By Jake Dromgoole
“We’ve all got wheels, to take ourselves away. We’ve got telephones to say what we can’t say.”
During the spring semester of my junior year of college, a fellow classmate burned me a mix CD filled with a ton of popular songs from around that time. Alt-J’s “Matilda,” Lord Huron’s “Time to Run” and Jake Bugg’s “Saffron” were certainly standouts in the 10 or so songs on the mix. There was one song however, that stood out to me the most: The Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Wheels.” “Who is that?” I asked my classmate. “It’s the Flying Burrito Brothers,” she told me, “They’re my favorite band!” I took to the internet to research this group and was surprised to recognize the name of one of their members: Gram Parsons.
After parting ways with the Byrds in 1968, Gram returned to Los Angeles where he formed The Flying Burrito Brothers. Joined by fellow Byrd, Chris Hillman (who decided to leave the legendary band after returning from their South African tour), bassist Chris Ethridge and steel guitarist “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow, the Burritos combined country instrumentation and songwriting with a laid back, California rock ‘n roll attitude. With album artwork that featured the band dressed in rhinestone-covered nude suits (as made famous by country legend Porter Wagoner), The Gilded Palace of Sin was released to lackluster sales in 1969. Soon after its release, Ethridge left the band where he was replaced by Floridian guitarist (and future-Eagle), Bernie Leadon.
Leadon, a former collaborator of legendary Byrd Gene Clark, excitedly informed his younger brother Tom about the Burrito Brothers job. The younger Leadon, also a musician, was very excited for his brother, as he and his friends were fans of the Parsons-lead outfit. One of Leadon’s friends and bandmates would eventually follow fellow-Floridian Parsons’ footsteps and make his own fateful trip out west. That friend was Tom Petty.
Soon after opening for the Rolling Stones at the band’s infamous free show held at the Altamont Speedway (wherein a concert goer was murdered by the hired security of the night: The Hell’s Angels), Parsons was dismissed from the Burritos due to his excessive drinking and drug use. In 1971, after accepting an invitation from Stones guitarist Keith Richards, Parsons joined the band in France while they recorded their album, Exile on Main Street.
Gram and Richards struck up a close relationship, with their love of country music at its center. Parson’s influence on the guitarist is undeniable on the Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers, especially on the country-tinged songs “Dead Flowers” and “Wild Horses” (the latter was even covered by the Burritos on their album Burrito Deluxe). Gram’s presence on Exile Main Street is heard in the Mick Jagger-Richards compositions “Sweet Virginia“ and “Torn and Frayed.”
Upon leaving Richards and the Stones, Gram returned to Los Angeles where he began working on his first solo album, 1973’s GP. Paired with the gifted vocalist Emmylou Harris, Gram continued to build on what he called the “cosmic American music” sound. Album opener “Still Feeling Blue,” written by Parsons, certainly finds its inspirations in Bakersfield country legend Buck Owens. Other standouts include the Joyce Allsup written, “We’ll Sweep out the Ashes in the Morning,” which highlights the brilliance of Parsons and Harris’ harmonies.
Gram would record only one other album in his lifetime, 1974’s Grievous Angel. This album, which received a coveted five stars from Rolling Stone Magazine, featured Gram’s cover of “Love Hurts,” written by songwriter Bouldeaux Bryant. Once again, the singer’s vocals, combined with Harris’ harmonies created an undeniable sound, one that is arguably the duo’s masterpiece. Though the album received great reviews, and has gone on to become essential listening for any fan of country and rock, Parsons would never know the breadth of the album. On September 19, 1973, Parsons passed away due to a drug overdose while celebrating the completion of Grievous Angel at the Joshua Tree Inn in California.
Though Parsons did not live to see his dream of a “cosmic American music” fully realized, his influence is certainly heard throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. In the music of classic bands like the Eagles, all the way to the genre-bending sounds of modern artists like Wilco and Margo Price, Gram’s cosmic American music is more present than ever.
Image tite: The Flying Burrito Brothers’ “The Gilded Palace of Sin”
Caption: Artwork for The Flying Burrito Brothers’ 1969 album “The Gilded Palace of Sin”
Alt-Text: The members of the band, each in their own colorful suits, stand amongst brush and debris, while two women, one blonde, one brunette, lean against a wooden structure in the background. The name of the band, written in psychedelic pink lettering, sits above the wooden structure. The name of the album, in small, white lettering sits on the wall of the wooden structure.