Top 10 Gram Parsons Songs
Gram Parsons didn’t grow up living the hardscrabble life of most country singers. The man originally named Cecil Ingram Connor III was born into a wealthy Florida citrus family and spent a semester at Harvard before dropping out to concentrate on his burgeoning interest in country music. After stints in the Shilos and the International Submarine Band, he joined the Byrds in 1968 for a five-month spell that resulted in the landmark ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo‘ album. He then formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, recording two albums with them before being fired in 1970 due to his increasing drug habit. As a solo act, Parsons released ‘GP’ in 1973, which featured three members from Elvis Presley‘s TCB band and a beautiful young folk singer with a voice to match, Emmylou Harris. A second album, ‘Grievous Angel’ was released in 1974, four months after his death on Sept. 19, 1973, at age 26 at Joshua Tree National Monument from an overdose of morphine and alcohol.
Although his recording career lasted only five years, Parsons still made a tremendous impact, creating what he famously called “cosmic American music,” a fusion of country, rock and soul. His influence wasn’t just felt in the ’70s country-rock movement that produced the Eagles and Poco, but in great modern acts like Wilco, the Jayhawks and Jason Isbell. Our list of the Top 10 Gram Parsons Songs brings together his best moments from his time in the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the two solo albums.
‘The Dark End of the Street’
One of the few covers on our list of the Top 10 Gram Parsons Songs, ‘Dark End of the Street’ is soul music’s definitive cheating song. Written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman, it was originally recorded by James Carr in 1966. The Burrito Brothers inject country elements into the arrangement, adding some honky-tonk piano and plenty of twangy guitar after a slightly clumsy start to the song.
‘A Song for You’
This slow, ruminative track from ‘GP’ is a perfect example of how Parsons combined country and soul. It starts off with pedal steel guitar and fiddle, but they eventually make way for some churchy organ. Despite support from Harris, Parsons’ voice breaks with regret on nearly every line, even when the rhythm picks up a bit just before the second chorus.
The search for redemption has fueled many great country songs. Here, Parsons reacts to a breakup by falling into addictive behavior, only to be saved in the last verse by a 17-year old girl. It’s the story of life, death and rebirth in a mere two and a half minutes.
‘In My Hour of Darkness’
It makes sense that ‘In My Hour of Darkness’ would close out the posthumous ‘Grievous Angel.’ Co-written with Harris, it’s more of a prayer than a song, a meditation on those close to Parsons who had tragic endings with hope for deliverance. Parsons would meet his own untimely death only a few months after its recording.
‘Hot Burrito #1′
Parsons plays the wounded ex-lover with incredible pathos in this country tearjerker. Co-written with fellow Burrito Brother Chris Ethridge, ‘Hot Burrito #1′ builds emotion by its use of chromatic runs, a favored musical device of John Lennon‘s (see ‘Isolation’)
‘She’ (from Parsons’ solo debut, 1973’s ‘GP’) borrows heavily from southern lore, working fields and religion into another tale of doomed love. As with ‘Hot Burrito #1′ (see No. 6 on our list of the Top 10 Gram Parsons Songs), he wrote this with fellow Burrito Brother Chris Ethridge. Like ‘Hot Burrito #1,’ it also features chromatic runs.
Parsons’ relationship with the Rolling Stones, which began when he was still in the Byrds, was known mostly for the mass quantities of drugs he did with Keith Richards. But it also led to the Burrito Brothers hearing an advance copy of ‘Sticky Fingers’ and getting permission to record the Stones’ best country song. Parsons and company’s version came out a year before the Stones’ on 1970’s ‘Burrito Deluxe,’ leading some to mistakenly believe that it was actually written by Parsons.
Written for the Everly Brothers by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, ‘Love Hurts’ is best known by Nazareth‘s smash hit version. Without meaning to take anything away from Dan McCafferty’s impassioned vocal, the full beauty of the lyric is best felt through the intertwining of Parsons’ and Emmylou Harris’ voices in wounded close harmony.
The only song from ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ to make it on our list of the Top 10 Gram Parsons Songs wound up becoming his signature tune. A poignant tale of the nostalgic pull of one’s hometown, Parsons also released a version of the song as part of the ‘Medley Live From Northern Quebec’ found on ‘Grievous Angel.’
‘Return of the Grievous Angel’
This is essentially the title track to ‘Grievous Angel,’ and Parsons — with Tom Brown, who wrote most of the lyrics — creates arguably country-rock’s definitive song, where the narrator’s desire to “grow up with the country” is tempered by the reminder of the love he left behind. Elvis Presley sidemen Glen D. Hardin (piano) and James Burton (guitar) make important contributions, and Parsons’ rakish vocal is beautifully supported by Emmylou Harris, especially on the coda.