What Is Cosmic American Music? (And a List of Examples)

Cosmic American Music is hard to define, and often easier to define by what it’s not. Michael Grimshaw in his essay “Redneck Religion and Shitkickin’ Saviours? Gram Parsons, Theology and Country Music” writes: “Parsons’ mission was the creation of a new way forward, a way to musically heal the separation and increasing divisiveness of late modern life. His term for what he attempted was Cosmic American Music.

Further he writes:

IanHankGP

“The narrative focus of country became superimposed on the more urban concerns of rock so instead of statements of desire or anger followed by exclamatory choruses (as one could characterize much of rock) this new form takes the listener on often both a psychological and physical journey – short stories in three-minute forms. The aim was to bring together the past with the present and provide a musical and cultural point of epiphany, an American gospel of popular music in which both (latter-day) ‘Greek and Jew’ could be remade anew. To do so, Parsons reused the language and rhythms of country, played them through the language and rhythms of rock, and in himself attempted the incarnated embodiment of a musical and cultural reconciliation. To speak theologically he was both prophet and messiah: both pointing the way to a new beginning and attempting to live out the struggles of just what that new beginning involved.”

Pretty heady stuff. Here’s some of my key points in definition of the genre.

  • Its evolution is roots-based but it’s not really roots, therefore not most Americana, especially if not heavily country-based*.
  • It’s not usually singer/songwriter, though it requires solid songwriting, and is usually band-oriented (inc. in-studio if not officially a “band”).
  • It’s not pure country in the sense of it being solely traditional or “trad.” It’s usually more closely aligned with Bakersfield than Appalachian, though incorporates diverse background elements, including rock, soul, and jazz.
  • It’s not pseudo “country rock,” which is typically a market-driven synthetic synthesis, which may hint at why most in this list did not sell well at the time. (True “country rock” was epitomized by Jerry Lee Lewis.)
  • It’s often southern in origin but usually not “southern rock,” which is an identifiable and distinctive niche of rock music.
  • It is not usually “Outlaw” as epitomized by those who have recently co-opted that label; having said that, in some ways it followed Hank and Cash as the original outlaws of country music.
  • There is a large West Coast/Californian aspect to it, both migratory and per the Bakersfield sound, as well as in regard to the evolution of the genre itself.
  • It’s not soul music per se, though Gram once described it as “white soul,” and it is usually soulful in some way.
  • Above all Cosmic American Music is inventive in songwriting and delivery, cosmic in the sense of being cutting edge, but built upon the tried and true (e.g., Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Louvin Brothers, Elvis).

(*As Americana is a relatively new genre and by its own definition literally includes everything, can’t say “Americana” does not include some Cosmic American Music.)

With those initial thoughts in mind (something tells me more will be added to this organic discussion), here’s a “Top 15” list, somewhat but not absolutely in order, of albums that to me represent the Cosmic American Music genre.

  • Gilded Palace of Sin, Flying Burrito Bros (FBB)
  • Safe at Home, International Submarine Band 
  • GP, Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris
  • Grevious Angel (inc. session tracks with Emmylou Harris later released in Sleepless Nights), Gram Parsons w/ Emmylou (tied or ranked as one)
  • Nevada Fighter, Michael Nesmith & the First National Band (w/ Red Rhodes)
  • Muleskinner (imo only Cosmic Bluegrass album ever)
  • Wrecking Ball, Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois
  • Great Speckled Bird, Ian Tyson (not higher due to last track “We Sail”)
  • Aereo Plain, John Hartford
  • Sweetheart of the Rodeo, The Byrds/Gram Parsons
  • Burrito Deluxe, FBB (admit that GP at least in part wrote Wild Horses and I’ll rank it higher)
  • Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful
  • Trace, Son Volt (not higher as others were the forerunners, groundbreaking)
  • American Beauty, Grateful Dead (included somewhat reluctantly as really more rock synthesis with country overtones, great songwriting)
  • Will the Circle Be Unbroken (only first release, and almost didn’t include as it’s solid traditional country which the Dirt Band presents but doesn’t really change, but it had a part in the in-roads of country into the rock audience, characteristic of CAM)

Painting by Gram Parsons’ bandmate and author of “Breakfast in Nudie Suits” Ian Dunlop.

