Gram Parsons – An Underrated Songwriter?

Gram at HarvardEveryone has his or her own definition of what makes for a great songwriter. Mine is seen by some as being a bit simplistic. I like simple definitions. So here goes: a great songwriter is one who has written one great song.

Simple yes, but hold on. My definition of “great,” while subjective, is a song that stands far above the field, basically a perfect song. For example, I’m not a big fan of Billy Joel, but I do think he’s a great songwriter just for “Piano Man.” Same with a lot of James Taylor, but “Sweet Baby James”? He’s in. Most folks would agree that Bob Dylan is a great songwriter. However, my criteria would be less on his incisive (and long) literary analyses of modern life and more on, say, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Many would disagree, but if it weren’t for Kristofferson’s first album, whose songs were largely in his guitar case before arriving in Nashville, I’m not sure I’d put him on that pedestal. However, he did and I do, as there are at least four absolutely perfect songs on that disk.

Lists of favorite or best songwriters pop up now and then, yet rarely is Gram Parsons’ name present. This seems to be truer today than about 10 years ago when everyone seemed to be on the Gram bandwagon. Almost 40 years since his passing, some seem to blame him for his bad habits and dying young, others like to criticize his voice (to me one of the best and most nuanced ever for the genre). Still others are embedded in the so-called Americana or roots movement, which Parsons’ legacy supposedly spawned (though Parsons’ influences were largely popular and even crossover) and which most recently seems to wander further from Gram’s vision, a vision Emmylou once called “regressive country.”

Gram Parsons is a great and distinguished songwriter, period. By my definition it’s tough to single out his greatest song, as there are so many he penned in a career cut short. Tough, but I’ll start by narrowing it down to probably his two best: “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2.” Although very different songs, they are often lumped together because of their titles, purposely ironic, I believe, as Gram knew he hit the mark but offered up whimsical titles (as he did with “Cosmic American Music” when pressed to label his music). Either of these centerpieces of the masterwork Gilded Palace of Sin is worthy of having been written by Leiber/Stoller, infusing rhythm and blues into a pure country form (Gram once referred to country music as “white soul,” which was an apt description until P.C. made this uncool). The anger and hurt come from deep inside, yet the words and delivery cleanse the soul. Everything about these two songs is perfect, and by my experience, they’ve been very hard for others to replicate live.

Some songs that Gram wrote as a very young man are undisputed masterpieces. “Luxury Liner,” written while with the International Submarine Band and made famous years later by Emmylou, stands out as one of the first. But even further back, the lesser known “November Nights” and “Apple Tree” merge mature lyrics and melody with youthful themes in a perfect complement not usually associated with those beginning to learn the craft. They figure forth creations that could only come from someone who only knew he loved, and could be hurt by, the world.

Yet for all the soulful suffering drawn from a tragic personal life, these songs and others can be almost jaunty and optimistic (as many have described Gram himself). Another is “Blue Eyes” from the ISB album, its sentiment worthy of John Denver and the song worthy of Buck Owens. And his almost bouncy “Do You Know How It Feels to Be Lonesome,” a reflection on the subject approaching the unapproachable “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” nevertheless holds something more, a matter-of-fact existential malaise that doesn’t cry in its beer, just notices, “Did you ever try to smile at some people, and all they ever seem to do is stare?”

As a student of Faulkner, I do not know of many songs that express such deep interior emotions that also reflect a transcending love for the South and its landscape and culture as GP’s “She” and “Song for You.” Together with “Hickory Wind,” another gem of a song, co-written with friend and ISB bandmate Bob Buchanan while on a speeding train to California,  these songs offer up a painful longing for something perennially lost, Gram’s own South. One feels in these the encroaching presence of L.A., if only for the homesickness of a boy so far from the green, green grass of home. “On the thirty-first floor, a gold-plated door, won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.” The record business, Wall Street, whatever, just couldn’t stand up to the fire and brimstone from rural Georgia. With the help of Chris Hillman, who knew from experience what the current audience wished to hear, the target turned outward, away from Gram’s own devils, by combining a futuristic perspective with old time evangelism. But it seems like this whole town’s insane, and Satan is real….

