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‘GP’: Why Gram Parsons’ Debut Album Is A Country-Rock Classic
Warner Music
In Depth

‘GP’: Why Gram Parsons’ Debut Album Is A Country-Rock Classic

Gram Parsons nearly self-destructed before releasing his debut album. ‘GP’ now stands as testament to the troubled singer’s unique talent.

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Perhaps country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons was always destined to go solo. He’d left The Flying Burrito Brothers by mutual agreement despite spearheading their first two albums – the genre-defining The Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969) and its follow-up, Burrito Deluxe (1970). And before that, his tenure with The Byrds had been even briefer: joining in February 1968, Parsons influenced a sea-change within the group, resulting in the country-rock classic Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, but he would leave just five months later, in protest over the band’s upcoming tour of South Africa, a country then under apartheid. Yet his debut solo album, GP, a defining work of country-rock, didn’t surface until January 1973, by which time Parsons’ lifestyle had all but caught up with him.

Listen to ‘GP’ here.

The backstory: “He was so out of it by then that he simply had to go”

Significantly, the decision to stand up for his political beliefs and leave The Byrds came about after a conversation with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Richards, especially, would prove to be a major influence on Parsons, not least thanks to a shared enthusiasm for hard living, and Parsons was intoxicated by the circus that surrounded The Rolling Stones, as author and Los Angeles scenester Eve Babitz told Mojo’s Barney Hoskyns in 1998: “The Rolling Stones came into town, and Gram went over to see them, and he never came back.”

As Parsons fell into the Stones’ inner circle, his behaviour became more erratic, which led to his eventual parting of ways with the Burritos. “He was so out of it by then that he simply had to go,” revealed bandmate Chris Hillman. “That was the end of it, and it was unpleasant.”

The false start: “I really don’t remember the circumstances of the departure clearly”

Come 1970, Parsons was at a crossroads. Enter Terry Melcher, the son of Doris Day and former producer of The Byrds and The Beach Boys. The pair struck up a friendship – again, inspired by a mutual love of hedonism – and Melcher persuaded executives at A&M Records to sign Parsons as a solo artist. They then set about recording what was supposed to be Parsons’ solo debut album, a collection of covers of country standards with a smattering of originals, including Brass Buttons, a song which would eventually be released on Parsons’ second, posthumous, album, 1974’s Grievous Angel. The sessions became notoriously debauched (legend has it that Parsons vomited on the studio’s Yamaha concert piano one particularly heavy night), and A&M pulled the plug when the album was nearing completion.

In search of a fresh scene (and perhaps lured across the Atlantic by the magnetic force of the Stones), Parsons and his girlfriend, aspiring actress Gretchen Burrell, decamped to England in March 1971. Melcher visited him in London, tapes in hand, with a view to recording overdubs to complete the album. By this point, though, Parsons had lost interest in the project, his head turned by a prospective deal with the Stones’ record label. The Melcher tapes never surfaced, with rumours that they were destroyed by a fire at Parsons’ Laurel Canyon home in 1973.

With his solo career up in the air, in July 1971 Parsons and Burrell joined the Stones’ entourage at Nellcôte, a rented mansion on the Côte d’Azur, in southern France, where the band were recording their landmark 1972 double album, Exile On Main St. Within weeks, the pair were asked to leave, with some accounts blaming Parsons’ overindulgence, others claiming that his presence caused tension between Jagger and Richards, and still others suggesting that it was Burrell’s behaviour that caused problems. “I really don’t remember the circumstances of the departure clearly,” Richards wrote in his best-selling memoir, Life. “I had insulated myself against the dramas of the crowded household.” Parsons was crushed and, on his return to London, attempted suicide with a heroin overdose.

The chance encounter: “I had no idea who Gram was when he called me”

Travelling back to the US, Parsons found himself in limbo. After marrying Burrell in New Orleans, he attempted to quit using hard drugs, but, as he did so, his drinking escalated. In a bid to reach out to his old bandmate, Chris Hillman asked Parsons to sit in with the Burritos for an October 1971 show in Baltimore. Backstage that night, knowing that Parsons was looking for a duet partner to help reignite his musical career, Hillman raved about a young singer called Emmylou Harris, whom he’d recently chanced upon in a Washington, DC, club. The problem was, Hillman had no way of tracking Harris down. Amazingly, Harris’ babysitter happened to be in earshot and gave Parsons the elusive singer’s phone number.

“I had no idea who Gram was when he called me,” Harris revealed in the sleevenotes of the 2006 box set The Complete Reprise Sessions. “He introduced himself and wanted me to come up to Baltimore, and I said, ‘I have to work tonight… you can take the train down,’ so that’s what happened.”