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Cosmic American Music Fest West 2017

For Immediate Release
Contact: Will James
Cosmic American Productions
716-901-1523
September 21, 2017

Featuring on two stages: Rick Shea & the Losin’ End, the legendary Ronnie Mack, Lasers Lasers Birmingham, Son of the Velvet Rat, Michael Ubaldini & the Starshakers, Sara Petite Band, Coyote Moon, Mick Rhodes & the Hard Eight, Renée Wahl, Colonels of Truth, The Sound of Ghosts, Eddie Edwards & the Psychedelic Spurs, Mister Paradise, Jeremiah & the Red Eyes, and Grant Langston & the Supermodels.

Staring into the blank facial expression of a reporter to whom Gram Parsons had just tried to explain the various musical genres that comprise his vision and his music, Gram gives up, and finally just says, “It’s Cosmic American Music, man.”

That interview occurred over 40 years ago. What with the current plethora of labels all straining to define influences similar to those that inspired Gram, many are coming back to this off-the-cuff answer from the man himself.

It’s just Cosmic American Music, man.

Gram Parsons, an artist who defied—and despised—labels, is therefore credited with the genesis of “Cosmic American Music”—which, to use some old categories from when I worked at a record store, comprises a synthesis of country, blues, soul, folk, and rock all rolled into one sparkling package.

And Parsons’ vision ultimately became fully formed in Southern California, where these 15 bands will honor him with their take on Cosmic American Music. We believe that Gram Parsons would love every one of them.

Gram Parsons InterNational is in its 10th year of taking its unique traveling road show to cities across this country and beyond. The first year in Nashville was meant to push the spanking-brand-new “Petition to Induct Gram Parsons into the Country Music Hall of Fame” (which still lives and travels ever farther around the globe, with over 13,000 signers at GramParsonsPetition.com).

Since then our events have become a gathering of local cosmic tribes; we take the show on the road to feature regional bands that are in the legacy of Gram. We don’t book “cover bands”; instead we book bands we feel, and they tell us, continue to draw inspiration from the synthesis that is the canon of music Gram Parsons left us.

The shows, therefore, are not even called “tributes” (which usually feature one backing band and rotating singers); although you’ll hear plenty of Gram’s songs throughout (as well as Gram himself during changeovers), the artists named above play several Gram songs as well as their own, demonstrating the path each has taken in following Gram’s lead.

Details:

Date/Location: Saturday, October 14, Don the Beachcomber, 16278 Pacific Coast Highway
Dagger Bar state: 6:00 pm; Tiki Ballroom: 6:45 pm
Event page: http://CosmicFestWest.info
Tickets: http://bit.ly/CosmicFestWest
Free parking
This is an all ages show
Advanced seating reservations highly recommended. See http://bit.ly/CosmicFestWest
Interviews: Will James is available for interviews at the contact info above

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Generations Come Full Circle at Gram Parsons Birthday Bash

kaiFunny how the circle turns around
You think your lost and then you’re found again
Though you always look for what you know
Each time around it’s something new again — Gene Clark, “Full Circle”

Gene Clark wrote those words forty-five years ago. His son, Kai Clark, is following in his dad’s footsteps, and playing the number one traveling road show dedicated to the legacy of another influential member of The Byrds, Gram Parsons.

Kai is not the only “next gen” artist to play Gram Parsons InterNational (GPI). Natalie Noone, daughter of Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits (yes, these days one could argue that their music could fall under the large umbrella that is “Americana”), has played both the Nashville and L.A GPI shows.

al_jesseperkins350wAlso on the bill for Gram’s 70th was Al Perkins’ son, Jess Perkins, on pedal steel, playing his dad’s own purple 1972 ZB Custom SD-11 steel guitar, which Al used on so many recordings and live acts since 1972. [Photo of both at right.]

