The Complete Guide to Country Rock Part 3: Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Grateful Dead
With Dylan’s endorsement and The Band’s influence, the country rock movement was primed for take off. Free of The Byrds, Gram Parsons recruited Chris Hillman on Mandolin, Chris Ethridge on bass and ‘Sneeky’ Pete Kleinow on pedal steel to form The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Gram Parsons envisaged his new band as an expression of ‘Cosmic American Music’, a blend of soul, R & B, rock ‘n’ roll and country music. Released in March 1969, the bands debut album The Gilded Palace Of Sin was a potent brew and a signpost for a new style of country rock.
The Flying Burrito Brothers, Christines Tune, from the Gilded Palace of Sin, 1969.
When the Rolling Stones came to LA in late 1969, Gram was one of the prime hangers on. At this time, there was a mutual respect and influence between Gram Parsons and Stones guitarist Keith Richards that affected the direction of both musicians.
Keith Richards has said that he learned all about country music from Parsons. ‘We used to sit around at the piano for ages, trying to figure out little licks, and he’d show me the different ways that Nashville will play it from Bakersfield,’ said Richards.
As for Parsons, he explained that the influences were two-way: ‘They wanted to get further into what I was doing, and I wanted to get into what they were doing.’
The Flying Burrito Brothers second album, Burrito Deluxe, saw the fruits of this relationship, featuring a brand new song by Jagger and Richards called Wild Horses. Richards had sent Gram Parsons a demo of the song, asking him to suggest a pedal steel player to play on it. Gram asked if he could record it himself, and with their blessing released it a year before the Stones themselves recorded it on 1971’s Sticky Fingers (which itself also contained another country rock classic in Dead Flowers).
After a motorcycle accident, Parsons became less committed to the Flying Burrito Brothers and more reliant on drugs. It all came to a head during a series of ramshackle gigs in 1970 when Chris Hilman fired him after a particularly poor stage performance. The Burritos carried on without Parsons as a smooth country rock outfit, recording and playing live in various incarnations right up until the late 90s.
Parsons developed a heroin habit and went to re-join the Stones in the south of France for the recording of their epic double album, Exile On Main Street. While there he inspired the Stones country rock anthem Sweet Virginia, supplying the harmony vocals to the finished recording.
The Grateful Dead embrace country rock
Back in America, The Grateful Dead returned to their own roots when they embraced country rock after hearing Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.
The Deads Jerry Garcia had been a participant in the West Coast bluegrass scene since the early 60s, and in 1969 country standards started entering their legendary live sets. The band released two studio albums in 1970 that were heavily cloaked in the spirit of old-time American folk and country music: Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.
Grateful Dead members Jerry Garcia, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart then got involved with The New Riders Of The Purple Sage, a band which allowed them to indulge in country and western music while enabling The Grateful Dead to go back to its epic cosmic jamming. Garcia later took up the banjo for another bluegrass project, Old And In The Way, releasing one self-titled live album in 1973 (worth tracking down for the bluegrass cover of Wild Horses).
The Grateful Dead, Uncle Johns Band, performed live in 1980. The song originally appeared on Workingmans Dead (1970).
After The Flying Burrito Brothers Gram Parsons formed The Fallen Angels, which included members of Elvis Presley’s band, as well as Rick Grech, previously bassist and violinist with British rockers Family, and a young female singer called Emmylou Harris.
The rapport between Parsons and Emmylou Harris was pure magic, and he became her guide and mentor. Parsons first solo album, GP (1973), was a return to form, but attention from the record buying public still eluded him.
His next solo album, Grievous Angel, was recorded mid-1973. The song the Return Of The Grievous Angel was based on a poem which seemed to be about Gram Parsons himself and his increasingly wayward lifestyle, while covers of Hearts On Fire and Love Hurts provided superb duets for Parsons and Harris.
Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, Big Mouth Blues (live), 1973
Shortly after finishing Grievous Angel, Gram Parsons, still wrestling with personal demons as a result of splitting up with his wife of two years, took a vacation with a few friends to his favourite place in the world, the Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert. On his second day there, after a heavy day of drinking, he went back to his room and pumped his system full of morphine.
Parsons companions found him out cold, and despite attempts at resuscitation, the 26-year-old was dead before he reached the hospital. The incident took a final twist when his body was stolen in LA by his road manager, taken back to the Joshua Tree National Monument and set on fire, apparently in accordance with Parsons’ wishes.
Despite his lack of success during his lifetime, Gram Parsons’ reputation as one of the pioneers of country rock has grown steadily since his death, influencing artists as diverse as The Eagles, Elvis Costello and Beck.