Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘GP' by Gram Parsons.
Let’s face it fans of Gram, the man who, arguably, changed the face of country music for the better, and superlatively so, is probably best known for other, ahem, activities. Befriending Keith Richards in the early part of the rock behemoth’s wilder years, the two bonded over such interests as music and a fondness for hard living and hard drugs.
Aside from being terrible twins, they gave each other some great gifts. Gram undoubtedly influenced the course of The Stones’ music. Richards was to become the driving force in that band’s sometimes shaky but often brilliant explorations of the early '70s, after he found quite a bit of truth in Parsons’ melting pot ideology. Parsons, on the other hand, covered one of their big hits; Wild Horses. Who, then, was the true benefiter?
That’s the way it was with Parsons. Constantly overlooked, he is lesser known for helping to change the direction of The Byrds’ music, and for plucking the, as yet, unknown Emmylou Harris’ out of Washington D.C. to work on ‘GP’ and, probably most significantly, for helping to take country music out of a period of derivation that had seen it become mired in an association with conservatism, and lift it back into the hallowed ether of creativity.
Whereas his previous work with The Flying Burrito Brothers was more closely associated with soul and funk, ‘GP’ was to become one of the first ever country rock records. Elvis Costello once made the comment that the country rock that Parsons created was something a bit like Frankenstein’s monster. It’s hard not to argue with that and say that his work with The Flying Burrito Brothers was the actual monster, a concatenation of effects and sounds acting like a sinister precursor to The Eagles.
On ‘GP,’ Parsons largely gave up this bluster. There’s still a lot of fusion, a lot of interplay with different styles of music, but there is less of an even mess. On songs like Cry One More Time and Big Mouth Blues horns give the music a lot more impetus. The shadings are less vague, more defined and brave as Parsons must have realised that a song had to be doused in a certain atmosphere in order for the sense to be communicated.
His song-writing, in the few short years since leaving the band, had improved so much that one has to wonder where the inspiration came from; time or, perish the thought, the heroin, or even the frame of mind that leads one to take hard drugs in the first place.
The difference is comparable to that which occurred to The Beatles, although over a far shorter space of time. It was as if the doors of perception opened and, aside from using lyrics that were mere phrasing, Parsons was then able to fix an image in his mind and just write and project in a way that happened to be far more elucidating than emotional or personal. He had stumbled across the high-throne of the narrator. This sense even seeped into the tone in which he sang, which was far more forthright and world-weary than before.
Songs like She, A Song For You and Streets Of Baltimore are near mythological stories, using up all those old religious metaphors to add something a bit haunted. They’re also, on the other hand, legends in that they created a new lyrical focus for the disenfranchised, the working class, blue-collar factions of America, in much the same way as artists like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen could do.
He seemed to be at ease with his past, once more comfortable within the confines of his original country roots. At times the music is stark, unforgivingly so. Not many people could have gotten away with the harmonies he sang with Harris, lying on top of such subdued and brittle strings. In order to do so he had to leave a part of himself on the record, an honesty that you can’t take back.
The problems that swirled around the sessions for ‘GP,’ however, far outweighed the album’s eventual glory, considering what was to come for Parsons. He drank and took cocaine in large doses as he tried to dim his excitement about the finished product. Perhaps the intimacy of the thing got to him. Perhaps he was trying to straddle the line between past personal history in the South and the future possibilities for his music, all the while trying to maintain the blissful ignorance of the present, an exercise in complete futility.
He spoke with the common tongue, but he could also write with a mind that saw beyond the petty realities of a working day, or a lifetime as the case may have been. All evidence seems to point to the fact that Parsons was not satisfied with the regular. Beneath the external lives of people with whom he grew up he was able to see hidden stories, beyond the confines of what country music had become, he could spot combinations just itching to be made in the music. And that is the beauty of his legacy.