“The New Soft Shoe” explores a century of nation building through the sales pitch in a visual work worthy of Edward Hopper. The tormented self realizations of “How Much I’ve Lied” match the best of Cash. Gram’s brilliant “1,000 Dollar Wedding” is an enigmatic story song that takes the country story telling motif to a whole new level. And the heartbreaking “Brass Buttons,” written also very early for his terribly sick but deeply loved mother Avis, exists as a beautiful and timeless still life arrangement. The more one looks at these songs, the more one begins to understand, maybe, why it was so hard to sell this brand of country music, old in form yet something new in scope. In some ways it represented a whole new Western “tough guy,” one who was toughing it out with his own interior self.

Perhaps Gram’s signature song, even if based on a poem by someone else, “Return of the Grievous Angel” is epic in scope and ties our past with Fitzgerald’s ever-receding American dream, always beyond the horizon. It’s a hallmark of Gram’s songwriting genius.

One could go on and on, there are more examples of such magnificent perfection in Parsons’ catalog, a catalog larger than many who have grown to a ripe old age. But one must probably conclude with “In My Hour of Darkness,” a eulogy as well as a celebration for three of his closest friends whom he had lost (loss being a major theme in his work as in his life, also common to many great Southern writers). We don’t need to mention the names of those friends; most of us know them by now. Moreover, the song stands as a paean to Parsons himself, and to all country boys who have it in them to become something more, even through deceptively simple country songs.

Another young man safely strummed
His silver stringed 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 possessed.

Gram Parsons

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16 comments on “Gram Parsons – An Underrated Songwriter?

  1. Yes! Thanks for highlighting this fact – when it comes to songs GP is in a class by himself. He was a songwriting genius and that can not be disputed. His songs hold the test of time. There is a certain quality and integrity to his writing -and an urgency to tell the truth- that you just don’t find in country music today. Everything is bland in comparison. “In My Hour of Darkness”, “Sin City” and so many others will always be relevant. You can’t listen to “She” without feeling those bittersweet chords and lines touch your soul. Underrated yes but not forgotten.

  2. Jim says:

    Great article… I think Hillman has done his best to minamize GP’s songwriting ability. Thank goodness all you need to do is listen to the songs you mention to see that Hillman is wrong.

    • Note that I did mention Chris’ contributions, as well as those of Bob Buchanan. I could have also added Chris Ethridge for Hot Burritos. Let’s just say Gram was a very easy going and generous guy who played well with others.

      • Jim says:

        Yes he was..I’m just thinking about that recent FBB book where all Hillman did was bash Gram. He obviously deserves credit for the work they did together..and maybe has a point that his contribution to FBB dosent get enough credit. That book was over the top in my opinion.

  3. Bob Kealing says:

    I appreciate Will James making a well reasoned case to recognize Gram Parsons as a songwriter.
    James is helping take the emphasis off the tragicomic events surrounding Parsons death and all the posturing about it that still goes on today.
    Parsons’ died in an era when young men especially wore their addictions as a badge of honor and paid an awful price.
    Now we better understand addiction. People are also realizing that all the so called “Legend” nonsense surrounding Parsons does his legitimate legacy a disservice.
    The bitter lieutenants use it as their rationale to demean him.
    Thanks to people like Will James, Billy Ray Herrin, Dave Griffin and Peggy Hanson, Gram’s true legacy as a songwriter and pioneering visionary gets the recognition it and he deserves.

  4. msjamse@gmail.com says:

    Great article and in my opinion Gram is indeed one of the greatest of all time. As a songwriter myself, I appreciate and often listen to his music for inspiration. He is one of my “go-to” guys for reasons I can’t describe. It’s an emotional draw I suppose. Anyway, great article, thanks so much for sharing.

  5. Ernie Johnson says:

    Isn’t the line “his simple songs confessed”?
    In my opinion, In My Hour of Darkness falls short because of the unfortunate resonance of the line “Oh Lord grant me speed”. It is hard to sing or hear that line without coming up hard on the drug implication.
    His best song is probably Hickory Wind, I would say..
    I agree that he was a great songwriter, especially considering the short time frame of his productivity.

    • Ernie, thanks for the thoughts and the catch. I don’t interpret that line that way, and Lord knows many of his lyrics are enigmatic and open to interpretation. Many agree with you on Hickory Wind of course. It’s up there, and the history with the Opry makes it more special. I have to go with the Hot Burrito songs, followed by… no, an order is impossible.

    • “Speed” in this line is most likely short for “godspeed,” wishing one well on a voyage.

