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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Breakfast In Nudie Suits: Ian Dunlop’s Time Machine

“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Breakfast In Nudie Suits

Original Cover, art by Ian Dunlop

Some have compared Ian Dunlop’s tale of the long road back East after escaping the nightmares of L.A. in the mid-sixties to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I can see why, but, to me, it’s closer to two other novels.

I remember as a young kid reading  Steinbeck’s tale of wandering America as an older writer with his career behind him. Travels with Charley was the first time I got a real sense of my country, the good and the bad of it. I somewhat recognized it as my family would drive from Buffalo, New York, to northern Wisconsin every summer, and most of the road back then was not yet Interstate with its homogenized landscape.

I first heard Gram Parsons about the time I was reading Nabokov’s Lolita for a class in college. I’ve read it at least four times since. They say that Lolita was about Nabokov’s love affair with America, and I believe that’s true. In my mind no one has painted a better picture of those long-gone highways than in this oft-maligned novel, with the exception of the master American painter Edward Hopper.

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Gram in “The Trip.”

Also about that time Dennis Hopper’s road movie Easy Rider came out (Gram and Ian had already appeared in Peter Fonda’s movie The Trip, humorous inside take on that herein), and say what you will in retrospect, Easy Rider changed us, or more accurately, showed us to ourselves. It wasn’t a totally pretty picture, which is why I think it’s still pretty good. Easy Rider basically added the soundtrack to an updated Travels with Charlie. One the beginning of the sixties, the other, toward the end. Breakfast In Nudie Suits, pretty much the middle.

I didn’t hear country music at home in Buffalo, and I believe my love for it began at those roadside stops on the road to Wisconsin in the late fifties early sixties, when someone dropped a quarter in one of those fascinating silver machines in every booth and out came “King of the Road” or “Big Bad John.” (There was a towering cutout roadside miner beaconing us to explore an iron mine in the U.P. of Michigan: Can we Dad?; I still pass it every year, and I still call it Big Bad John.) I loved this strange new-to-me music, but didn’t fully realize what exactly it was until I heard Gram Parsons take on it a few years later.

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The International Submarine Band

By this time in my life, a New Englander named Ian Dunlop had known Gram Parsons for a few years. They were living together, gigging together, doing all kinds of things together. By the time I was reading Travels with Charlie, Ian had already played scores of gigs with Gram and their International Submarine Band, sharing the bill with other bands that “made it” such as the Blues Magoos; Ian paints one great and humorous scene of the Sub Band opening for The Young Rascals before a huge crowd in Central Park.

We’ve read in other books the intricate details of those days, as these relatively unknown young band members came together, drifted apart, re-grouped, stole each others’ names, and so forth.

But Ian Dunlop’s tale of that road does not re-examine with a detached journalist’s eye those well-documented times. Rather, through the eyes of a young bass player at the center of that then-tiny solar system — one that not one of them could have imagined would ever become so analyzed — Ian takes us along on a long, meandering, sometimes lonesome journey back East, the opposite direction from America’s standard road tale of lighting out for the Territory and going West young man. He’d done his time in L.A., swirled it around in his mouth, and like thousands before him, found it was not the promised land. No, it was time for him and his band, now The Flying Burrito Brothers, to head back East — or at least that general direction, with a somewhat less Gatsby-esque focus, and see where that road would take him, leaving Gram Parsons to be the Jay Gatsby of country rock on the West Coast.

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Current Cover

Ian Dunlop, besides being a musician and a writer, is primarily a painter (see http://www.iandunlopart.com). The original cover he painted for the book is pictured above. Only God and the publisher know why they changed it to this black and white shot of Gram Parsons at left (Ian will tell you that he finds publishers about on the same plane of existence as record producers).

Unlike what the current cover implies, this is not a book about Gram Parsons. Well, not just anyway. Gram and memories of Gram hover over the tale and inform it. He is an omniscient presence and the lonesome road induces Ian’s mind to try to construct a whole of his recent past, all the gigs, the friendships, the heartaches and joys — a past that, at the time, the author would never have imagined would be so central to so many of us, the beginning of something.

