Posts Tagged ‘The Flying Burrito Brothers’

The Flying Burrito Brothers: The Gilded Palace of Sin

One of the first times Gram Parsons played an open-mic night at the Palomino, a dive in North Hollywood that, in the late 1960s, was patronized mostly by hippie-hating country-music fans, a bar regular approached him right after his performance. “I want you to meet my three brothers,” the man said to Parsons, who was wearing his favourite pair of satin bell-bottoms and whose chestnut hair was longer than pretty much anyone else’s in the place. “We were gonna kick your ass,” the man continued, “but you can sing real good, so we’ll buy you a beer instead.”

No response could have flattered Gram Parsons more. The grand aim of what he would come to call his “Cosmic American Music”—an aural/spiritual fusion of country, R&B, gospel, rock, and good ol’ Southern charisma was to find subcutaneous common bonds between people who, on the surface, seemed to be at odds. And in the late 1960s, as the Vietnam War raged and the generation gap widened, that kind of unity was hard to come by. He wanted to convince more conservative folks that unshorn draft-dodgers couldn’t be all bad if they could appreciate, say, the bottomless pathos of a George Jones ballad or the glittery grit of Buck Owens. And on the flip side, as the writer John Einarson put in his 2008 book Hot Burritos: The True Story of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons was also interested in “educating the hippie masses on the wealth of wonderfully authentic American music hidden right under their noses.” Parsons had lofty goals for his art. A superstar in his own mind before almost anybody knew who he was, he believed fervently that his Cosmic American Music could deliver nothing short of salvation.

Throw these two perspectives together the idealist and the pragmatist toss in no small amount of drugs, as well as a pedal steel virtuoso who never quit his day job as a claymation animator on Gumby (!), and you get all the tension and late-’60s weirdness that resulted in an imperfectly near-perfect record, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ 1969 cult-favourite country-rock touchstone, “The Gilded Palace of Sin”.

The production on Gilded Palace is especially rich. (A&M’s house producer Larry Marks, assigned to helm the debut album of his label’s newest signees, later described his role on Gilded Palace quite humbly, as more of a “hall monitor on the job [to] make sure the album got finished and things didn’t get out of hand.” In that sense at least, mission accomplished.)

But there’s a strange vitality to this record that makes its supposed imperfections feel charming, even meaningful. Many people close to the band believed Marks never got the vocals to sound quite right. Certainly one of the strangest and most polarizing choices he made was, on the many songs that employ the Burritos’ Everly Brothers-inspired two-part harmonies, to split the frontmen’s voices into separate stereo channels: Parsons’ high lonesome drawl on the left, Hillman’s earthy croon on the right—and your impressionable skull in between. But that means listening to the record on headphones gives the intimate and uncanny feeling that you’ve got a little devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, each murmuring their conflicting advice right into your ears before joining together in the mellifluous conclusion that maybe they’ve both got some pretty good points after all.

Parsons was born, infamously, into a wealthy family that controlled one-third of the citrus crop in Florida. Both parents drank prodigiously and neglected their kids’ emotional needs. Parsons’ father killed himself two days before Christmas, when Gram was 12. He left his son a generous but haunting Christmas present: A reel-to-reel tape recorder a rare thing to own at the time on which Gram’s father had left a recording telling his son he’d always love him.

Around the same time, across the country in San Diego County, Hillman’s idyllic middle-class childhood had become saturated with cowboy imagery and country music. He learned to play mandolin as a teenager and gigged with bluegrass bands like the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and the Hillmen. But then Hillman’s own father died when he was 16, and unlike Parsons, that meant he had to transfer to night school and work a day job to help support the family. From that divide came the lopsided work ethic that would later define their band.

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In mid-1968, though, Parsons and Hillman found themselves with quite a bit in common. They’d both just exited serious relationships and they’d both quit the same band, the Byrds. Hillman had been a Byrd since his late teens, and he’d been around for the band’s sudden success. Parsons was a late-comer. His stint in the group lasted less than a year, but he had helped steer them in a new, countrified direction on 1968’s prescient country-rock landmark “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”. Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn was never sure that was the right direction. “He turned out to be a monster in sheep’s clothing,” he notoriously said of Parsons, “And he exploded out of that sheep’s clothing. Good God! It’s George Jones in a sequin suit!”—but now in their own band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons and Hillman were finally free to be as twangy as they damn well pleased.

