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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Gram Parsons for Lifetime Achievement Award? A Look at Web Metrics and the Meaning of “Lifetime”

Gram Parsons Web Metrics Lifetime AchievementIn these days of Linda Chorneys and Lana Del Rays, it’s getting increasingly difficult to deal with the criteria used to nominate someone, and in which category even, whether for halls of fame or for the likes of the Grammy Awards. There are clearly ways to “play the system” if indeed there still exists a system to be played. You have to know your way around the Casino.

And when it comes to “lifetime achievement awards,” which would also include induction into halls of fame, the definition of “lifetime,” which had become “15 minutes of fame,” seems now to be reduced to about a nanosecond.

Add the landscape-altering shifts in “categories” and their qualifying criteria, such as airplay (“spins” adding terrestrial and satellite), and unit sales (now including 0’s and 1’s, electrons either embedded in plastic discs or just free flowing), streaming, pirating, etc., and you are left with a real tossed salad, especially when dealing with artists whose careers have spanned these relatively recent revolutions, or even those who lived when music had only two vehicles — live or vinyl.

Trends in measuring popularity, success, artistic accomplishment, and any other yardsticks involved in nominating an artist for any such “lifetime” accolades become increasingly complex when dealing with those whose careers either spanned these changes that have rocked the business, or who lived their lives entirely in a statistically simpler, more easily quantifiable time.

As an example, let’s examine an artist on Rolling Stone’s List of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, who has been nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times, has been the subject of a slew of biographies in both books and film, and who is the subject of a global petition to induct him into the Country Music Hall of Fame with over 11,600 signers so far. He is arguably eligible for a lifetime achievement award or hall of fame induction, even though that lifetime lasted just under 27 years. In this case, another question might be added: should the criteria for lifetime achievement continue after death if that artist’s influence and popularity actually expands exponentially after the artist’s passing?

Gram Emmylou art for Country RamblerIn 1978 on the fifth anniversary of his death, Gram Parsons was all but a rock n’ roll footnote except for a few who loved him and his work before his tragic demise. Partially to help rectify this situation, I wrote an article call “Gram Parsons: The Tulsa Queen and You Are Gone” which was accepted for publication by one of the earliest alt country (the term didn’t even exist yet) magazines at that time called Country Rambler. The publication went out of business before my piece made it to print. (Thirty years later I used the artwork commissioned for it, an expressionist rendering of Gram and Emmylou based on the covers of Grievous Angel and Luxury Liner, done by the sister of my then girlfriend, on the T-shirt for the first annual Gram InterNational festival.)

The article, which mainly outlined the then-little known facts concerning this obscure artist and hinted at his historical importance, would be silly if published today. The idea that these basic facts would be flushed out over the following decades in microscopic detail by so many biographies, movies, plays, etc., was inconceivable at the time of that fifth year benchmark. All his records were out of print, and there was no Internet or alternative channels of distribution.

Fast forward back to the present; strange days have indeed found us. Clearly a variety of metrics is needed to even guesstimate an artist’s place in history over the years. Indeed, in some ways we live in an era when popular icons seem to never really “die” (e.g., Princess Diana).

It’s well known that Gram Parsons, for a variety of reasons and missed opportunities, sold relatively few units while alive. It’s believed that the only royalty check he ever received was due to Joan Baez recording “Hickory Wind.” His records were out of print shortly after his death. Lacking any other means of distribution, there was about a 20-year period during which the only way to find Gram was to scour used record stores and get lucky. But slowly at first, a fascinating and somewhat unique phenomenon occurred. While vinyl sales were relegated to the occasional bootleg collection of unreleased Flying Burrito Brothers material, the popularity of this by now almost mythical figure in American music began to soar, at first by the age-old “oral tradition,” that is, by other musicians, those who have always led Gram’s resurgence, covering his songs and preaching his significance, followed by fans of these latter day singers spreading the word.