Parsons made it to Harris’ show, at Clyde’s, a bar in Georgetown, and was struck by the purity of Harris’ vocals. The pair clicked immediately, with Parsons joining Harris onstage for a couple of country standards. He then asked her to travel out to LA and promised he’d be in touch.

Despite the auspicious meeting, Parsons, in bad shape and lacking a record deal, had little to offer Harris. It wasn’t until the following year that Reprise Records took a chance on him, and even once he was signed, finding a producer became an issue. Plans to have one of his heroes, country star Merle Haggard, produce what would become GP went awry after the pair spent a few days together at Haggard’s place in Bakersfield and it became apparent things weren’t going to work out between them.

The recording sessions: An all-star ensemble and some true country royalty

In June 1972, former Family and Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech asked Parsons to guest on sessions in London. The two men quickly bonded, and it was soon decided that Grech would produce Parsons’ debut album. Sessions were booked for September, at Wally Heider Studio 4, in Hollywood. All that remained was to assemble a band.

It had been nearly a year since their first meeting, but Parsons was good to his word and sent a plane ticket to Emmylou Harris. Having decided that he wanted to be backed by the best, at an Elvis Presley show at the Hilton International, Las Vegas, Parsons convinced guitarist James Burton, pianist Glen D Hardin and drummer Ronnie Tutt, of Elvis’s TCB (Taking Care Of Business) Band, to join him for the GP sessions. And Parsons still wasn’t done, adding to the all-star ensemble some true country royalty in the shape of pedal-steel guitarists Buddy Emmons and Al Perkins, plus the much-admired bluegrass fiddler Byron Berline and New Orleans saxophonist Harold Battiste.

After a false start (on the first day in the studio, Grech was hospitalised with kidney stones; Parsons’ reaction was to drink himself blind), Gram Parsons’ debut album, GP, finally began to take shape. Whether it was the realisation that he was likely in the last-chance saloon, or an effect of the positive influence of Harris and the TCB Band, Parsons began to sober up; laying down his vocals, he sung with a frailty that spoke of his inner struggles and the album’s rough ride to completion.

The songs: Beaten and world-weary beyond their years

The country hoedown of Still Feeling Blue sets GP’s stall out immediately, launching into life with Berline’s virtuoso fiddle. This is real-deal country, the band kicking up a storm behind Parsons, who plays the spurned lover who can’t forget the woman who broke his heart.

The pace is lowered for a cover of Joyce Allsup’s We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning, a duet with Emmylou Harris that finds the pair convincingly singing of forbidden love (“We’re two people caught up in the flame that has to die out soon/I didn’t mean to start this fire and neither did you”). The brilliant A Song For You follows, a heartbreakingly vulnerable ballad with a wracked lead vocal that shows the damage that Parsons’ lifestyle had inflicted on his voice. Parsons was just 25 when he recorded it, but he sounds beaten and world-weary beyond his years.

Written by Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard (best known for writing Patsy Cline’s I Fall To Pieces), Streets Of Baltimore offers a glimpse of what may have come from the abandoned Terry Melcher sessions. It’s a straight country reading, bolstered by strong harmonies from Harris. Meanwhile, She is a straight-up classic of Parsons’ own, co-written with former Burritos bandmate Chris Etheridge and immediately standing among the best Gram Parsons songs.

Another cover – of the George Jones weepie That’s All It Took – opened side two of GP’s original vinyl pressing, setting the listener up for Parsons’ own heartbreak ballad The New Soft Shoe. Following immediately after, Grech’s Kiss The Children sounded like a honky-tonk standard, telling of a deeply flawed man abandoning his family for the good of all concerned (“And the gun that’s hangin’ on the kitchen wall, dear/Is like the road sign pointing straight to Satan’s cage”).

Parsons handed the mic to guitarist Barry Tashian for a raunched-up cover of The J Geils Band’s Cry One More Time before bringing the album to a close himself with the poignant How Much I’ve Lied and the rollicking Big Mouth Blues.

The release and legacy: A unique talent who finally found the audience he deserved

Despite strong reviews, GP wasn’t the commercial success that Parsons craved. Following the album’s release, in January 1973, Parsons took his band on the road, under the name The Fallen Angels, before recording his second album, Grievous Angel, that summer, again calling on Harris and Elvis’ TCB musicians.

In the end, however, Parsons’ hard-living caught up with him, and he died from a morphine and alcohol overdose in September 1973, just eight months on from the release of his debut solo album. Since his death at the tragically young age of 26, his music has found the audience it always deserved, and Parsons is rightfully acknowledged for his role in the evolution of country-rock. GP demonstrates what a unique talent he was.

Find out which ‘GP’ tracks rank among the best Gram Parsons songs.

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