One of the first and finest songs they wrote together was “Sin City,” a mournful ballad that blends Biblical imagery and vivid psychedelia; a smoggy cast of late-’60s-California impending doom holds the whole thing together. “This whole town’s filled with sin, it’ll swallow you in, if you’ve got some money to burn,” the boys begin in tandem. In this song at least, “Sin City” is not the town of latter-day Elvis and roulette tables, but Los Angeles, the dreamscape that each of them had migrated to, hoping in vain to satisfy their earthly desires.

Parsons and Hillman wouldn’t always get along, but they did then. When they were writing some of the songs that would appear on “Gilded Palace of Sin”, Hillman described them as “two heartbroken bachelor guys sharing a house together.” They rented a three-bedroom rancher in Reseda, far enough from the Sunset Strip to stay focused on writing and relatively out of trouble. Hillman has called it the most creatively productive time of his and Parsons’ lives. “We woke up in the morning and would write as opposed to the usual being out until five in the morning,” he said. “We were writing every day on a spontaneous schedule. I’ve never peaked like that, working with other people.”

With Parsons and Hillman both playing rhythm guitar and splitting up lead vocals, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ sound had room for a lead instrument. Enter “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow, a visual effects animator who moonlit around L.A.’s country bar circuit as a well-respected pedal-steel player. He joined the Burritos shortly before they hit the studio in late 1968. Parsons and Hillman had both wanted Kleinow to join the Byrds on the “Sweetheart” tour, and McGuinn’s refusal was one of the many reasons they both left. Putting such emphasis on Kleinow’s instrument was certainly a gamble. To rock audiences of the time, pedal-steel was the cilantro in the soup—a single element with the dubious potential to overpower everything.

“Sneaky” Pete was no ordinary pedal-steel player. He used unique, unorthodox tunings and ran his instrument through a fuzz-box as though it were an electric guitar. The 16-track console at A&M Studios allowed Sneaky to experiment with space and time more than he ever could on stage, overdubbing lacerating licks and layered textures at the forefront of songs like “Christine’s Tune” and “Hot Burrito #2.” “Country is a music of traditional forms; Sneaky Pete played a classically country instrument in an entirely new way,” Meyer notes. His distinct signature blazes through “Gilded Palace of Sin” like wildfire.

Mississippi-born bassist Chris Ethridge rounded out the band’s original line-up. (They had trouble finding a drummer in the beginning, and a handful of different session players contributed to Gilded Palace.) He, too, was a fruitful writing partner for Parsons: Together they composed two of the record’s most beloved songs, “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2.” .

The Burrito suite contains Parsons’ only solo lead vocals on the album, and taken together they’re two sides of the same coin the glinting fool’s gold of human desire.

“Hot Burrito #1” is a swooning, barroom-piano ballad that Parsons animates with a wrenching vocal performance. “I’m your toy, I’m your old boy, but I don’t want no one but you to love me,” he croons, grasping in the direction of something—someone—just out of reach. Then a song later—as Ethridge’s melodic bassline kicks off “Hot Burrito #2” he’s got the girl he wanted and now he’s restless as hell, dissatisfied with the sudden demands of domestic life. “When I come home/Carrying my shoes/I’ve been waiting/To tell you some news… And you want me home all night?!” he hollers, in passionate disbelief. It would seem that the burrito is always hotter on the other side.

For a wannabe rock star, Parsons innately understood the power of spectacle. Before the album cover shoot, he took the band to be outfitted for custom Nudie Suits, by the legendary country-spangled tailor Nudie Cohn. Each member’s outfit reflected something of his personality: Hillman looks regal, if a little stiff, in blue velvet, Ethridge plays Southern gentleman in a long floral-embroidered jacket, Sneaky Pete asked for a velvet sweatshirt with a huge pterodactyl on it, because why not. The pièce de résistance was Parsons, who, ever the purveyor of self-mythology, requested a personalized collage of all his vices: Marijuana leaves, pills, pin-up girls, and sugar cubes dotted with acid proudly besmirch the pure white sleeves of his suit.

