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2023/4 Albums Thing 266 - Gram Parsons “GP”

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We’ve talked about Gram Parsons a lot here already while talking about records by The Byrds and Emmylou Harris. As a refresher, he was the grandson of Florida Orange growing magnates who developed a love of Country Music (Gram, not the orange growing magnates, although they too may have been fans) when he heard Merle Haggard while at Harvard! Not yer usual Country stars path, granted. He converted The Byrds to Country on “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo”, hung out with the Rolling Stones and helped them write “Wild Horses”. He then discovered Emmylou Harris, made two of the greatest Country Rock (or as he called it Cosmic American Music) albums to date and died of a drug overdose aged 26 and his Road manager then kidnapped his body and burned it under a Joshua Tree in the desert…Phew!

I was already a fan of The Byrds and one day while on tour in the US I asked Martin “Fiddley” Bell “If I like The Byrds will I like Gram Parsons ?”. He told me I would so I went to the record store directly opposite the venue we were at in Boulder, Colorado (Nanu Nanu !) and bought a double CD feauturing “GP” and “Grievous Angel”. For once “Fiddley” Bell was right, I did like Gram Parsons. The band on “GP” are quite the players. There is a big chunk of Elvis Presley’s Las Vegas band, guitarist James Burton, drummer Ronnie Tutt, keyboards by Glen D Hardin. Then there’s the Flying Burrito Brothers fiddle player Byron Berline and banjo player Alan Munde and not one but two legendary pedal steel players in Al Perkins and Buddy Emmons. Oh and Blind Faith/Traffic bass player Ric Grech. Add to that Gram and harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris and you have quite the lineup.

The album was originally scheduled to be produced by one of Gram’s great heroes, Merle Haggard. But after a meeting with Gram that seemed to go well, Haggard pulled out of the job. He had his own demons to deal with and it has been suggested he saw some of the same things in Gram. Parsons was reportedly crushed by Haggard’s vacating the production chair.

“GP” starts out quite traditionally with the Bluegrass hoedown that is “Still Feeling Blue”. Fiddles and pedal steels gallop through the song with swooping, interlocking lines whilst Emmylou adds perfect harmonies on the chorus. Emmylou is back on next song "We'll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning”. This one isn’t so much her singing harmony as duetting with Gram, which is really how their musical relationship works. She even gets a verse to herself.

Toward the end of Side one is one of Gram’s finest performances. “Streets Of Baltimore” was written by Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard in 1966. It’s been recorded by many people over the years (Willie Nelson, The Lemonheads, Uncle Tupelo, John Prine the list goes on) but it was Gram’s version that made the song famous. It tells of a young married couple who sell their farm so the husband can take his wife where she really wanted to be, Baltimore. Eventually he realises that his wife likes the city and its nightlife more than him and he returns to Tennessee while his “baby walks the streets of Baltimore”, make of that last line what you will. The song was also heard in the soundtrack of TV series The Wire, set in Baltimore. That’s followed by “She”, a beautiful ballad written by Gram and Chris Ethridge which I’ve always thought was about Emmylou (“oh but she sure could sing”) who also covered it.

“GP” set the template for what would come to be called Country Rock. The likes of the Eagles and Poco took the template and ran with it, members of both bands had orbited around the scene that Gram was part of (Byrds, Burrito’s etc.) and his hand in all of that should never be underestimated.

Streets Of Baltimore - https://youtu.be/Xi0c2clOqp0?si=EOkOOldcquxgOc2w

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