And on what would have been Gram’s 70th birthday November 5, the sons of 80s country hitmakers The Bellamy Brothers, Jesse & Noah, played the ninth annual Nashville show (https://youtu.be/M_vEA4F7vZI). Natalie, Jess Perkins, and Jesse & Noah are like every other musician in Nashville p1080269with talent, trying the best they can to make it, but on their terms, influenced by folks they admire who inform their own creativity. (Natalie, who hails from Santa Monica but now lives in Nashville, couldn’t do a repeat at the West show as she’s got herself a residency at The 5 Spot, home of two of our GPIs–way to go Natalie).

Yes in the midst of CMA week in Nashville, along with a host of other players in seven bands, these offspring of past musical icons celebrated the birth date of one of their musical heroes, one who died over 40 years ago.

Now one month later Pacific time, Gene Clark’s son Kai is following suit and playing Gram Parsons 70th Birthday Bash West.

 

 


WJ: I understand you just received the CDs of the Gene Clark lost Studio sessions released from Sierra records. That sounds exciting. Tell us a little about that.

Some years ago I received a call from John Delgatto, founder of Sierra Records. He had been a close friend of Jim Dickson, who had supported and worked with my father over the span of his career. John had mentioned that Jim had left him quite a collection of recordings of my father’s that were rare and mostly unheard/ unreleased material. Before Jim had passed away he urged John to connect with my brother Kelly and me about releasing these recordings. John approached us with the project with an honesty and sincerity rarely found in this business. His first words were “these belong to you and your brother.” Then he asked if we would be ok with him releasing the material under his label, thereafter we would inherit the masters of the recordings and the rights thereof. Of course, this sparked my interest, and the respectful way he approached us made this offer seem too good to be true. I agreed to meet him at his home to hear the actual recordings and meet him in person. Interestingly, a friend of a friend had asked me to play a Gram Parsons tribute concert in Joshua Tree around the same time. John Delgatto’s house was on the way to the show.

If you ask me, there aren’t any coincidences in this world! Not only were these recordings some of the best I have heard of my father, his voice and penmanship were absolutely Steller! But John proceeded to hand me a pile of quality releases that he had done under his label in the past, which included the amazing Gram Parsons box set and other releases by artists such as Clarence White, Skip Battin, Douglas Dillard, Chris Hillman, Bernie Leadon, Al Perkins, Byron Berline and the list goes on. Most of the artists had worked with my father on projects on many occasions. Needless to say, I really liked John. And after seeing the releases done under his wing, I knew this release would be something special! The finished project is absolutely amazing. If you are a Gene Clark fan or are remotely interested in the man or his music, then you have to get this album. Its very rare! We will have some of the first copies of this CD and hopefully the vinyl addition for sale at the Gram Parsons 70th Birthday Bash at Don The Beachcomber on December 3 in Huntington Beach, where I am honored to be able to play some of both Gram and my father’s songs. Both were amazing songwriters and unique individuals as well. It’s truly an honor to be part of these events!

Note: There is a great picture of Gram and my dad and some interesting writing which includes mentions of Gram in several spots in the liner notes.

WJ: It has to be tough sometimes being the son of a musical icon and trying to make it on your own name. Jesse & Noah (Bellamy, they prefer not to use their last name) who just played our Nashville show I think are feeling a bit of that, the good and the maybe not so good of such connections. I think also Natalie Noone who’s played two of our shows a bit too, although she embraces her dad and does shows with him while writing and playing a very different style of music. Briefly, how do you handle that, getting your own vision out there?

KC: Living up to the legacy of my father can be, and has been, tough at times. I think you must realize that it was a different time for music and consider my father’s upbringing and his drive and passion to succeed. He had an undeniable talent. The urge is to go out and blaze a path on your own. To in some way find your own success. But just like the name of the Byrds followed my father for the rest of his life and career, so will the fact that I am Gene Clark’s son follow me for the rest of my life. I embrace it now with all that I am. I look at it as though he left me this great gift to learn and enjoy. As a younger man, I use to only want to play my own material. Now I am growing and opening new doors by embracing his music and playing it as much as I can.

WJ: Without getting into the whole label thing, in what overall continuum do you find your own creative process and therefore music? For example, I naturally find Bakersfield to be more of an influence out here than say in Nashville. How do you deal with pigeon-holing what you write and play?

