Classic Rock Review

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Gram Parsons – Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology


A funny thing happened to Gram Parsons 27 years or so after his death: he got popular.

Well, sort of. I mean, we’re not talking Jimi Hendrix or John Lennon popular. No one is that popular.

But at some point over the past three years, someone let word out about this guy from Waycross, Georgia, who played on some album with the Byrds in the late ’60s, started a weird band named after flying burritos or something, and influenced a lot of musicians, like the Eagles and Tom Petty. I don’t know, someone must have told the guys in that Uncle Tupelo band, in the early ’90s, to pick up his albums, listen, learn, and make their own. And after they broke up in ’94, someone must have told that Whiskeytown band the same thing: buy Gram records, listen, learn, and then make your own.

And so on and so forth, until in summer ’99, a whole bunch of guys and gals inspired by this Gram Parsons guy decided to make a tribute album. I guess the thinking was, “some of us are popular, but if I hadn’t listened to Gram’s 1973 solo album GP, I would never have picked up the guitar. We owe him one.”

So sure enough, artists like Wilco, Whiskeytown, the Pretenders, Steve Earle, and even Elvis Costello got together to re-record their favorite Parsons classics. 1999’s Grievous Angel: A Tribute To Gram Parsons not only was a critically acclaimed success, but it also achieved something very few tribute records do: it won him new fans. MANY new fans.

All a sudden, anyone listening to Wilco, Son Volt, and Steve Earle was listening intently to Gram Parsons. His solo material was re-released, an anthology of his work with the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds was put out, an “early tracks” collection was unearthed. Suddenly, everyone had to have everything Gram.

And why not? He’s the guy credited by most, rightly or wrongly, for creating “country-rock,” a term that has never truly been defined, but has inspired boatloads of bands and musicians over the past 25 years. His one album with the Byrds, 1968’s Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, is considered the first so-called “country-rock” album, even though any listener would be hard-pressed to find any rock at all on the record. Later albums with the Flying Burrito Brothers and ultimately, Parsons’ two solo albums, expanded and even transcended that genre, mixing soul, gospel, and even R&B to generate a sound Parsons dubbed “Cosmic American Music.”

If anything, Parsons was more of an innovator than an inventor. And finally, Rhino Records has released a two-CD set that, for the first time, tracks Parsons’s entire recorded career in one collection. Sacred Hearts And Fallen Angels: A Gram Parsons Anthology is a must-have for anybody with more than just a passing interest in the man’s enigmatic, but brief career. This “Gram-thology,” if you will, is as close to a complete snapshot of his music and life as we’ll ever get, complete with a 50-page color photo booklet with intensive liner notes that shed new light on the man’s visionary songwriting.

Starting with six tracks from his first band, the Boston-based International Submarine Band, the collection forces the listener to be patient: every musician needs time to develop, and on the first few tracks, Parsons had yet to fully comprehend his vision and channel it into song. Sure, the early material is daring, and there are flashes of brilliance in songs like “Luxury Liner” and “Do You Know How It Feels to be Lonesome,” but the songs sound as if Parsons isstuck, and listener can practically hear his dilemma: am I a country musician making a rock album or a rock musician making a country album?

By the time the listener gets through the next five songs, all with the Byrds, the answer was clear: he was both. Parsons’s time with the Byrds was short and sweet, but it resulted in one of the most influential, and underestimated, albums of all time: 1968’s Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. The album consisted mainly of cover versions of old folk and country standards like “The Blue Canadian Rockies” and “The Christian Life,” but Parsons threw in some classic originals as “100 Years From Now” and “Hickory Wind.” Legal hassles kept his vocals off of several Sweetheart tracks, but Sacred Hearts unearths some of the original recordings from the album.

Appropriately, the anthology focuses intently on both his time with the Burritos and his solo career, both spanning two albums. Disc one ends with nearly all the tracks from the Burritos’ quintessential first album The Gilded Palace Of Sin, as well as a handful from their second LP, Burrito Deluxe.
Unfortunately, there’s no new Burrito material here that can’t be found on either Farther Along: The Very Best Of The Flying Burrito Brothers or Out Of The Blue, another two-CD collection. Nor does the anthology bring out any new solo material that the casual fan can’t find on GP/Grievous Angel, a one-CD set containing both his solo albums.

And really, that’s the sole complaint with Sacred Hearts: save one mediocre track from his International Submarine Band days, there’s truly nothing here that can’t be found elsewhere. And missing from the collection is anything from his early folk days, like the material released in late 2000 by Sundance Records.

But that’s just one grievance. The anthology does fill a much-needed niche in the market of Gram: for a relatively modest price, this collection covers everything, and throws in one pretty damn nifty book of liner notes. No need to shell out hard-earned bucks for shipping and handling charges of hard-to-find Burrito collections anymore. This is about as good as one-stop-shopping gets for those interested in Parsons’ storied career.


May 16, 2010 - Posted by | Gram Parsons Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels |

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