One good thing about discovering “Gilded Palace of Sin” long after its 1969 release is that it was not really one of those “you had to be there and see ’em live” things.“I cannot recall one performance that the original band did where I wasn’t embarrassed to tears,” Sneaky Pete told an interviewer in 1999. It was difficult to replicate all those pedal-steel overdubs on stage, yes. But also quite often various band members would be… well, “high” goes without saying, but sometimes high on different drugs, which makes staying in rhythm a real adventure. (A coked-up lead singer and a bassist on downers is what we call a complicated time signature.) This original incarnation of the Burritos was generally a mess on the road, which did not do much to put them in their label’s good graces. Slashed promotional budgets followed, and though it earned some critical acclaim and coveted co-signs “Gilded Palace” sold only about 40,000 copies in its first run.

When he co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons already had a reputation for leapfrogging unceremoniously from band to band. He left the International Submarine Band before their first album even came out to join the more successful Byrds, and an accelerating factor in his abrupt departure from the Byrds was the fact that he’d suddenly befriended members of the even-cooler Rolling Stones. When “Gilded Palace” flopped and it became clear that the Flying Burrito Brothers weren’t going to be his ticket to overnight stardom, he veered sharply into self-sabotage until, inevitably, Hillman kicked him out of the band. They continued releasing tighter, if less soulful, records with various revolving-door line-ups; a version of the band with no original members and only vague connections to the original name is still making music. Parsons’ drug problems, on the other hand, worsened. He continued to live hard, fast, and impatiently; he died of a morphine overdose in a Joshua Tree motel room when he was just 26 years old.

Gilded Palace of Sin” would not have existed without Chris Hillman, and for that he deserves infinite credit. It was no small feat to keep Gram Parsons out of his own way for a few focused months in the fall of 1968; the unfortunate failures and tantalizing what-if’s that marked the rest of his recording career are a testament to that. But it’s also true that on this wonderful record Parsons is clearly able to access a current of emotion and vulnerability that still remained elusive to Hillman. “They did the same thing,” Byrds producer Jim Dickson reflects in Meyer’s biography, “but Gram was willing to put feeling into his songs and Chris never was.”

Gram Parsons’ mid-’70s solo records, “GP” and the posthumously released “Grievous Angel,” have an almost talismanic power, Such is their cult appeal. “Gilded Palace of Sin” is different: The last track on the record, “Hippie Boy,” captures that. It is at once the least and most serious song in the Flying Burrito Brothers’ arsenal a spoken-word imagined conversation between a long-haired youth and the sort of seemingly close-minded guy Parsons might have encountered at the Palomino bar. Hillman plays both parts, though Parsons directed him accordingly (“He has to drink a fifth of scotch before he does it to feel the whole thing,” he insisted at the time. “He can’t smoke an ounce of grass.”) “Hippie Boy” is a utopian vision of togetherness, so sincere it has to be played a bit ironically. As the song, and the record, concludes, a drunken chorus of off-key voices join together to sing a few quick lines of the old hymn “Peace in the Valley.” It’s a beautifully stirring moment, and it ends too soon. The cosmic promise of a better world streaks momentarily across the sky, and then in an instant it’s gone.

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Country music’s influence on rock ’n’ roll is nearly as old as rock itself, a dominant gene in rockabilly and vocal touchstone for seminal artists from Elvis to Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. in 1968 the rise of a school of artists consciously bridging those genres, accelerating the pace that two of the sub-genre’s defining albums would overlap in conception even as the bands creating them buckled under internal strain.

The Byrds had enjoyed first mover advantage in recording “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, spurred on by Gram Parsons, a 21-year-old singer-songwriter whose deep love for Southern country and R&B found a kindred spirit in bassist Chris Hillman and pragmatic support from lead guitarist Roger McGuinn. Country influences were already in the air, not only in originals and covers from the Beatles, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds themselves, but also in up and coming artists like Bobbie Gentry and Linda Ronstadt.

Before “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” hit stores in late August, Parsons had bolted from the band on the eve of South African dates and veered into a bromance with Keith Richards that injected the Rolling Stones with country influences while fanning Parsons’ own dreams of rock glory. After hanging out in London with Richards, Parsons returned to Los Angeles in early August weighing his next move.

