The Complete Reprise Sessions – Gram Parsons
There’s a great scene in the Coen brothers' film The Big Lebowski where the lead character, the Dude (played brilliantly by Jeff Bridges), is kicked out of a cab after telling the driver to change the music because “I hate the fucking Eagles.” Well, like the legions of hair metal and various black/death metal bands that followed in the Tolkien un Drang wake of Zeppelin and Sabbath, Gram Parsons — who played with The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers before going solo — planted the Country Rock seed that would spawn the dreaded band from the Hotel California. The Eagles, however, never quite achieved the artistic heights Parson had reached with co-singer Emmylou Harris, the gorgeous yearling who would go onto her own Olympian plateau in the years to follow.
On the newly remastered three-CD set, drawn from Parsons' solo discs of the early '70s, he and Harris cover a lot of ground with a tight band of Elvis Presley and Tennessee studio veterans that give the songs a bedrock of eternal soul-searching. Parsons, like many musicians in his era, strove towards self-destruction through full-tilt hedonism without really understanding the consequences. Endless drug-induced and alcoholic hangovers are one thing to wake up from but to end life in one huge binge is well, so, final and obvious and tragic in a punk Shakespearean way. And that’s a damn shame because although both of Parsons’ classic solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel are contained in this set, you wonder how many other chestnuts the man could have crafted. Furthermore, his duets with Harrisagain, an unknown entity at the timeharkens back to the Johnny Cash/June Carter Cash variety while containing a heartbreak that knows no height, width or bottomjust a fathomless abyss, weary, sun-bleached experience swallowed whole by skeleton key refrains.
“We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning” is their first great duet. Whereas the music is whimsical and loose, Parsons wrings the blues from his vocals while Harris echoes remorsethis love done got to end. “Streets of Baltimore” has self-explanatory lyrics but the move from the Tennessee farm to the great city of Baltimore does not offer the relief that the marriage needed; instead, they ponder a dark mystery that simply cannot be understood. She craved the excitement of the bright lights and all he loved was her. “The New Soft Shoe” carries a tune written by Parsons that is filled with blissful melancholy and perfectly matches his woeful tone. “Kiss the Children,” written by Blind Faith’s Rik Grech, is a sweet little portentous shuffle about the effects of divorce on the young kids caught in the web of heartbreak’s equation. “Cry One More Time” shows the late 1950s icon status that Parsons easily shifts into with an easy drum beat, sax from some Chicago bar and a vocal that weaves Presley, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly into one unique portrait. “Big Mouth Blues” shoots for the sky with wit and grit in a way that the so-clean and so-LA Eagles could never achieve. Parsons and Harris aimed extremely high in a casual way on GP and they hit every mark by staying true to what the music desired.
Grievous Angel would be Parson’s final solo album and his masterpiece as he cleaned up just enoughafter stints in the South of France with the heroin-plagued duo of Keith Richards and Anita Pallenburgto record everything else that his muse was shoving into his veins. This is one of those albums that the rock critic admits that a) my big sister (or brother, as the case may be) had it, b) yes, I used to borrow the blue-jacketed vinyl quite a bit, c) I didn’t understand what Parsons and Harris were saying but, damn if the tunes didn’t sound just right and d) I reckon I loved someone telling me a good melodic yarn.
The album really kicks into my bit of heaven on track two, “Hearts on Fire,” with Parsons and Harrisco-credited with Parsons on the album sleeve as nature intended, ya understand. The tune starts as a beautiful refrain about the twin demons love and misery and never winds downthe melody is played with a wonderful twist of Steve Snyder on vibes, Elvis vet James Burton and future Eagle Bernie Leadon on guitars. Let’s not underestimate the aforementioned influence of the King of Rock n’ Roll. Like GP, Parsons was surrounded by Presley sidemen and Tennessee musicians who knew how to kick a song up and down when given the right material. One listen to Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde should tell anyone how critical the Nashville sound was on the future of rock. Parsons and Harris added another couple of chapters of their own to that legendary muse.
“Brass Buttons” — one of only two songs written for Grievous Angel by Parsons since his house burned down prior to the recording with all of his lyrics lost — foreshadows the co-chief Eagle Glenn Frey’s entire career but somehow appears more timeless, more sincere. And I suppose that’s the word I’m looking for in this long but well-justified assessment of Parson’s new remasterings. Parsons comes to life, again, on his other penned gem, “$1,000 Wedding” which delivers five minutes of storytelling with Harris in a gorgeous ride of low-key “Idiot Wind” saddled next to a modern age Roy Orbison.
Side two of the album contained (and forever contains on this set) a live medley from his native Northern Quebec before moving into the trio of all-time classics that closed the album and Parsons' short career. “Love Hurts” is everything that the Nazareth cover version was not, as the duet bends to the ground with wounded knees; their subtle bitterness scrapes at your heart until the listener also feels weakened knees. “Ooh Las Vegas” sounds like a send-up of Elvis/Vegas-era hot shit rock but reaches new terrain when Parsons puts his own spin on the story of a small time boy in a big time criminals' world. “In My Hour of Darkness” curls up and around and never lets gothis is the tune that made me wonder if Parsons was Hank Williams reincarnated. Sad that he would suffer the same early fate as the elder master. Harris again weds her voice with Parsons in another perfect union of yesterday’s love smothered by today’s melancholy.
Get out your fucking heady handkerchiefs. The extra CD contains alternate, previously unreleased versions from the two albums. Quite frankly, this is material that transcends the usual cutting room floor rejects, as the triple layer on this particular cake is gold (a word I don’t use casually). “She” is the best song that The Band and Elvis Costello never wrote. The version here is simple and quite a tearjerker. “Still Feeling Blue” sounds like the kind of demo that Sam Phillips was always hoping for when he walked into Sun Studios in the mid-'50s. The alternate take of “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning” is even more subdued than the released version with Harris supplying an almost echoey regret that rides the periphery of this tasty song. “Return of the Grievous Angel #1” is Big Sky, Montana beautifulmiles and miles of road filled with an intoxicating aura. “In My Hour of Darkness” sounds like Dylan circa-New Morning but the lyrics are far more ponderously subdued than the wedded-bliss vibe of Sir Bob at that time. Kudos to Harris for once again keeping pace with Parsons as he chased the muse in his own way — even fucking up a lyric or two with wit and momentum. “Hickory Wind” is a steel guitar and piano tapestry that slows down the pain to a rich molasses pace.
There are also three previously released late-period singles tacked on the end with “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night” being worth the price of the set alonearguably Parsons and Harris at a travelogue peak. For final good measure, veteran critic Parke Puterbaugh does a bang-up job on notes for the set and solidifies the fact that this ancient art has not quite been lost to the sands of time like so many other vinyl attributes. However, the radio interviews and promos riveted onto discs 1 and 2 are for hardcore fans only as these segments appear to detract from the mad, wounded genius that was the beautiful Gram Parsons — an essential definition of quality country rock.