KC:  I think your environment defiantly influences your music. I also think that it can come from anywhere. I think that where you are or what you surround yourself with is just a medium to what’s already there inside you. I think we are coming to a point where we can play different genres of music within the same circle. The first two CD’S I made were all over the place as far as genres go. I would have a full-on rock song followed by a slow country style ballad. Any label that approached me always asked this question first. “So what are you?” “Country?” “Rock?” “Pop?” “Blues?” “Singer songwriter?” I had a hard time putting my music into one category because I have so many influences and such a diverse background in music. I always despised that about the music industry. I mean I can see for marketing reasons why they must put you in a certain category but I think that sometimes it puts walls up around the artist. That very one thing has probably kept more people like me from getting a record deal than anything else.

Right now, I find inspiration for my writing in my family life. I have three young children and a beautiful loving wife and I can’t tell you how strong my feelings are for them. Music is a great way to express our feelings and emotions without having to directly say them. I don’t just write music for people to listen too but I also write music to express what’s inside me. Playing and writing music is a very healthy thing no matter where or when.

WJ: When in your life did you become aware of Gram Parsons and what effect if any do you feel his music has had on yours? Did you ever meet him?

KC: Sadly, I never got to meet Gram. I was born in 1973 which is of course the year he passed away. Over the years I often heard his name mentioned by my father or his friends. There is a lot of history between my father and Gram. Not just between them but on their own journeys. They both lived short and extremely interesting lives. I think I discovered Gram’s music when I was in my early 20s though I didn’t fully delve into it until after I did my first Gram tribute show in my early 30’s.

I remember my father playing this one song all the time when I was growing up. I can remember him playing it on so many occasions. I just figured it was his song because he never said otherwise. The song I found out later was “Hickory Wind.” He absolutely loved that song! Every time I hear that song now it reminds me of my dad and Gram. I love playing Gram’s songs and they not only influenced me, but I am sure that they influenced my father in some ways long before me.


sunburstwestshirt

Many other bands and artists who grew up influenced by the music of Gene Clark and Gram Parsons are also appearing on two stages (in two rooms) of the famous Orange County tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber, which is becoming the place to go for, well, a certain more “Cosmic American” strain of Americana. Included in the December 3 show are besides Kai Clark:

Nocona
Ronnie Mack (of Barn Dance fame) w/ Jay Dee Maness
Michael Ubaldini & the Starshakers
Brian Whelan Band
Kai Clark Band
Ted Russell Kamp
The Skylarks
Gun Hill Royals
The Fallen Stars
Patrick Coleman & the Angels of Death
Echo Sparks
Ponderosa Aces
Merle Jagger
Coyote Moon

A one-night two-stage festival devoted to the music of Gram Parsons and his followers? In southern California?

“Hey, you never know who’s going to show up,” says organizer Will James.

 

Fathers, Sons, and Gram Parsons 70th Birthday

I’m an old hippy and I don’t know what to do, should I hang on to the old should I grab onto the new?” – The Bellamy Brothers, 1985

That condundrum was a hit three decades ago, when the Bellamy Brothers were traveling around the country singing it and other big hits, with a couple kids in the back seat.

sunburstnashville6x4Now those kids are grown and out trying to do the same thing, well, sort of. Jesse & Noah (Bellamy, they prefer to not use the last name) are like every other musician in Nashville with talent, trying the best they can to make it, but on their terms, based on folks they admire who inform their own creativity, some dead and many even older than their father, David Bellamy (author of “Old Hippie” from the Bellamy Brothers’ first album Howard & David).

Saturday November 5, on what would have been (and actually is) the 70th birthday of one of those long gone purveyors of something new in country music, they will play what is now the ninth annual Gram Parsons InterNational (GPI) at Douglas Corner. Also on the bill is Al Perkins’ son, Jess Perkins, on pedal steel for Taylor Alexander & Tennessee Tap Water.

Jess Perkins w/ dad Al

Yes in the midst of CMA week in Nashville, along with a host of other players in seven bands, these offspring of past musical icons will be celebrating the birth date of one of their musical heroes, one who died over 40 years ago.