The Flying Burrito Brothers’ original line up: Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Gram Parsons, Chris Ethridge and Chris Hillman. The recording line up had yet to add a drummer

Meanwhile, Chris Hillman had left the Byrds’ coop after increasing tensions with management. Despite an earlier falling out with Parsons, Hillman reconciled with the Florida-born, Georgia-raised musician. The erstwhile combatants once more bonded over music and even became roommates, writing the bulk of what would become the original material on the debut for the Flying Burrito Brothers. Chris Ethridge was recruited as bassist, freeing Hillman to play guitar and mandolin, and the duo tapped Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar.

The chance to snag a new band with two Byrds quickly drew competing bids from Warner Bros. and A&M Records, with A&M winning the battle. In contrast to the sessions for Sweetheart, shepherded by a seasoned producer and crack session players, the Burritos entered the studio with a big advance, a lot of ideas, a fledgling co-producer who was no match for the strong-willed Parsons and Hillman, and no drummer. The Burritos would share producer credits with A&M’s Larry Marks and engineer Henry Lewy, reflecting a more chaotic studio environment that would find them going through a collection of drummers.

Gram Parsons had envisioned the Burritos as “his” band, but The Gilded Palace of Sin, released in early February of ’69, underscores the partnership between Parsons and Hillman, who co-wrote six of the album’s eight originals. The opening track, “Christine’s Tune,” finds them sharing lead vocals and driving acoustic rhythm guitars, with harmonies built on classic thirds that harken back to the Louvin Brothers, the Everlys and other high, lonesome harmony singers. An overly ripe bassline evidently designed to emphasize rock power loses its edge to muddiness, but Sneaky Pete’s pedal steel commands centre stage with an aggressive, fuzz-toned attack and his own unorthodox tunings.

A stop-motion animator and special effects craftsman, Kleinow provides a potent departure from the more traditional steel parts heard on Sweetheart, leaning here into the rock side of the sub-genre’s equation. Kleinow unleashes that power elsewhere on Gilded Palace while proving his skill with more traditional accents on the ballads, starting with “Sin City,” a country waltz that trades in the sin and salvation polarity central to Parsons’ vision for an amalgam of country, rhythm ’n’ blues and rock.

Its synthesis of country soundscape with urban modernism strikes an apocalyptic tone. “On the thirty-first floor, a gold-plated door won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain,” the duo sings in a prophesy that warns “this old earthquake’s gonna leave me in the poor house.” They could be singing about L.A. or Las Vegas; heard today, it’s hard not to envision the gilded escalators in Trump Tower.

The R&B component in Parsons’ “cosmic” Southern synthesis leads him back to Memphis, source for Sweetheart’s countrified R&B cover (“You Don’t Miss Your Water”). this time yielding two superb ballads sharing lyrics from Dan Penn. “Do Right Woman,” written with Chips Moman, was a sensuous Aretha Franklin cut demanding equal sexual satisfaction from her man, a contract that survives its gender flip as another gliding country waltz. Instead of changing the mood or their compass bearings, the Burritos follow with the darker sexual torment of “Dark End of the Street,” a Penn collaboration with Spooner Oldham. Parsons dominates the vocals with an audible anguish over a locked battle between passion and guilt for two lovers “hiding in shadows where we don’t belong,” resigned to the inevitability of discovery and shame in a tableau of illicit love familiar in both country and soul tropes.

For two self-referential album tracks, Parsons wrote with Chris Ethridge. “Hot Burrito #1” is another soulful ballad that dispenses with any hint of sexual guilt to remind an ex-lover that “I’m the one who showed you how/To do the things you’re doing now” in frank sexual metaphors. With “Hot Burrito #2,” Ethridge grounds the track in a strutting bassline as Parsons rants about a lover’s quarrel with an eyebrow-raising opening “Yes, you loved me and you sold all my clothes.” If the lyrics verge on incoherence, the track itself is a lively standout.

Elsewhere, Parsons and Hillman nod to the tension between their music’s Southern roots and their countercultural instincts. On “My Uncle,” Hillman takes the lead on vocals and mandolin as a young American pondering the draft who’s “heading for the nearest northern border” against a fleet bluegrass backdrop. And on the closing “Hippie Boy,” Hillman reverses roles for a poker-faced, spoken word sermon as a redneck whose encounter with a hippie brings something like peace, love, understanding and the sage advice to “never carry more than you can eat.”

