Gram Parsons: Pictures From Life's Other Side

Ever since his death in 1973 at age 26, Gram Parsons has been talked about in such reverential tones by those who've been touched by his music that it's become nearly impossible to tell where the reality ends and the mythology begins. There's no question that Parsons was ahead of his time when, in the latter part of the 1960s, the Southern-bred Harvard dropout began writing and singing songs that sought to forge a bipartisan alliance between rock and country — respectively the most liberal and conservative music styles then known to man.

History notes that while Parsons never gained more than a cult following in his short lifetime, plenty of others (most notably the Eagles) cashed in on his vision of "cosmic American music. "And it's right there that the reality/mythology question rears its confusing head, since the reality of Gram Parsons' music is often at odds with the mythology surrounding that music. Said dilemma comes into sharp focus on Hot Burritos, a double-CD anthology that gathers together the two official albums released during the brief (1969–70) time that Parsons was a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers — as well as a clutch of rarities and posthumously released Burritos recordings featuring Parsons, whose term of duty with the group ended when exasperated co-founder Chris Hillman kicked him out for ever-mounting personal and professional screw-ups.

This collection (which also includes the highly underrated album the band made without him before their breakup in 1972) is, of course, only part of the Gram Parsons story. Those familiar with his winding career know that before the Burritos, Parsons recorded with his own country band, the International Submarine Band and, more prominently, with the Byrds, whose groundbreaking 1968 country-rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Parsons helped shape during his blink-of-an-eye tenure in that legendary group. It was there that his partnership with original Byrd Hillman began, as their shared musical ambitions led to the formation of the Burritos.

The Gram Parsons heard on their still-remarkable 1969 debut album,The Gilded Palace of Sin, remains the most focused document this complicated artist ever produced. Talk about cosmic: Here was a work that nonchalantly brought together everything from '50s-styled Everly Brothers rockabilly ("Christine's Tune" [RealAudio excerpt]) and '60s Southeastern R&B ("Dark End of the Street," "Do Right Woman") to pre-rock country cracked corn (the Hank Williams/Luke the Drifter nodding "Hippie Boy") and timeless bluegrass (the draft-dodger ragging "My Uncle"). And that was only the half of it. Add to this such eye-opening originals as "Sin City," "Wheels" (RealAudio excerpt), "Juanita" and "Hot Burritos #1 and #2," and it was clear that Parsons had successfully imposed rock-raised perspectives on traditional hard country, resulting in a hybrid that miraculously looked simultaneously forward and backward. That his vocals cracked in all the right places, always totter on a melody's fault line, only added to devil-or-angel mystique.

Unfortunately, few second albums ever deflated a mystique as thoroughly as 1970's hugely disappointing Burrito Deluxe. Overnight, it seemed, Parsons had lost his vision and his voice. The on-paper sure-shot centerpiece, the Stones' "Wild Horses" (RealAudio excerpt) — handed to Parsons on a silver platter by then buddy Keith Richards before its appearance on Sticky Fingers — was a confounding washout — one of the great blown opportunities in the history of rock. Parsons seemed too wasted to get through the song, much less the whole album, which was filled with drab rock ("Lazy Day," "Down in the Churchyard") and sloppy country ("Farther Along," "High Fashion Queen"), and when the band gave up on him shortly thereafter, it probably wouldn't have surprised anyone if he'd have died right then and there.

Remarkably, he didn't — and that's a huge part of the mystique, too. In 1972, inspired by the duet vocals of his new protégé, Emmylou Harris (ironically, it was Hillman who turned Parsons onto her), he began a near-miraculous journey back to where he once belonged. You can hear him coming close to the promised land on his two Warner Bros. solo albums, especially Grevious Angel, the collection he was finishing up in late 1973 when the devil that was never quite in disguise finally got the better of him and the angels gave him his flying shoes.

Maybe it's that ever clear and present danger of everything falling apart at any moment that has made Parsons such an intriguing figure to several generations of "roots" musicians. Yet one feels compelled to point out that only an artist as utterly fearless as Parsons — an artist brave enough to cover Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and the Bee Gees — could make the kind of music he did. If just some of his myriad "disciples" could show even half the emotional openness he was always so willing to expose — well, perhaps then Gram Parsons' dream of a cosmic American music might someday come true.