Various Artists: Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram
by George Graham
(Almo Music 80024 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/28/99)
This week we have one of the best multi-artist tribute albums to come along in a long time, and it is for someone who in this day and age, is ripe for re-examination: the late Gram Parsons. The new CD is called Return of the Grievous Angel, and its executive producer was one of Parsons' proteges, Emmylou Harris.
Gram Parsons could properly be called the father of the country rock style that appeared at the end of the 1960s, and gave rise to three generations of players from the Byrds, of which Parsons was a member, through the Eagles, and onto post-alternative roots-rock bands like Wilco and Son Volt.
Gram Parsons was both an interesting and a tragic figure. Like too many of his generation, he died an early drug-related death in 1973 at the age of 26. His own family life sounded like a country song -- his father died at an early age, his mother re-married to someone who turned out to be bad character. His mother then died an alcoholic on the day of Gram's high school graduation. Parsons managed to enroll in Harvard in 1965, though he didn't last long there. But it was in the Boston area where he formed his first band, the Like, which later moved to New York and was renamed the International Submarine Band. Parsons eventually moved to California, and there his music began to take shape. It was in the days when there was a sharp line between rockers and mainstream country music singers like George Jones, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. In the 1960s, it was as much a divide of attitude as much as anything else, with the hippies on one side and the cowboys on the other. Parsons, who grew up listening to both country and R&B in Georgia and Florida, had no problem seeing a connection in the music.
After releasing one album on the West Coast with loose-knit band, Parsons joined the Byrds at age 21, replacing the departing David Crosby. He soon virtually took over the band, pushing the group very much in a country directions, resulting in the seminal album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, considered by many as the beginning of what has been 30 years of country-rock. But that association did not last very long. Parsons and Byrds co-founder Chris Hillman left later in 1968 to form the Flying Burrito Brothers, which also became a kind of archetype for country rock. Parsons and the group also became friends with the Rolling Stones, often sharing stages. The Stones Wild Horses was inspired by Parsons and the Burritos. The Flying Burrito Brothers released two albums before Parsons was kicked out of the band after not showing up for gigs, and generally going downhill, after developing a dependency on pain killers following a motorcycle accident. On his own, Parsons recruited an unknown singer named Emmylou Harris and thus began another phase in his career, yielding more groundbreaking recordings, including the original Grievous Angel, released posthumously in 1974.
This is an especially opportune time for a tribute to Parsons, with the emergence of a new generation of roots-rockers who blend the sensibilities of rock with the sincere twang and often sad lyrics of country. And many younger fans may never have heard of Parsons and his role in the development of the style. Emmylou Harris turned out to be the perfect person for this project about her mentor. She has managed to stay remarkably agile stylistically, ranging from traditional country to interesting spacey recordings produced by Daniel Lanois. Ms. Harris selected performers ranging from former Byrds Chris Hillman and David Crosby, to Seventies generation performers like Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, and Ms. Harris herself, to Nineties artists like Beck, Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow and Wilco. Thirteen songs spanning most of Parsons' career from the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album to some of his last songs are included, with very tasteful performances of virtually all. There is some interesting generation mixing, such as the duet between Beck Hansen and Ms. Harris. In fact, the versions on this CD are in some cases better than the originals, with less over-the-top twang and better musicianship. It's also obvious that the artists recruited for the CD were enthusiastic about the project and put an effort into adding something new to these already fine songs.
The CD starts off with an excellent pairing of Ms. Harris with Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders in the song She from Parsons' 1973 album GP. Ms. Harris' emotional harmonies are a nice foil to Ms. Hynde's classy, cool delivery. <<>>
Another pairing of generations comes on one of the most straight-country performances on the CD: High Fashion Queen done by former Byrd and Burrito Brother Chris Hillman together with Steve Earle. <<>>
A highlight of the CD is the title piece Grievous Angel done by the duo of Lucinda Williams and the man Parsons replaced in the Byrds, David Crosby. Ms. Williams does the lead vocal and puts in a memorably sincere performance. <<>>
Wilco captures another aspect of Parsons, his association with the Rolling Stones. Their version of One Hundred Years from Now owes less to the laid-back country of Sweetheart of the Rodeo on which it first appeared, than to the Stones. <<>>
Another contemporary group takes one of Parsons' tunes in a very different direction. The Cowboy Junkies do Ooh Las Vegas in a mixture of their trademark languid spacey country sound with more of an alternative rock edge. <<>>
On the other hand, another rising band, Whiskeytown, does a very tasteful straight-ahead version of A Song for You originally from the GP album. <<>>
This CD's most surprising and successful cross-generational meeting comes on the classic Sin City, done by Emmylou Harris and Beck. They make a great duo, and the musical backing, including steel guitarist JayDee Maness, who played on the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, has just the right amount of twang to make it all the more sincere. <<>>
Most of this CD has a surprisingly unified sound, considering the diversity of artists recorded in different places and times. One track that takes a different approach is Gillian Welch's version of Hickory Wind originally from the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Ms. Welch is known for her own music influenced by old-time Appalachian folk and country. Her reading of this song, however is rather lugubrious, with David Rawlings' organ not helping. This performance would be worthwhile by itself, but in the context of this album, it does throw off the momentum. <<>>
The album ends with In My Hour of Darkness a seemingly autobiographical song from Parsons' Grievous Angel album, done by a group put together for the occasion, calling themselves the Rolling Creekdippers, featuring Victoria Williams, Mark Olson of the Jayhawks and Nashville singer-songwriters Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller. It's an eclectic gathering that nevertheless gets the song just right. <<>>
Multi-artist tribute albums have ceased to be novelties. But Return of the Grievous Angel, put together by Gram Parsons' friend and former bandmate Emmylou Harris is exceptional. The artists represented on the CD all are indebted to Parsons' influence, over three generations of musicians and three decades. Ms. Harris' combination of artists is remarkably successful, and the CD provides a nice balance between tracks with a sound similar to the originals and those taking different stylistic directions. And it works so well that some of the these cover versions exceed the musical quality of the more rough-hewn or overly-twangy originals. It's also a great cross-generational amalgam, which could open the ears of fans of different ages to the each others' music, with followers of Wilco and The Cowboy Junkies getting to hear Emmylou Harris and Chis Hillman, and those of Parsons' generation getting to hear Whiskeytown and Beck.
The quality of the studio work is first rate. With a couple of small exceptions, the production and recording quality rate high grades. It's also notable how well all these diverse recordings -- everything from home studio work to productions by the legendary Glyn Johns -- fit together sonically. But, in typical major-label fashion, the CD is excessively compressed, presumably to be competitively loud.
With the proliferation and popularity of roots rock bands and the so called "alt.country" phenomenon, this could not have been a better time for a tribute to one of the most influential musicians of all times in the genre. And with Emmylou Harris overseeing the production, the result truly does Parsons' legacy justice.
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