A Buyers Guide to Gram Parsons

Gram Parsons - Fallen AngelSo while we were running our recent Gram Parsons contest, Rhino was nice enough to send us a review copy of the Fallen Angel DVD and the Complete Reprise Sessions box set. We’ve been writing about Parsons since the very first days of Glorious Noise. Like most music lovers, I go through different phases of music appreciation, and it had been a while since I’d gone on a kick of that real Gram goodness.

What follows, after a brief, subjective history lesson, is a chronological summary of Gram Parson’s recordings.

If you’ve read Ben Fong-Torres’ biography, Hickory Wind, you already know as much as you need to know about the life of Gram Parsons. The new documentary, Fallen Angels, doesn’t add much data to the fact sheet, but it’s got lots of great footage, and it definitely lets us in on some perspectives that haven’t been heard before, especially those of Gram’s family. In case you’re a newbie, here’s the short version: Ingram Cecil Connor the Third was born to a rich, Southern, alcoholic family and was eventually adopted by his stepdad, Bob Parsons. Living off his trust fund, he went to Harvard, played folk music, and formed the International Submarine Band, who recorded one album in 1967 before he quit to join the Byrds. After taking over the Byrds in 1968 and turning them into a country band, he ditched them to hang out with the Rolling Stones. His next band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, released a couple of albums, but their live shows were erratic because Gram preferred drugs over rehearsing. He quit the Burritos to—once again—hang out with the Stones, this time in France while they recorded Exile on Main Street. He got his shit together enough to hire Elvis’ band and record two solo albums before he OD’ed in a Joshua Tree motel in 1973 at 26. His pals then stole his body, dragged him out to the desert, poured some gas on him, and set him on fire.

The one thing that Fallen Angel pointed out that I’d never considered was how much the body-theft episode upset his family. In interviews with his wife and nieces, we see how appalling it was for them to find out that Gram’s body was treated so disrespectfully. His dipshit pals didn’t know how to properly cremate a body, so his family ended up having to bury the approximately 40 pounds that remained. So yeah, the final chapter isn’t quite as hilarious and glamorous as we’ve all been led to believe.

The DVD could’ve been improved by adding better bonus features. For example, throughout the doc, they used clips from the promotional videos for “Hot Burrito #1” and “Sin City” (YouTube). Why not add the complete, uncut videos as extras? Same with the live footage from the 1973 tour. I understand chopping up the clips for the sake of pacing in the film, but come on, that’s what DVDs were made for—not lame photo galleries and incomplete discographies.

Update: I asked Fallen Angel director Gandulf Hennig about this and he replied, “These videos you mention come from commercial archives and [are very, very expensive to license]. I appreciate you’d love to see the complete songs, but I doubt you would be willing to pay $60 or more for the DVD, at least most people wouldn’t, and Rhino had to draw a line somewhere in the sand budgeting this DVD so people can get it at a reasonable price.” Fair enough. Unfortunately, Hennig also pointed out that it would not be ethical for a filmmaker to make a copy of any third party footage…

But fuck all that. What matters and what lives on is the stuff that Gram Parsons put on tape before he died.

Another Side of This LifeAnother Side of This Life: The Lost Recordings of Gram Parsons, 1965-1966 (Sundazed), 2001

These are acoustic demos that Parsons recorded at a friend’s house. The sound quality is surprisingly great, but the songs are pretty boring overall. Typical mid-60s folkie stuff. Yawn. His cover of “Codine” is good, but that’s just a great song. There’s also an early version of “Brass Buttons” and four other originals: “Wheel of Fortune,” “November Nights,” “Zah’s Blues,” and “I Just Can’t Take It Anymore.” Parsons sounds young and confident, but he’s still searching for his voice at this point. Fans only.

The International Submarine Band - Safe at HomeThe International Submarine Band – Safe at Home, 1968

This is the first glimpse of Parsons’ personality and style that he would perfect over the next several years. It was recorded for Lee Hazlewood in 1967 but it didn’t get released until after the group had broken up. “Blue Eyes” is the best song on the album and was covered by Uncle Tupelo. “Luxury Liner” is the other great original. “Strong Boy” and “Do You Know How It Feels to Be Lonesome” are the other two originals, and they’re okay, but a little clunky. Not as clunky at the goofy medley of “Folsom Prison Blues” and “That’s All Right, Mama.” My favorite is the jaunty murder ballad (not really a ballad), “Miller’s Cave.” The recent Sundazed reissue adds “Knee Deep in the Blues,” a decent outtake, but you’re not missing much if you already own this on vinyl.

Sweetheart of the RodeoThe Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo, 1968

This is a great album, and it really must’ve blown people’s minds when it was released. The Byrds were a huge band, especially in England, and Sweetheart must’ve sounded as crazy to them as Trans sounded to Neil Young fans. I recommend getting the “Deluxe Edition” because the outtakes are great. The standard edition still includes the Gram Parsons vocals (that were stripped and re-recorded by Roger McGuinn for the original release), but the Deluxe Edition has MORE. If you don’t end up getting Safe at Home, you definitely need the Deluxe Edition, because it (inexplicably) contains the three Parsons originals from that album as well as three other rare Sub Band tracks. Who knows why they’re here? But they’re fun. And the other outtakes are good too, though probably not essential. The versions with Parsons’ vocals are superior to the McGuinn versions, especially “One Hundred Years From Now” (which Wilco covered) and “The Christian Life,” but you can’t really blame McGuinn for wanting to take his band back after Parsons so blatantly stole it. How could they even have considered letting “the new guy” sing more than half of the songs on the album?