With the album completed, the Burritos recruited a third Byrd, drummer Michael Clarke, but chaotic behavior sabotaged supporting tour dates as they burned through the label’s advance, missing a crucial New York date. The Gilded Palace of Sin stalled on the Billboard chart, considerably worse than Sweetheart’s disappointing tally months earlier. The addition of Bernie Leadon would strengthen them musically, but Gram Parsons was already restless. He would leave “his” band after the Burritos completed a scattershot follow-up, Burrito Deluxe.

Thanks Sam Sutherland

Co-founded by former Byrds members Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers formed their own massive country-rock family tree: Rick Roberts, the band’s guitarist in the early ’70s, later fronted Firefall; guitarist Bernie Leadon left for the Eagles; and pedal-steel guitarist “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow recorded with just about any pop or rock artist who craved a little twang. The Burritos only released one album in the ’60s, but it’s enough to warrant their inclusion: 1969’s ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’ is a high watermark of the genre, adding elements of psychedelia and gospel to their country core.

On the heels of recent releases including the first-ever reissue of Gene Clark’s classic A&M album White Light, Intervention Records has turned its attention once more to a group of California legends with ties to The Byrds: The Flying Burrito Brothers.  Following its previous release of the Burritos’ debut “The Gilded Palace of Sin” on both hybrid SACD and deluxe vinyl, Intervention will reissue the band’s sophomore LP, “Burrito Deluxe”, in those formats.  The 180-gram vinyl LP will arrive by October, .

Burrito Deluxe marked the second and final album by the country-rock pioneers to feature founding member Gram Parsons.  Drummer Michael Clarke, late of Gene Clark’s duo with Doug Dillard, came on board along with another Dillard and Clark alumnus, guitarist Bernie Leadon.  Chris Hillman, who played guitar on Gilded Palace, moved over to bass to replace Chris Ethridge.  Pedal steel guitarist “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow continued to round out the roster.

The sad story of the Flying Burrito Brothers is that they were always far, far ahead of their time. Hillman “We had always hoped the band would become as successful as the Byrds were, but it never happened. We never had a hit single . . . just a lot of ups and downs. It was a magical, very productive period in my life. But nobody was really ready for us. Now, even the new Flying Burrito Brothers are doing all right. I do really suspect their motive, though. It’s like me hiring four other guys and calling myself the Byrds. My point, though, is what we were doing is real popular now. For God’s sake, I watch these groups with their rhinestone suits on, singing out of tune, playing shitty, and they’re being accepted. It breaks my heart. “We all worked so hard with that band. Goddamn it, we deserved success.”

Like most bands in their position, the Flying Burrio Brothers splintered out of desperation. Chris Hillman was helping Stephen Stills with his third solo album at the time of the final breakup. When Stills promptly offered him a partnership in Manassas, it seemed a comfortable solution to post-Burrito depression. “We were always more of a band than people thought,” Hillman recalls fondly. “Stills wouldn’t have been the same without us, that’s for sure. Stills was playing a concert in Cleveland with the Memphis Horns. I was sitting in the audience, going, ‘Jesus Christ. They’re making 25,000 bucks and they’re shitty. The Burritos are better than this.’( Rolling Stone ’72)

Like the first album, Burrito Deluxe blended both band originals and cover versions – this time including Bob Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go (Go Now),” Harlan Howard and Wayne Kemp’s “Image of Me” (most closely associated with Conway Twitty), the southern gospel standard “Farther Along,” and most notably, Mick Jagger and Keith Richard’s “Wild Horses” – a year before The Rolling Stones released it themselves.  The opening track, Parsons’ “Lazy Days,” also had history as it was previously recorded by both The International Submarine Band and The Byrds, though neither version had been released at the time.  Just two months after the release of the album in April 1970, Parsons was fired from the group he founded.  He would be replaced by Rick Roberts for the band’s next LP.

Intervention’s 180-gram vinyl LP reissue has been remastered by Kevin Gray from original analog tapes (a 1/2-inch safety copy of the original stereo master), and has been pressed at RTI in an old-school Stoughton-printed “tip-on” jacket.  The artwork has been restored by Tom Vadakan and features red foil accents on the front cover.  Look for this country-rock classic on vinyl in October.

