Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons
Various artists

I’d like to have a few words with you today about country and western music, which has been handed down to us from our forebears, who were probably trying to get rid of it. Not only has no one succeeded in this quest, those of us who make our living in the music-writing dodge and the rest of us who write stupid blogs must reluctantly admit that country has influenced every aspect of rock ’n’ roll. (Except for the music of Yes. Too bad, because Tales From Topographic Oceans, which has a running time of three days, cries out for banjos and at least a couple of songs about railroads or prisons.)

In searching for the countrified man, woman, or lonesome coyote who first infiltrated rock you can find no end of candidates but the one I wish to concentrate on today is Gram Parsons, who overdosed in 1973 in Joshua Tree National Park. Though this sad event pretty much rang down the curtain on Mr. Parsons’ life and career it by no means arrested his influence, and I don’t just mean the title of the 1987 U2 album. Parsons altered the course of the mighty Byrds, created the hybrid called country-rock, gave Emmylou Harris her break, influenced artists as diverse as Keith Richards, Elvis Costello, and Wilco, and became the kind of cult figure I would like to become if I had any talent and if I didn’t have to die first. His second album, released the year after his death, was Grievous Angel. Hence the title of this collection of covers from his abbreviated time on this planet, released on Grievous Angel’s 25th anniversary.

Let me state forthrightly that I never paid attention to Gram Parsons when he was alive and I haven’t paid attention to him since his passing, but though my knowledge of his music is zero and though I approach country music as reluctantly as I’d approach the front door to Bob’s Country Bunker I have come to appreciate Return of the Grievous Angel. If like me you’re looking for a relatively painless way to mosey on up to this painful music, this may be the album for you.

My father loved Hank Williams’ music
When I describe a song as being “too country” I am probably remembering being trapped in the car while Hank wailed away on the radio. My father moved on to muzak and then silence while I headed in almost every direction that wasn’t country. Some of the songs on Return of the Grievous Angel are so country that they disturb my sleep. However, I can state unequivocally that several songs lurking in this lineup are quite interesting and that three are sublime.

Gillian Welch turns “Hickory Wind,” a meditation on lost youth, into something almost spiritual. Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris sing like angels on “Juanita,” which, though it is sung in waltz time, is not one of your more upbeat numbers:

No affection were the words
That stuck on my mind
When she walked out on me
For the very last time
Oh, mama, sweet mama
Can you tell me what to say
I don’t know what I’ve done
To be treated this way

The song that laps the field, though, is “Ooh Las Vegas,” as covered by The Cowboy Junkies. “Ooh Las Vegas” is the story of a man lost in an artificial world:

Well, I spend all night with the dealer
tryin’ to get ahead
spend all day at the Holiday Inn
trying to get out of bed

This is so not Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas” (“I’m just the devil with love to spare!”). But it is the song the intensely quiet Cowboy Junkies were born to play. While in the past I’ve often wondered whether I was listening to one of their songs or just the wind in the willows, here they produce real pathos, virtuosic singing, and a knock-down punch. Their interpretation rocks so hard that after 13 years of listening to it it only occurred to me when I began writing today’s post that I should give the original a go. I did. Parsons had a pretty good song up his sleeve, but his Foggy Mountain Boys delivery is too happy. The Junkies are the ones who understood what he meant and the ones who bring it home.

Return of the Grievous Angel may not be everyone’s Rocky Mountain high, but it deserves your attention. Gram Parsons deserves to be remembered. And Yes still deserves banjos.

Random ’90s Pick of the Day
Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
This is a tough choice for me, because I hate rap, plus one of this group’s founders (long gone) talked a lot of smack about Jews. But Public Enemy is one of our most influential bands, and this is probably their best album of the 1990s. It’s certainly one of the best album titles of any decade. I give them credit for staying true to their politics and to the album format (they’re releasing two of them this summer) for 25 years. In a recent interview, when asked to pick three albums that would best explain modern music, Chuck D said they’d have to be by Run-DMC, The Beatles, and James Brown. Those are three good picks.

Random ’90s Pan of the Day
Candlebox, Candlebox (1993)
This band will never get anywhere near my list of the Best Debut Albums of the 20th Century By Newcomers Who Aren’t Somebody Stupid Like Foreigner(with the album having the same name as the band), even though this disc contains their big fat stupid hit, “Far Behind.” Grunge can be hard enough to take, but this 1% low-fat grunge did not convince me to ask for more.

Tomorrow on ’90s Week: Computers explained!

  1. mikener says:

    Gram Parsons sounds wonderfully dark and intriguing. It’s been Graham Parker I’ve been listening to all these years by mistake, though I’ve often enjoyed this poor man’s Elvis Costello. Up until now, I’ve only delighted in country women. Maybe Gram can score one for the guys.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      You’ve characterized Graham Parker perfectly. When I listen to him, I always think I should be listening to Elvis Costello. It doesn’t help that he even sounds like (an echo of) Elvis Costello. But there are two songs I really like by Parker: “Discovering Japan” and “Local Girls.”

      I am delighted by country women. Except when they’re singing.

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