By Jack Sharkey, December 5, 2014

Somewhere, on some highway, there's a place like the Grievous Angel. I'm absolutely sure I had a chicken sandwich and a glass of water there just outside of Tucumcari on the way from Amarillo to Albuquerque one day many years ago. That may or may not have actually happened, but I'm pretty sure in our collective American musical conscience it did (for all of us at one time or another).

 

Gram Parson's second solo album Grievous Angel is not a particularly well-recorded record, but it wouldn't be half as good as it is if it was. This record is the single-span bridge on the western highway between all that came out of Nashville in the 1950s and 1960s and all that would come out of Los Angeles in the middle-1970s. It's easy to hear Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, and America in this record, but if you listen close enough you can hear Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and every honky-tonk band that ever played anywhere in between. I'll go as far as to say Fleetwood Mac and a whole host of other artists (Scot headbangers Nazareth!) wouldn't have had the careers they had without Gram Parsons and this album. 

 

Parsons destroyed himself with drugs and alcohol before this album was released and in that sickly poignant fact lies the truth that in death Parsons became much bigger than he ever could have in life. Unfortunately, we may all have been better off if he had stuck around to prove me wrong.

Gram Parsons Grievous Angel

  • • Released January 1974 on Reprise Records
  • • Produced by Gram Parsons
  • • Engineered by Hugh Davies
  • • Recorded at Wally Heifer 4 (Nashville) and Capitol Recording Studios (Los Angeles)
  • • Mixed by Hugh Davies
  • • Length: 38:06
  • • Reached Number 195 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums in 1974 

 

Personnel: 

  • • Gram Parsons - Vocals, Guitars
  • • Emmylou Harris - Vocals
  • • Glen Hardin - Keyboards
  • • Emory Gordy - Bass
  • • Ronnie Tutt - Drums
  • • N.D. Smart - Drums
  • • James Burton - Guitars
  • • Herb Pederson - Guitars
  • • Al Perkins - Pedal Steel
  • • Bernie Leadon - Dobro, guitars
  • • Byron Berline - Fiddle, mandolin
  • • Steve Snyder - Vibraphone

 

When I scheduled this piece I listened to it first on the original vinyl I bought in 1975, and apparently as a teenager I didn't take care of my vinyl as much as I thought it did. Luckily I also had a new 180gm disk that is pretty much scratchless. The recording is kind of small and flat with not a lot of dynamic range to it, but since its largely percussive with a smattering of pedal steel and fiddle thrown about for good measure, that small dynamic range actually sounds exactly right. Sonically, you won't hear a lot of cymbals and upper register frequencies, so don't panic that your hearing is shot (it probably is, but that shouldn't affect your ability to listen to this record). 

 

Parsons was first and foremost a story-teller and that is why this album needs to be in your collection. This is aGram Parsons Grievous Angel set of stories about a guy who was struggling to find his way in the world and who ultimately lost that fight. It comes at a time when the bulk of American music was transitioning from '60s pop and folk flavorings into a darker, more austere period that existed before Big Pop (I'm looking at you BeeGees) took over in the latter part of the decade. There is an innocence amongst the struggle that could only have existed in this small window of time between the days when pop stars thought they could change the world and the time when they learned they were doomed to live in it (just like the rest of us).

 

Side 1

Return of the Grievous Angel (4:19): I’m not sure which is more iconic, the Al Perkins' pedal steel or Emmylou Harris’ vocals. The poetry of the lyric and the feel of the arrangement evokes everything we like to think exists west of the Mississippi River, but maybe never really did, or still does, I’m not really sure, but I love taking the ride whenever I listen to this song anyway. If you want to understand American music, you should familiarize yourself with this song.

Hearts On Fire (3:50): Walter Egan of Magnet and Steel fame co-wrote this semi-meandering tale of heartbreak and bad love. I always wondered why there were vibes in this song as they just didn’t seem congruous with what is essentially a country song, but then again what the hell do I know? I suppose the vibrato on the vibes evokes a sad pedal steel, but I still can’t really get past why its just not a pedal steel.