The Gilded Palace of Sin + Burrito DeluxeThe Flying Burrito Brothers – The Gilded Palace of Sin/Burrito Deluxe, 1968/1969

Both albums on one CD, you’ve gotta love that. This is really the apex of Gram Parsons’ career. If you want even more Burritos, you can opt for the two-disc Hot Burritos! The Flying Burrito Bros. Anthology 1969-1972, which includes both The Gilded Palace of Sin and Burrito Deluxe in their entirety, as well as some rarities and post-Parsons garbage. The Burritos combined the country stuff with Southern soul in a way that just can’t be beat. “Sin City” (which Uncle Tupelo covered) is still the best indictment of the record industry ever recorded. Their secret weapon was Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel. This is really as good as it gets.

The Complete Reprise SessionsGram Parsons – The Complete Reprise Sessions, 2006

Everybody already owns the two-on-one G.P./Grievous Angel combo. So how are they going to stretch that single-disc material out over three CDs? Well, with a lot of filler, of course. There are only three “new” songs on here and they were all previously released on 1976’s bootleg-quality Sleepless Nights and also on Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology. The remastering sounds really good, and the packaging looks great, but it’s hard not to think this could’ve all fit on two discs. And if you’re going to do the three-disc thing, at least fill them up! Disc Two contains less than 45 minutes of material. The total length of all three discs is 162 minutes; leave off a few minutes of the interviews, and this could’ve all fit on two discs.

I had both of these albums on vinyl, and I can verify that the packaging of Discs One and Two is very true to the original release, complete with G.P.‘s gatefold sleeve, so that’s pretty cool. But it’s hard not to feel like it’s all a bit unnecessary. Or maybe not. That old two-fer came out in 1990 and was definitely due for remastering. So really, it’s up to you. If you’ve never heard any of this stuff, you’re missing out. Emmylou Harris’ harmonies will kill you.

Live 1973Gram Parsons & the Fallen Angels – Live 1973

Taken from a radio broadcast, Live 1973 is exactly what you’d expect it to be: a snapshot of Parsons and his touring band rocking out, promoting G.P. It’s nice to hear Parsons sing “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” his post-Sweetheart Byrds collaboration. And it’s always great to hear Emmylou. You can almost imagine listening to this live on the radio in 1973, rolling doobs and taking some ludes, a bandanna slung over the lamp to create some mood lighting… You get the picture. It’s an okay album, but definitely pick up the studio stuff first.

Of course, if you’re just starting out, you might not want to dig this deep. If that’s the case, you might just want to pick up a comp like Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology. It’s got 46 songs spread over two discs, and honestly, it’s probably all you need. At least to get started. And after you’re hooked, you can come back to this list to figure out where to go next.

9 thoughts on “A Buyers Guide to Gram Parsons”

  1. Train, it depends who you ask. Gram liked to say he refused to play the South Africa shows because of Apartheid, but others say he never gave a crap about politics and just wanted to hang out with Keith more.

    The Stones were definitely bigger than the Byrds, and Gram’s ambition (and previous ladder-climbing behavior) leads me to believe that politics was not the primary factor that led him to abandon the Byrds.

  2. I would argue that the Sub Band LP is far greater than you indicate. Nothing clunky about it. It’s short (not even 30 minutes I think) and very sweet. Perfect really. The band has a fire and energy that Gram sometimes lacked on the records that followed. His singing is really great on that record. It blows the original Sweetheart of the Rodeo away really.


  3. On of the best articles I’ve read on GloNo, great job and insite. I have “Fallen Angel” arriving today on Netflix, good timing!

    Regarding South Africa, Keith’s biography mentions that Gram just stayed behind to smoke hash and play cowboy songs with Keith, no other reason was mentioned.

  4. the buyers guide to gram is quite simple: everything you can get your hands on. burritos, byrds, gp and ga, and any boots you can find…

  5. Check out the update to the article where director Gandulf Hennig explains why the complete videos were not included as bonus features.

  6. Thanks for this; GP is a long-time want-list of mine. I have the special edition “Sweetheart” CD, which whet my appetite. But Gram has to fight with Townes Van Zandt and I don’t know if that’s fair.

    Gram shows up quite a bit in Stanley Booth’s True Adventures of the Rolling Stones–which may be the best book about a rock band ever written.

  7. I’ve been a Gram Parsons fan for a while. It began with my love of The Byrds and I discovered the rest of his music from there. Despite owning a fair amount of his output, I never really knew a lot about his life outside of the stories surrounding his death. I recently purchased the Fallen Angel DVD and was really impressed with it. I highly recommend checking it out!

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