Also on the bill is Colorado’s Jock Bartley of Firefall, who was also on the Fallen Angels tour with Parsons after the release of Gram’s first solo album, GP. Bartley will join a band called Mr. Hyde for the night, a project by the recently deceased Boomer Castleman and Chris James, longtime editor of Nashville’s Shake!, that produced one seminal country rock album in the early oughts. Jock and Walter Egan of “Magnet & Steel” fame, and in whose kitchen Gram and Emmylou joined voices and forces for the first time, will be “filling in” in honor of Boomer, not a household name but one of those players who spent a lifetime, much of it in Nashville, fighting the good fight in country music (he was a friend of Monkees Peter Tork and Micheal Nesmith, and with fellow Texan Michael Martin Murphy had some hits back in the day, including for The Monkees).

Others on the bill include: Alex Ballard & Sugarfoot from GPI’s Heartland show last month in Milwaukee*, a brilliant artist, but one like so many others is who is known mainly regionally. From the Carolinas, outlaw James Scott Bullard and Susan Hall will open the one-night show. Michael Ubaldini is flying in from L.A. to play with some local pickers; he’s been called the “rock n’ roll poet,” and by the L.A. Times: “Better than Bruce Springstein at probing the national soul.” (And speaking of L.A., for GPI’s WEST show at Don the Beachcomber December 3, another next generation artist is booked, Kai Clark, son of Gene Clark.)

The more homespun pickers and players, including Daryl Wayne Dasher and Renee Wahl, who also bring rising star Andrew Adkins, were hand picked by GPI founder Will James as being in the legacy of Parsons. Taylor Alexander is finding his Emmylou in the wonderful voice of Kiely Schlesinger. All play a few Gram songs, and then they do their own material, as James believes Parsons would have wanted.

There will also be special guests related to Parsons in the audience (although guests of course can not be guaranteed!). Manuel Cuevas, who famously designed Gram’s Nudie suit, together with those of so many other greats, promises to be among the crowd and may even have a show and tell. Clarence White’s daughter will attend. Phil Kaufman, the infamous Road Mangler, has been there almost every year. “You never know who’s going to show up,” says Will James.

Gram Parsons InterNational is a traveling road show that books regional talent wherever it lands (this year Nashville, L.A., Milwaukee, and Dublin). For the past five years it’s been based at Douglas Corner on 8th Ave South. GPI founder Will James kick started it in 2008 at the Nashville Palace to back up a petition he had begun to get Parsons inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame; he now refers to the petition, which has 12,800 names on it to date from all corners of the globe, as the “Gram Parsons Wall of Fame,” although he still considers it an attempt to get the long gone influential renegade into both the Rock and Country Halls of Fame.

Sturgill Simpson and Lydia Loveless have also played GPI in their way up the sometimes treacherous ladder of stardom.

Advance VIP table seats are now on sale for $25; standing room GA at $15 will be at the door. More information at the Facebook event page at http://grambash70nashville.us or just contact me at willjames@cosmicamericanproductions.com. 

*See review at: http://shepherdexpress.com/article-28331-concert-review-gram-parsons-70th-birthday-bash-a-linneman’s-riverwest-inn.html

A Sailor’s Guide to Navigating the Seas of Genre and Success

sturgill-sailor-guide-earth-new-albumFrom an interview with Haggard and Sturgill:

Haggard: …I need some inspiration [to write]. I need to write something that says something. There’s a lot going on in the world.

Simpson: There’s so much going on that it numbs my mind that you don’t hear more people writing about it. You can’t live in a cocoon the whole time. My wife uses a railroad analogy: It’s tough to tell how fast a train is going when you’re on it.

So hey Sturgill? It’s going pretty fast for you right now.

As a follower of Sturgill Simpson since he accepted my invitation to play my Nashville show in 2011 (as Sunday Valley), I have a slightly different take on his latest than a lot of what I’ve been reading.