I Can’t Dance (2:20): When you work with Elvis Presley’s backing band (James Burton on guitars and Glen Hardin on piano) on a Tom T. Hall song you’re going to sound like the King, even if you’re just a wayward southern boy playing desert rock and roll. This song is a strong fiber of connection between Elvis and the birth of rock and roll and the LA sound of the mid-70s that still influences American music today. The vocals are noisy on this track in particular so you have to listen past that a little. 

Brass Buttons (3:27): This is the set's best showcase of Parson’s beautifully plaintive voice and the acoustic guitar (in the right channel) is a perfect example of how an acoustic guitar should be recorded and equalized. This may be a sad song about either Parson’s daughter or the state of Parson’s life in general, but it’s a really poignant and beautiful song nevertheless.

$1000 Wedding (5:00): The strongest track on the album, this record is worth owning just for this one song alone. This track is a re-telling of Parson’s own failed attempt to marry the mother of his daughter, but it takes on a completely different meaning having been released posthumously. Sometimes the best music is the music that was written to salve a wound within the writer but that sends a universal message to the rest of us about our own lives. This is one of those songs. The words of this song are still chillingly prophetic forty years later.

 

Side 2

Medley Live From Northern Quebec

Cash On the Barrelhead (2:12): Some of you may look down on this song as a bit too much chip-kicker (as a radio-friendly Lyle Lovett puts it) for your refined musical tastes. It’s not, it’s American music and with very few exceptions, the music you listen to today at some point sprung from songs like this. Plus it’s just a helluva lot of fun to listen to.

Hickory Wind (4:15): First off all, as the band kicks in you hear what sounds like a glass hit the floor. Then as Parsons begins to sing you hear the glass being cleaned up. A bar fight in a honky-tonk? A waitress turning to slap an over-zealous drinker of hard spirits? A normal night in the kind of bar you want to spend time in but are too afraid to? Yes. And I’ll have another please, thank you. If I was inclined to drink a lot of whiskey and feel sorry for myself, I’d probably only listen to this song. Then I did some research on this one and it seems it was recorded in a studio with over-dubbed friends playing the part of the "audience." Damn, I hate reality. For forty years I thought this medley was recorded in some bar in some way-north lumber town that was filled with nothing but trouble. Screw reality, I'm going to keep this bar exactly in existence how it always has been for me.

Love Hurts (3:40): Before Nazareth had a monster hit in 1975 with the very first power ballad, Gram and Emmylou took the old Boudleax Bryant ditty about how miserable it is to fall in love and turned it into an amazingly poignant country song. And by the way, it always annoyed me that the guys in Nazareth claimed writer’s credits for this song even though they obviously got the idea to record it from this version. Parsons is panned full right and Harris is panned full left and they are completely alone in their duet with each other.

Las Vegas (3:40): The next time you drive somewhere, the supermarket, Wawa, to pick up junior from soccer practice, Tennessee, Las Vegas, wherever, put this song on loud and your trip will suddenly become EPIC! Or you can just sit at home and dream about hopping in the fam-mobile with built-in DVD player and traveling to some far-off exotic locale, like a Sheetz or something. The other best thing about this song, like the rest of the album, is that you’re listening to a live band play live music, all at the same time. That’s why, when you hear this song, you can’t help but offer to make that late night trip for Kitty Litter because the cat is being fussy.

In My Hour Of Darkness (3:42): By now you’ve gone online and ordered up some cowboy boots and denim shirts with pearl buttons, and maybe a hat, and it’s okay. Revel in your newfound love and respect for American Cosmic Music (as Parson’s called it). Or maybe just sit back and take a thirty-six minute trip back to a desert and a highway that must have existed somewhere at some moment in time.

 

Grievous Angel is best listened to: 

  • • On a juke box with a cool glass of water in a roadside café outside of Tucumcari, NM. I can testify this is the best way to listen to any track on this album
  • • Short of a trip on I-40 out of Amarillo, beer is good. Tecate is recommended, Southern Select is acceptable
  • • By yourself with a pocket full of woes
  • • As much as I really want you to sit at home and listen to this album on a great stereo system (you really should), this the quintessential mobile album. Driving unfettered by suburban traffic is the single best way to enjoy this record. Like I said, you can sit and dream too.