The Flying Burrito BrothersBurrito Deluxe (A&M SP-4258, 1970 – reissued Intervention Records IR-022, 2018)

Image may contain: one or more people and closeup, text that says 'TIME BETWEEN MYLIFE LIFE AS BYRD, BURRITO BROTHER, AND BEYOND CHRIS HILLMAN'

As a co-founder of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, Chris Hillman is arguably the primary architect of what’s come to be known as country rock. He went on to record and perform in various configurations, including as a member of Stephen Stills’s Manassas and as a co-founder of The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. In the 1980s he formed The Desert Rose Band, scoring eight Top 10 Billboard country hits. He’s released a number of solo efforts, including 2017’s highly acclaimed Bidin’ My Time—the final album produced by the late Tom Petty. In Time Between, Hillman shares his quintessentially Southern Californian experience, from an idyllic, rural 1950s childhood; to achieving worldwide fame thanks to hits such as “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Eight Miles High”; to becoming the first musician to move to Laurel Canyon. Featuring behind-the-scenes insights on his time in The Byrds, his productive but sometimes complicated relationship with Gram Parsons, his role in launching the careers of Buffalo Springfield and Emmylou Harris, and the ups and downs of life in various bands, music is only part of his story. Within the pages of Time Between, Hillman reveals the details of his personal life with candor and vulnerability, writing honestly about the shocking tragedy that struck his family when he was a teenager, his subsequent struggles with anger, and how his spiritual journey led him to a place of deep faith that allowed him to extend forgiveness and experience wholeness. Chris Hillman is much more than a rock star. He is truly a founding father of American music and a man who has faced down the challenges of life to discover what really matters.

The Flying Burrito Brothers The Gilded Palace Of Sin album cover web optimised 820

When The Gilded Palace Of Sin was released, on 6th February 1969, sales were initially not good but their debut album by The Flying Burrito Brothers has since earned its status as one of the defining albums of country-rock and Americana music. named it as one of the 500 essential albums all music lovers should own.

Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman formed the The Flying Burrito Brothers after both leaving The Byrds. They brought in bassist Chris Ethridge and pedal steel guitarist Pete Kleinow to complete the line-up, appropriating the band’s name from a group of Los Angeles musicians who gathered for jam sessions.

“We’re a rock’n’roll band that sounds like a country band,” said Gram Parsons, a Harvard theology student drop-out who was 22 when the album was made. The singer-songwriter, guitarist and keyboardist is acclaimed as one of the most innovative forces in country music, becoming a huge influence on musicians as diverse as Emmylou Harris, Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams.

There are 11 songs on The Gilded Palace Of Sin, including the haunting classic ‘Sin City’, which was co-written by Hillman and Parsons, and which included allusions to contemporary figures such as Robert Kennedy (“A friend came around/Tried to clean up this town”), who had been assassinated in June 1968.

Hillman said he woke up one morning with the lines “This old town’s filled with sin/It’ll swallow you in” swimming in his head. He roused his flatmate Parsons and they completed the song in about 30 minutes. “It was just before Christmas and it was about to rain; and we were living in the San Fernando Valley in a tract type home,” Hillman recalled. ‘Sin City’ has been covered by scores of musicians .

There was a spontaneity to the album’s production that helps make The Gilded Palace Of Sin sound fresh half a century later. Chris Ethridge said, “I told Gram I had a couple of old melodies from back when I was growing up. I played them for him and we wrote the two songs that day, ‘Hot Burrito #1’ and ‘Hot Burrito #2’, and then that night went into the studio and cut ’em.”

As well as being full of modern Americana classics – including the achingly beautiful two-part harmonies on songs such as ‘Juanita’ and ‘Wheels’ – there were also innovative cover songs. Hillman said that Parsons opened him up to new musical experiences by setting the challenge of taking great soul songs – such as ‘The Dark End Of The Street’ – and reinventing them.

Hillman said, “We also took the interesting song ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’, which was Aretha Franklin’s big soul song at the time, but we did it country. That was the genius of Parsons. He got me into looking beyond the country parameters.” They brought in David Crosby to sing backing vocals on that track.

Drummer Jon Corneal, who had worked with a teenage Parsons in The International Submarine Band, and went on to work with Loretta Lynn, played on five tracks and was one of four drummers used on the album.