To set the scene in the timeline of that “beginning of something” (skip over this paragraph if you’re familiar): Gram had left the International Submarine Band and joined The Byrds. Sub Band members Ian Dunlop and Mickey Gauvin were getting the distinct sense that no one, the public nor the record companies, were ever going to “get” this “country thing.” Largely for lack of gigs and therefore food money, Ian and Mickey decide to leave the Sub Band just as Gram is telling them a guy named Hazelwood is interested in an album (but no advance). Together with Barry Tashian and Billy Briggs of The Remains (one of the great garage bands of the day who opened for the Beatles tour and found the experience lacking), they decide to form their own band. Outside a taco joint somewhere in L.A., Ian and Mickey decide to call it The Flying Burrito Brothers. Along the way the very first incarnation of the FBB picked up some other players including Bobby Keys, Leon Russell, Junior Markham, J.J. Cale, Ed Davis, etc., whoever “dug” what they were trying to do, which was old-school rhythm and blues-based rock ‘n roll with a side order of country, definitely not what the rest of the country was listening to at the time. (Gram told an interviewer after he himself “borrowed” the FBB moniker and made history with it: “The idea’ll keep going on. Whether I do it or anybody else does it, it’s got to keep going.”) For more on the history of these bands, well, their are numerous books, articles and websites that cover it all in exquisite detail.

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Gram & Ian

Long after Steinbeck’s death, a few critics began to analyze every sentence, every reported conversation with someone, from his Travels with Charlie. And by God, they found out he was a liar, that is, a writer of fiction! Faulkner once said he didn’t give a damn for the facts, just the truth. Dunlop is not a liar (that is a writer of fiction), but Breakfast in Nudie Suits reads so much like a work of literature that the reader must occasionally pinch him- or herself and realize this is reportage based on actual memory. Ian says that he wrote Breakfast as if it had been written in 1968. On the last page he leaves us wishing for more, but it is fitting for this memoir that it ends when it does. As the author told this reviewer, “The narrator is speaking from the 60s. I left the U.S. in ’68 to another continent and civilization, so my last experiences were preserved, sealed, vacuum packed.

Ian’s road reminiscences take the same circuitous route that his loaded-down van did (Mickey and Barry T in a different van ultimately take a more direct route cross country). It is not my purpose here to recount any of Ian’s experiences on that road to discover America. Why? Mainly because you must read this tome yourself (although I must say Barry T plugging into a windmill somewhere in Kansas is one of my favorite LOL images). A word of caution to those who expect non-Faulknerian linear discourse. Ian’s thought patterns mimic his somewhat zig-zag route and the ever-changing landscape; expect random memories to pop up in the middle of Paducah or wherever. I’ve done many cross country trips alone and, believe me, especially after putting a lot of miles behind one for the day, that’s how the mind works. He resists sudden urges to turn back, to try to finish what has already been set in motion in an altered direction just by his leaving.

IanHankGP

“I’ll never get out of this world alive” art by Ian Dunlop

So why should the “target market,” assumed to be those somewhat interested in music, which is the rack I expect you’ll find this book, read Breakfast In Nudie Suits? If it isn’t yet another biography of Gram, what’s the point?

Let’s face it, Gram’s almost 27 years have been covered. Minute analysis of his life will no doubt continue. But I’m convinced this would be the book that Gram himself would like best. Even the telling scene when Gram is having a bad trip on acid and the band is trying their best to bring him out of a very bad place (I won’t give anything further away), together with at other times Gram’s jovial though understated banter with band mates combined with that inexplicable feeling of a higher power directing his every move — these are the elements that Ian provides of his friend Gram Parsons.

Not many of us mere mortals have the guiding hand of a muse from the cosmos. The rest of us are rock and roll soldiers. Ian Dunlop continues to be a rock and rock soldier, and high honor should be bestowed on this brigade, one that includes a host of names that pop up in Ian’s narrative and many that do not.

Ultimately, Ian’s recollections are transcriptions of a seemingly minor branch of the big river that is rock and roll history, much of which has been covered extensively by “professional writers.” But if you’re like this reviewer, you lust after the memories of those who were there at a critical moment of creation — a branch in the stream whose tiny tributaries and eddies remained almost uncharted until recently. While the elements of this story, the story of the birth of country rock (and even the bending of the longest-lasting and best-known rock band in history to embrace it and thus forge a second act that takes them the rest of the way home) have yet to be fully grasped by “the general public,” each new generation, first-hand evidence suggests, hunger for and have a need-to-know thirst for accounts such as this.

This personal chronicle is up there with the best, e.g., Al Kooper’s Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, Levon Helm’s This Wheel’s On Fire, and Eric Burdon’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood among others. Of course all of them achieved some greater degree of success (although Al’s and Eric’s and even Levon’s accounts of getting friendly fire from their brothers in combat do bring their stories back to the rock and roll trenches).

So who “gets” this book? Gram would get it and love it, that’s for sure. And perhaps Steinbeck, Kerouac, and even Nabokov, or at least Humbert Humbert and Lo, too.

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Ian Dunlop, a rock and roll soldier.

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