Parsons’s finest album, although, can be the one I discover most troublesome to take heed to: his second solo effort, “Grievous Angel,” launched posthumously in 1974, stuffed with darkness but additionally Harris’s luminous backing vocals. Typically “Grievous Angel” simply makes me offended, as a result of his early demise means we’ll by no means know if he might have written 100 extra songs as raggedly lovely as “$1000 Wedding ceremony,” the place he sounds flayed and outdated earlier than his time, like a person in contact with oblivion.
“WHAT IF” IS a idiot’s query, however to be a Gram Parsons fan is to be continually made a idiot, as a result of it’s so tempting to ask. If he’d lived, would “Grievous Angel” have made him a star? Would he have created an extended, wealthy discography or would he have rapidly turn out to be a pale imitation of himself? Would he nonetheless be round, or would he have discovered one other alternative to die younger?
To ask “what if,” although, can be a approach to register dissatisfaction with, or wage a silent protest towards, what’s. Parsons was by no means shy in speaking about music he disliked, and the watered-down, commercially palatable model of “nation rock” (a time period he hated) that was turning into fashionable within the Seventies made his pores and skin crawl. (He had an unprintable, and hilarious, method of describing the Eagles’ music.) There’s a component of the poor little wealthy boy in Parsons’s story, after all. Nevertheless it’s additionally true that loads of his Boomer rock contemporaries made Snivley-level fortunes with decreasingly impressed takes on his personal sound.
On the flip aspect, as the previous Eagle and Burrito Brother Bernie Leadon as soon as put it, “How will you compete with a lifeless man? You simply can’t.” Parsons’s hypothetical later albums are every little thing we would like them to be, as a result of they exist solely within the creativeness. Maybe his demise has turn out to be such a cultural obsession as a result of it purified him, making an imperfect artist — an imperfect man — pristine.
However there’s nonetheless loads of thriller and magic in what he left behind. Parsons was initially imagined to sing lead on extra “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” songs, however his vocals had been changed with McGuinn’s. Emmylou Harris once suggested they might have simply been turned method down within the combine. “In the event you pay attention actual shut within the headset,” Harris stated, “you may hear him, as a result of his phrasing is so totally different from Roger McGuinn’s.” It was like, she stated, “listening to a ghost.”
That is the type of Gram Parsons ghost-hunting I can get behind: shut listening. Straining for glimpses of him within the margins of Byrds songs and even within the backing vocals of the Stones’ “Exile on Principal St.,” the place some swear you may hear him. Surveying the final half-century of cosmic American music and seeing the place the wind blew all these hickory seeds.