Recording of August 2006: Gram Parsons: The Complete Reprise Sessions
Rhino/Reprise RS 74669 (3 CDs). 1972–73/2006. Emmylou Harris, James Austin, reissue prods.; Hugh Davies, Ed Barton, orig. engs.; Dan Hersch, Bill Inglot, remastering engs. AAD? TT: 2:01:26
Sonics **1/2 to ****1/2
In the past five years, the Gram-Is-God train has gained an extraordinary amount of momentum. In 2004, Gram's daughter, Polly, and her Sin City production company (named for the Burrito Brothers' best-known tune), staged two all-star Gram tribute concerts, in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, which have been documented on the DVD Return to Sin City: A Tribute to Gram Parsons. Polly is also the coauthor of the third full-length Gram biography, the newly released Grievous Angel: An Intimate Biography of Gram Parsons. Over the next several years, Amoeba Records, the Berkeley, California–based independent record-store chain, is launching a record label devoted solely to previously unreleased Gram live tapes, some of which have been previously available only as bootlegs. Parsons is also the subject of a spectacular new documentary film, Gram Parsons, Fallen Angel, first shown on the BBC in the UK in 2005 and released on DVD in the US in June. There's even relatively new Gram for audiophiles, thanks to Sundazed Records' vinyl release of Another Side of this Life: The Lost Recordings 1965–'66.
Now, five years after Rhino Records released the supposed beat-all, end-all Gram boxed set, Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology, along comes this long-rumored, much-delayed, sorely needed reappraisal of the two solo records Gram made after leaving the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Briefly, for the uninitiated, Gram Parsons was a child of privilege and a southern gothic upbringing of sorts who endured both the suicide of his father, "Coon Dog" Connor, and, on the day he graduated from high school, his mother's death from alcoholism. After a semester at Harvard, Gram, who'd played in folk groups in the south, formed the International Submarine Band, who relocated to Los Angeles and released one LP, Safe at Home, in 1968, just as they were splitting up. Later that year he joined the Byrds just in time to play a very large role in the making of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Quitting the Byrds because he refused to tour apartheid South Africa (or he wanted to hang out with the Stones), he and ex-Byrd Chris Hillman formed the Flying Burrito Brothers and released Gilded Palace of Sin in 1969. While the follow-up, Burrito Deluxe, failed to build on the promise of its predecessor, Parsons had already moved on, getting deeper into drugs and hanging with the Rolling Stones. As Keith Richards confirms in Fallen Angel, Gram was "intimately involved" in the making of Exile on Main Street.
In 1972, Parsons returned to the States, met Emmylou Harris, and wrote the songs that eventually appeared on his first solo album, GP. Following its release, Gram and his band, the Fallen Angels (including Harris), toured before making their follow-up album, Grievous Angel. On September 19, 1973, just weeks after Grievous Angel had been completed, Parsons, 26, died of an overdose of morphine and tequila at the Joshua Tree Inn, in the California desert. His body was stolen from LAX, driven back to Joshua Tree, and partially burned by his friend and road manager, self-styled "road mangler" Phil Kaufman. The incident formed the basis of the 2004 film Grand Theft Parsons.
When it comes to the reissue of these two storied albums, which were some of the first to combine country and rock and are among the holy grail of the country rock, alt-country, and Americana subgenres, the questions for those who've bought them before fall under two headings: Sonics and Bonus Tracks.
The fresh remasterings on The Complete Reprise Sessions, courtesy Bill Inglot and Dan Hersch, have given the music on the original albums more bounce, crisper edges, and an overall brighter presentation. The most obvious tweak is of Gram's vocals, which seem to have been brought up in the mix ever so slightly. Take "She," from GP, for example. One of the handful of Gram tunes that can be called great, its impassioned vocal track is clearer and more closely defined than on either the original LP or CD versions. The same holds true on GP's other Gram-penned classic, "A Song for You." On Grievous Angel, Gram's vocals—on "Brass Buttons," for example—have never sounded warmer or had more body, and the intertwining of his and Emmylou's voices on "Love Hurts" has never been as breathtaking.
The bonus tracks added to the end of each original album are a mixed bag. The radio broadcast from Boston's WBCN on the first disc, of Gram and Emmylou singing "Love Hurts" and "Sin City," has the classic bootleg problem: great content marred by iffy, often hissy sound. The interview bits, four on GP and three on Grievous Angel, all labeled "date unknown," have their moments, particularly the final track on Grievous Angel, where Gram talks about country music and country rock. "I think pure country involves rock'n'roll," he begins.
The third disc, which Gram collectors have been trading copies of for years, ever since this project began really, is devoted to alternate takes of songs from the two original albums. Unreleased songs such as "Widow Maker"—which, along with several other unreleased alternate takes, were this project's big attraction—have been inexplicably left off the final track list. No doubt someone along the way, perhaps coproducer Emmylou Harris or the Parsons estate, had them removed.
Despite that disappointment, this bag, too, is mixed, but nothing is markedly worse than the takes originally issued, and there are gorgeous reimaginings of songs from both records. Disc 3 is the reason to own this set. Many tunes, such as "Streets of Baltimore," from GP, are stripped down but very powerful. "We'll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning" is slightly slower, and so sadder, than the original. Ditto the alternate of "Sleepless Nights," where the vocal telepathy between Gram and Emmylou is a marvel to hear even 30 years removed. The most charming moment is when Gram mispronounces "Grievous Angel" as "Gree-Vee-ous Angel." The most welcome subtraction here is the fake crowd noise that accompanied the Northern Quebec medley on Grievous Angel.
Whether or not Gram Parsons' music is the starting point of country rock and its offspring is not really the point anymore. What's important is that, whatever you call his music, it's an original blend of American musical streams that continues to draw admirers from across the musical spectrum. While Gram's personal myths may be overblown, there's no questioning what he actually got down on tape during his short life. Miss this stuff at your own risk.—Robert Baird