      • Ernie Johnson says:

        I agree that that is a legitimate interpretation. But I also suspect Gram, with his sense of humor and instinct for irreverence, meant it as a double entendre.
        By the way, I have seen a lyrics credit for Return of the Grievous Angel given to another author. Did GP in fact write the entire song, or just the tune?
        On a side note, I am a guitar player/singer/songwriter myself, and participate in the thriving Denver-Boulder Bluegrass scene. I like to introduce Gram songs to the Bluegrass jams on a fairly regular basis. It’s fun to have the purists ask “great song…who wrote it?” Almost as much fun as the closet Gram bluegrass fans who sing along on the choruses, or play the Hillman mando or Berline fiddle parts.
        Keep the old CAM torch burning as long as you can, then pass it on!

  6. Boston poet Thomas Brown wrote the poem he gave to Gram at Oliver’s and asked him to set it to music. More here: http://whenyouawake.com/2010/11/12/the-return-of-the-grievous-angel-the-story-behind-the-song/. My feeling that the music is more than a “tune.”

    • Ernie Johnson says:

      Thanks for the information, and I do believe I had read about it in Fong-Torres’ bio.
      Believe me, no insult is implied by the term “tune”. I am talking about the melody as opposed to the lyric. “Yesterday” had a great tune, too.

  7. Thanks for this wonderful story..

  8. As this was re-printed in No Depression online as a featured blog, adding some followup comments from that page (http://www.nodepression.com/profiles/blogs/gram-parsons-an-underrated-songwriter):

    M. Browning Vogel: “Nice essay. I agree that Parsons was a great lyricist, and always felt thus until I tried to cover a few of his songs. They really through me in how they were organized, not 1-4-5 and not verse-chorus-verse. He laid down some great chord progressions (see “Return of the Grievous Angel”). Upon studying his song architecture, I finally understood what people meant when they said he bridged rock and country.”

    Ruth: “I’ve waited a long time to read this sort of writing (your post and also the comments above) about GP – ever since first hearing “Hickory Wind” on Sweetheart of the Rodeo… Was grateful for the David Meyer bio a few years back but there’s been precious little that looked at Gram’s writing in the greater context of singer-songwriters and/or southern literature. He was an outstanding songwriter – though I still think he was his own best interpreter…. Thank you for writing this.”

    Trip Allen: “Great article. Thanks. I had to get into my fifties before I could slow my life down enough to fully appreciate the work of someone who died at 27. Humbling. Or, all the work before Hank passed at 29. My daddy is from Montgomery, and I’m happy he’s still around so I can sing those old songs to him. Tossing one in the ring regarding good covers of “Hot Burrito #1″, I recently saw Elizabeth Cook cover it, to that degree where she owned it for that moment. I had the feeling that Gram would have approved.”

    James Spina: “Brilliant song observations. My son’s name is Gram so, of course, I’d agree …BUT…your case is so brilliantly presented. Thanks Will. And in regard to your comment that likely he and you and I will not be around…rest assured…my son will and so the message of Parson’s talent will fall yet again on BLESSED ears.”

    Peter Knothe: “Wonderful Post! I totally agree with all sentiments expressed. It’s always good to be reminded of Gram’s genius. Thank you, Will James!! Now it’s back to my Gram albums…”

    Larabee: “Nice article. When I started reading it, all I could think about were the songs that Gram recorded that were written by others. Seeing the list of his songs in this article fully supports your position.”

    James Timmons: “Great article Will, I really enjoyed it. I got into Gram back in the late 70’s early 80’s as a punk in Manchester. I loved Elvis Costello and really loved the left turn he made when he recorded Almost Blue that included a couple of Gram tunes. I bought a compliation album at the time and fell in love immediately. I’ve been a massive fan since then and own everything he’s recorded. I also have all the various biographies and have even been over to the states to visit Grams favourite places including Georgia, Florida, LA and of course Joshua Tree. His best songs (for me) are $1,000 Dollar Wedding (covered by Willie Nelson no less) and Brass Buttons. Absolutely heartbreaking, alos his amazing duet with Emmylou – Love Hurts – Brilliant. Thank again for a great piece. Cheers James, Manchester”

    Frank Bahnson: “Excellent piece…much of his music (Hickory Wind, etc) affects me like great impressionist art…I feel it and sense it more than just hearing it.”

  9. Lisa says:

    Gram and Townes-two of my faves! Gram a little better at singing his brilliance, Townes a little better at writing

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