Gram at ArmadilloBy the time CD disks and the Internet came about, Gram Parsons was definitely bigger than when he died in ’73. Several high profile tribute events were held, and cult-like leaders such as the late Mark Holland, who formed the Gram Parsons Memorial Foundation and the seminal newsletter The Cosmic American Music News, helped develop an underground movement that wouldn’t stay buried for long. With the advent of the Internet, a full 20 years following Parsons’ death, fans were soon able to connect globally, and connect they did. To what extent? I can tell you there is a huge though unquantifiable admiration and love for Parsons and his work from all corners of the the world. It would be wonderful if we had a total of unit sales for Parsons including original releases, bootlegs, shared files, mp3s, etc., but that is seemingly impossible to calculate (I would love it if someone could prove that statement wrong).

Today, web metrics can be helpful in measuring the comparative interest, value, importance and significance of a search term and thereby the subject in question. The key word in the last sentence is “comparative,” either to itself over a specified time period or in comparison to other terms that share characteristics in common. The following observations, which is all they claim to be, are mainly of the latter type; looking at search engine results for artists in similar genres to Gram Parsons, and those who may already be elected to a hall of fame or who have been associated with Parsons in a famous band and have gone on to a full lifetime of many and various achievements. (Results for any not included here can be found in seconds by the reader.) While these metrics do not necessarily correlate with unit sales, an argument can be made that the greater the number of search engine results returned, the greater the conversion of these user-generated inquiries into an action associated with acquiring the artist’s product (hopefully a purchase). The results of such an analysis obviously don’t point to a conclusion by themselves; however, they may add a quantifiable factor to such an analysis of lifetime achievement.

For example, using Google and searching for “Gram Parsons” in quotes (to be sure we don’t get returns for an international unit of measurement!), Google returns 2,160,000 results (note: depending on Google’s algorithms, which change often, these numbers will change; those given here were taken within an hour of the same day). Again, not much you can do with that number except a basic comparative analysis. For example, Parsons’ total result returns is exactly one million more than for “Roger McGuinn”, Gram’s boss with the Byrds and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (who returns 1,160,000). Fellow Byrd and Flying Burritio Brother bandmate Chris Hillman returns 506,000. In fact, the only Byrd to out-return Parsons is David Crosby, no doubt less for his antics with the Byrds and more for his subsequent fame with CSN&Y.

While the Country Music Association insists “Quantity” is not a vital consideration in determining Hall inductees, it’s common knowledge that it’s of more value than their criteria states. Again for what it’s worth, a comparison of Parsons 2+million search engine returns reveals the following in comparison with some random recent Country Music Hall of Fame inductees:

    The Statler Brothers: 1,140,000
    Barbara Mandrell: 902,000
    Jean Shepard: 436,000
    Bobby Braddock: 353,000
    Tom T. Hall: 1,050, 000
    The Louvin Brothers: 85,400
    Jimmy Dean: 3,120,000 (ok, you have to take off at least half for pork sausage inquiries!)

Interestingly, a great songwriter with certain similarities to Gram, Townes Van Zandt comes in at a statistical dead-heat at 2,190,000.

Parsons’ protege and reigning queen of both country and “Americana” music, Emmylou Harris, returns a whopping (and not surprising) 6,300,000, approximately three times as many as her mentor, whom she often credits for her knowledge of country music. Had Gram lived one could easily assume a roughly equal number as his career was roughly one third as long (and one could also envision a huge number for the two of them together as probably the biggest country duo act in history).

Obviously this has been a cursory analysis only meant to point out that web content and usage metrics can find a place in, and assist in informing, market trend analysis, and may help us notice that which otherwise may remain obscure. More refined metrics analysis would and could obviously produce more target-specific trending, and/or historical, data.

So as we move forward this year to analyze the train wreck that were the award shows and more specifically their categories and nomination procedures, those involved may want to get up to speed on this paradigm, one that is quantifiable while also being more widely relevant to the industry’s current consumer base. Doing so may assist in making the more subjective judgments at the heart of making such calls.

And as in the case of Gram Parsons, such an empirical analysis may also show that one’s career may not only not end with his or her life but indeed may show that such a career requires re-definition to include the full scope of activity for that artist, whether still with us or not. (After all, to risk a “John Lennon oops! moment,” I believe it took Jesus a few hundred years to really get noticed!)

Gram Emmylou