Remembering “Grievous Angel” by Gram Parsons 50 Years Later

Gram Parsons didn’t even call it country himself. He preferred the term “cosmic American music,” and let the songs and country music influences speak for themselves. It sold poorly upon its release. Gram himself couldn’t go on tour promoting it because he passed away before it hit shelves. The folks in Nashville wouldn’t dare even sniff at it, let alone give it a spin. But a strong case can be made that Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons is one of the most important albums released in country music history.

It’s not just because of Gram, the songs, the players, and Emmylou. It’s because Grievous Angel was the album that ended up in so many young people’s hands who hated country music previously because it symbolized the past and their parents’ music. But Gram and Grievous Angel allowed them to listen to the music instead of just hear it. Grievous Angel didn’t make country music cool. Country was always cool. But it took an ambassador like Gram, and an album like Grievous Angel to prove it.

Gram Parsons was no stranger to introducing West Coast rock n’ roll types to country. He’d done this with the legendary psychedelic pop group The Byrds through their album Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968. Just like Grievous Angel, it was a commercial flop, few got it in its time, yet the album went on to be legendary. Similarly, The Flying Burrito Brothers conjoined country and rock under Gram’s leadership in way that was revolutionary in its time, even if it took some time for history to recognize that.

But now upon the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the release of Grievous Angel, it’s not considered hyperbole; it’s considered an empirical truth that Grievous Angel was a generationally important work of country music.

On paper, the album shouldn’t have been anything special since Gram came to the sessions strung out, and light on new material. “Hickory Wind” was a track Gram previously released with The Byrds and “Cash on the Barrellhead” was an old Louvin Brothers tune. Besides, the canned applause for the implausible “Medley Live from Northern Quebec” track wasn’t fooling anyone as a field recording.

“$1000 Wedding” was from Gram’s Flying Burrito days, and “Brass Buttons” dated back to Gram performing in college. “Ooh Las Vegas” had been rejected from Gram’s first solo album GP. “Return of the Grievous Angel” and “In My Hour of Darkness” were songs penned rather hastily during the album’s recording sessions.

But none of this mattered. When Gram sings “Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels” during the opening song with Emmylou Harris on harmonies, it sounds like the most sweet cowboy poetry ever sung. When their voices conjoin on “Love Hurts,” it’s perhaps the most sublime sound you’ve ever heard.

It’s hard to know if the players on Grievous Angel are all iconic because they played on this album, or if they would be considered iconic anyway, or both. Either way, it was a who’s who of West Coast and American pickers. You had the legendary James Burton on electric guitar, Al Perkins on pedal steel, Emory Gordy Jr. on bass later of Emmylou’s Hot Band and who’s now married to Patty Loveless, and Herb Pederson on rhythm guitar.

And this doesn’t speak of the musical guests on the album, including Bernie Leadon of The Eagles, fiddle extraordinaire Byron Berline who in later years would mentor the Turnpike Troubadours and their fiddler Kyle Nix, along with Linda Ronstadt singing harmonies on “In My Hour of Darkness.”

Even if you don’t want to give a strung out Gram Parsons any credit for the greatness of Grievous Angel, it’s hard to not bow down to the the hot shot pickin’ and playin’ featured all throughout this album. Each solo seems so exquisitely matched with the message and the melody, while the takeoff guitar on “Ooh Las Vegas” will get the pulse racing, matching the frenetic energy of Sin City.

The reason Grievous Angel created such a “rub” where it imparted the appeal for country music on new audiences is because it included actual, authentic country music material. There were no hybrids or half measures here. Charlie Louvin always gave Gram direct credit for helping to back stop his career by covering “Cash on the Barrellhead.” Tom T. Hall wrote “I Can’t Dance.” And Country Music Hall of Famer Boudleaux Bryant was responsible for “Love Hurts.”

And if nothing else, Grievous Angel was the world’s formal introduction to Emmylou Harris, who Gram considered as much more than a harmony singer, even though that’s all she was billed as on the jacket material thanks to Gram’s widow Gretchen.

The album was recorded in the summer of 1973, but wasn’t released until January of 1974. Gretchen removed the title credit of “Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris,” and instead of using an image of the two together as the cover art, she went with just the image of Gram with the now iconic blue background. Though according to Emmylou, nothing romantically ever happened between her and Gram, Gretchen always had her suspicions.

But of course, what makes Grievous Angel so poignant and heartbreaking is how it aligned with real world events. Right after the recording of it is when Gram heading to Joshua Tree out in the desert to take some time off. He would never return after he overdosed in Room #8 of the Joshua Tree Inn on September 19th, 1973. He was 26 years old.

When Grievous Angel was finally released, all the songs took on such a more tragic and poignant meaning. You could hear the pain coming through in Gram’s voice. “$1000 Wedding” and its funeral references felt like a premonition, and of course, so did “In My Hour of Darkness” co-written with Emmylou Harris. It was art imitating life.

Another young man safely strummed
His silver string guitar
And he played to people everywhere
Some say he was a star
But he was just a country boy
His simple songs confess
And the music he had in him
So very few possess

A lot of traditional country fans will mourn over the tragic and poetic deaths of Hank Williams and Keith Whitley, but cast off Gram Parson’s as a West Coast junkie who ultimately got his.

But Gram Parsons had to be the country guy miscast in the world of rock n’ roll, constantly swimming against the grain, trying to convince his contemporaries of the beauty of twang and country songwriting. He died in that service, and through Grievous Angel, fulfilled that destiny.

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