powers as a conduit for emotion. Memories of a thwarted wedding and a subsequent bender swirl in an impressionistic recollection, not always told in a linear fashion but emotionally piercing nonetheless. “Supposed to be a funeral,” Parsons sings in a heartbreakingly weary voice. “It’s been a bad, bad day.” (Listen on YouTube)

12. Gram Parsons: “In My Hour of Darkness”

Each verse in this elegiac song is dedicated to someone in Parsons’s life who had recently passed away: first the actor Brandon deWilde (the young man who “went driving through the night”), then the guitarist Clarence White (“another young man safely strummed his silver-stringed guitar”), and finally the Los Angeles music scene fixture Sid Kaiser (“kind and wise with age”). There’s something haunting about Parsons writing this song so shortly before his own death, and it closes out “Grievous Angel” with both a spiritual warmth and the chill of premonition. (Listen on YouTube)

Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels,


The Amplifier Playlist

Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.

“The Legend of Gram Parsons” track list
Track 1: The International Submarine Band, “Luxury Liner”
Track 2: The Byrds, “Hickory Wind”
Track 3: The Flying Burrito Brothers, “Hot Burrito #2”
Track 4: Elvis Costello & the Attractions, “I’m Your Toy”
Track 5: The Flying Burrito Brothers, “Sin City”
Track 6: The Flying Burrito Brothers, “Wild Horses”
Track 7: Gram Parsons, “Still Feeling Blue”
Track 8: Gram Parsons, “The New Soft Shoe”
Track 9: Gram Parsons, “The Return of the Grievous Angel”
Track 10. Emmylou Harris, “Boulder to Birmingham”
Track 11: Gram Parsons, “$1000 Wedding”
Track 12: Gram Parsons, “In My Hour of Darkness”

Bonus Tracks

In 1999, Emmylou Harris helped put together the richly reverent “Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons,” which showcased the breadth of the musicians who were influenced by Parsons — including Wilco, Beck and Sheryl Crow — and demonstrated how Parsons’s songs have echoed across generations. The great folk singer-songwriter Gillian Welch’s stirring take on “Hickory Wind” is one of the album’s finest moments, as is Lucinda Williams’s swaggering “Return of the Grievous Angel,” with backing vocals from the one and only David Crosby.

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