First this “question of genre.” With “Country” being represented by the likes of Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan, and “Americana” being basically whatever you want it to be, who cares? As of this week, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is no. 1 on the Billboard Country chart and no. 3 overall (only kept from no. 1 by posthumous purchasing reaction to Prince’s death). More areas of American music roots are heard in A Sailor’s Guide than most so-called roots albums. I of course have my own thoughts on what country music is; that it involves the inner soul, what Faulkner once called the human heart in conflict with itself.  Other than that, yep, it’s “I know it when I hear it.” Sturgill’s voice will always be country, and that’s critical in defining country music. And A Sailor’s Guide is definitely about the human heart in conflict with itself–and the world as the author introduces his newborn to it,  a world with “so much going on that it numbs my mind.” And he doesn’t pull any punches.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a major effort in the evolution of this important artist, and I’m glad to see the masses seem to be agreeing. I’ve always found that country music seems to find a way to “right itself,” usually after a dismal period of departure. But since the somewhat forced invention of a genre to which true roots artists could escape (“Americana”), artistic progression of country music has been problematic; most legitimate country artists seem to be retro, doing nothing particularly new and ultimately going nowhere. Hence the hunger for and success of Metamodern Sounds. However, after just a couple listens to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, the whole creation (as it requires and demands a full listen, not just pieces), while perhaps not yet elevating it to the same stratospheric class, I believe the album is in line with Pet Sounds, Love’s Forever Changes, even Tommy and other concept albums that attempt to capture the entire world (as Faulkner once attempted in a single paragraph). At the very least, I applaud Sturgill’s artistic ambition.

Within the country genre, I’m reminded of Mickey Newbury’s brilliant magnum opus Heaven Help the Child. Newbury has been accused of being saccharine at times, especially in Heaven Help, mainly for his ponderous layering of strings. But believe me, the work beneath cuts to the bone. I feel the same about A Sailor’s Guide. And anyone who has not had a child, especially later in life than “traditional,” especially with demands that keep one from home, has absolutely no right to call any work that addresses the resultant relationship sentimental. Perhaps the abundance of horn section (more on that later) and Nirvana covers, etc., was Sturgill’s way of hiding that sentimentality, if that’s what it is. No reason to hide. And if the content of radio country is an indication, thank God for any bro-sentiment in a country song!

A Sailor’s Life has freed its author from the confines of being the “savior” of country music, and more importantly from being captured in any one genre. This is a major work in this reviewer’s opinion. How major remains to be seen. Pet Sounds and Forever Changes were not so recognized upon their release, indeed they sold poorly. There’s no doubt that A Sailor’s Guide, out about a week now, has already surpassed the nearly half-century-old Forever Changes, in this listener’s opinion the greatest album of all time and one that also crosses so many genres.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a culmination (no way is Sturgill going to agree) of what he’s been trying to accomplish, artistically, in gradual steps (yes, gradual believe it or not); I find it leaps and bounds ahead of his previous two releases. Faulkner also said that he’d always fail, but he always wished to fail on a grander scale (many of us don’t believe he, or Sturgill, have failed). Perhaps the feelings behind the album’s theme have allowed for, even demanded, more artistic freedom as writer and producer, and perhaps have resonated with an audience bored to death with today’s co-called country music.

As to “the horns,” which many find out of place (and which I find delightful, especially as I’m dedicating the ninth annual Gram Parsons InterNational Nashville this November in part to R&B and Muscle Shoals), they take me back over four decades to my first listen of Shotgun Willie. What? Horns? In such abundance in an otherwise straightforward country album? Damn straight. Willie escaped RCA Nashville and while we know all about Austin, the critical mass of that revolution involved New York, Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records (Sturgill also joins Atlantic with A Sailor’s Guide). What had been exorcised in Nashville was now desirable, almost drawn into the contract, and the power those horns added to country music was immediate. Together with the aforementioned, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth calls forth Willie’s brilliant Phases & Stages as well as Red Headed Stranger in regard to its using “all the grooves” to fully realize its tale.

I could go on about the individual songs, the interior story lines, but many others are doing that (good one by my friend Mark Lennon of Turnstyled Junkpiled*),  and the listener should handle that job him- or herself. Nice work Sturgill, and congrats on the kid. Sounds like he’s got a great dad. And if you feel like joining us again and doing a number with some Muscle Shoals legends this fall, you’ve earned your place among them and would be welcome. You’ve come a long way for sure in five years!

*http://turnstyledjunkpiled.com/2016/04/15/take-a-trip-with-sturgill-simpsons-a-sailors-guide-to-earth/