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Best Gram Parsons Songs: 10 Landmarks Of “Cosmic American Music”
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List & Guides

Best Gram Parsons Songs: 10 Landmarks Of “Cosmic American Music”

Setting the template for country-rock, the best Gram Parsons songs remains transcendent examples of the tragic icon’s vision of Americana.

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Though Gram Parsons tragically died aged just 26, on 19 September 1973, he’d already made an indelible impression on rock music. Parsons’ vision for what he termed “cosmic American music” – a blend of country, soul, folk, R&B and rock – saw him join and reinvent The Byrds for the classic 1968 album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo; release two highly influential country-rock albums with The Flying Burrito Brothers; and, along with duet partner Emmylou Harris, record two landmark albums of his own – 1973’s GP and 1974’s posthumously released Grievous Angel – before his untimely death. In his short career, Parsons not only gave us some killer interpretations of standards (The Flying Burrito Brothers’ takes on soul classics Do Right Woman – Do Right Man and The Dark End Of The Street; his heartbroken duet with Emmylou Harris on Love Hurts), but he also wrote some all-time greats himself. Here, then, are the best Gram Parsons songs.

Listen to the best of Gram Parsons here, and check out the best Gram Parsons songs, below.

10: Luxury Liner (from The International Submarine Band, ‘Safe At Home’, 1968)

Gram Parsons’ first great song, Luxury Liner featured on the only album from his short-lived early outfit The International Submarine Band. This outsider anthem takes the boom-chicka-boom sound of Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Three and adds a pinch of Los Angeles rock and R&B to create a country-rock prototype. It later provided Emmylou Harris with the title track for her 1976 album.

9: Still Feeling Blue (from Gram Parsons, ‘GP’, 1973)

The opening track of Parsons’ debut solo album, GP is a bittersweet slice of honky-tonk country that introduced backing vocalist Emmylou Harris to the world. Easily one of the best Gram Parsons songs, Still Feeling Blue brought a bold, unapologetically country sound into early-70s rock, with whip-smart fiddle playing from bluegrass master Byron Berline, and the great James Burton (Elvis Presley, Glen Campbell, The Everly Brothers) on guitar and dobro.

8: Sin City (from The Flying Burrito Brothers, ‘The Gilded Palace Of Sin’, 1969)

This co-write with Burritos bassist and former Byrd Chris Hillman is both a cautionary tale and a celebration of the music industry in LA, a town so “filled with sin, it’ll swallow you in”. A modern take on one of the old Baptist hymns Hillman and Parsons grew up on, The Gilded Palace Of Sin is filled with fire and brimstone, and inspired a magical vocal from Parsons.

7: A Song For You (from Gram Parsons, ‘GP’, 1973)

Another mournful highlight from Parsons’ first solo album, A Song For You finds the wracked-sounding singer lamenting lost potential and squandered opportunities with such conviction it’s hard to believe that he was only 25 when he recorded it. Still, there is a resilience in the chorus pay-off – “And tomorrow, we may still be there” – that balances the song, along with the delicate and nuanced harmony vocal from Emmylou Harris.

6: She (from Gram Parsons, ‘GP’, 1973)

Originally written back in Parsons’ Burritos days, with bandmate Chris Ethridge, She was eventually recorded for GP, where it emerged as a country-gospel gem among the best Gram Parsons songs. Though the lyrics appear to be set in the deep South of the past and challenge racial attitudes of the era, there’s an ambiguity to the tale which leaves a sense of mystery. She has gone on to become one of Parsons’ most covered songs, with notable versions by Norah Jones, The Black Crowes and Pretenders with Emmylou Harris.

5: In My Hour Of Darkness (from Gram Parsons, ‘Grievous Angel’, 1974)

The closing track of the Grievous Angel album, released just four months after Parsons’ death, foretold the tragic events that would unfold following its recording. In My Hour Of Darkness song finds Parsons asking a higher power for strength while each of its three verses eulogises a friend of Parsons who’d recently died – actors Brandon DeWilde and Sid Kaiser, and former Byrds guitarist Clarence White. Emmylou Harris was given a co-writing credit on the song, later saying, “I feel like that was a product of Gram’s incredible generosity.”

4: Brass Buttons (from Gram Parsons, ‘Grievous Angel’, 1974)

Parsons wrote Brass Buttons back in the mid-60s (a touching demo was released in 2000, on the early-years collection Another Side Of This Life), but didn’t record the definitive version until his final recording sessions. Perhaps the intensely personal subject matter – his mother’s struggle with alcoholism – made him mindful of the need to treat the song with care. Parsons invests the lyrics “Brass buttons, green silks and silver shoes/Warm evenings, pale mornings, bottled blues” with a tender soulfulness befitting their inspiration.

3: Hickory Wind (from The Byrds, ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’, 1968)

The Byrds’ leader, Roger McGuinn, later commented that he thought he was hiring a piano player when Parsons joined his band. In fact, Parsons hijacked the group, radically transformed their sound, recorded a country-rock classic album with them and then quit – all in the space of six months. One of two Parsons originals on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, the homesick and hurting Hickory Wind still stands as of the best Gram Parsons songs of this formative phase of his career; it paints a vivid and evocative picture of Parsons’ childhood, and was blessed with one of his most poignant and yearning vocals. He’d later record a version for Grievous Angel, and the 2006 box set The Complete Reprise Sessions featured a beautiful alternate rendition.

2: Hot Burrito #1 (from The Flying Burrito Brothers, ‘The Gilded Palace Of Sin’, 1969)

Another co-write with Chris Ethridge, Hot Burrito #1 was based on a melody written by the bassist and which Parsons turned into one of the greatest breakup songs of all time. At the time of its recording, Parsons had recently separated from his long-term girlfriend, Nancy, and his trembling vocals make it painfully apparent how raw the feelings still were. On The Gilded Palace Of Sin, Hot Burrito #1 was followed by another breathtakingly heartbroken vocal from Parsons, on the altogether funkier Hot Burrito #2.

1: Return Of The Grievous Angel (from Gram Parsons, ‘Grievous Angel’, 1974)

The opening track of Parsons’ second and final solo album, the sublime Grievous Angel, was a glorious, self-mythologising statement of intent. Return Of The Grievous Angel fuses imagery from the Old West with the new world – truckers are depicted as the modern era’s cowboys, and Parsons references a king with “an amphetamine crown” (Elvis Presley). Topping this list of the best Gram Parsons songs, Return Of The Grievous Angel paints its creator as a lonesome and rootless wandering figure, searching in vain for a lost America and personal salvation.

Looking for more country-rock classics? Check out the best Emmylou Harris songs.

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