One of the qualities that underscores the whole album, right from the energetic opening track, ‘Christine’s Song’, is the brilliant playing of “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel guitar. In 1969, the Burritos didn’t really have a lead guitarist so a lot of the solos fell to Kleinow. Parsons used to call him “The Maharishi Of Country Music”, and Kleinow became one of the most sought-after session musicians in the business.

‘My Uncle’ (the only track to feature Hillman on mandolin) and ‘Hippie Boy’ are counterculture songs of the time about the Vietnam draft and the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots in Chicago, which Parsons described as “the toughest challenge on the album”.

The album’s artwork is also special. It was overseen by Tom Wilkes, who had joined A&M after being the art director of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Parsons had arranged for custom-made Nudie suits to be created by the acclaimed designer Nudie Cohn. Parson’s one, which featured red poppies and marijuana leaves, hangs in the Country Music Hall Of Fame. Wilkes said: “We decided to take them out to the desert and do something kind of surreal with the Nudie suits, shot by Barry Feinstein. And they looked great anyway. They looked funky and kind of country western and kind of rock.”

Gram Parsons, who was aged 26 when he died, in 1973, left a marvellous legacy, including The Gilded Palace Of Sin, which helped draw the blueprint for both 70s country-rock, Americana and the sound. On November. 6th in 1973: road manager Phil Kaufman & friend Michael Martin were charged & fined $300 each for the theft of a coffin containing the body of country rock singer-songwriter Gram Parsons; the court heard that the two men were merely carrying out Gram’s wishes to be cremated in the desert; the pair had stolen the body & driven it to Joshua Tree in a borrowed hearse, where they attempted to cremate it by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin & throwing a lit match inside, resulting in an enormous fireball…

Gram Parsons’ Last Ride

With the benefit of hindsight, Cecil Connor III, rather better known to us as Gram Parsons, was always a candidate to live fast and die young. The hedonistic lifestyle of the man from Waycross, Georgia had hit his health badly even during his brief few years of brilliant creativity. But it was still a tragedy when the news emerged that Gram’s last ride, to the Joshua Tree National Monument in California, had led to his death on this date 42 years ago, on September 19, 1973.

The excursion to one of his favourite spots was planned as rest and recreation before the start of a new tour. He’d played live earlier in the year, including a show in Boston in April, where he performed some of the songs with which he had helped to create the very genre of country rock, such as ‘Drug Store Truck Driving Man,’ ‘Sin City’ and ‘That’s All It Took.

But only two days into the trip, Parsons was found unresponsive in his bedroom and after all attempts to revive him failed, was pronounced dead at Hi-Desert Memorial Hospital at 12.15am. The official cause of death was an overdose of morphine and alcohol. His coffin was stolen by his then manager Phil Kaufman and former Byrds roadie Michael Martin and taken to Cap Rock in the California desert. There, as per his own wishes, the body was set alight. Gram Parsons was later buried at the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Metairie, Louisiana.

But Parsons’ musical legacy is a rich one, in earlier days with the International Submarine Band, after he arrived on the West Coast in 1967, and his brief but pivotal time with the Byrds; then with Chris Hillman in the Flying Burrito Brothers and finally on his two solo albums, 1973’s ‘GP’ and the posthumously-released ‘Grievous Angel.’

When ‘GP’ was released, Rolling Stone described Parsons as “an artist with a vision as unique and personal as those of Jagger-Richard[s], Ray Davies, or any of the other celebrated figures.”

In its report on his death, the Village Voice quoted former Byrds drummer Mike Clarke, who said: “Man, I don’t think Gram ever met a drug he didn’t like. I guess there’s an object lesson there somewhere.”

In 1969, The Flying Burrito Brothers welcomed listeners into their “Gilded Palace Of Sin”.  The album, released on Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ A&M label, heralded a new style of music – one which co-founder Gram Parsons would famously dub “Cosmic American Music.”  Indeed, the sounds emanating from this Palace were, at the same time, surprisingly traditional and completely radical.  For the Burritos melded the harmonies of the Everlys or the Louvins with the gutbucket soul of the deep south, the instrumentation of classic Nashville, and the experimentation of psychedelia.  The sound created on The Gilded Palace of Sin would come to be known as country-rock, and influence a generation of performers, perhaps most notably the Eagles but also bands from Poco to Wilco.  Intervention Records has recently given the deluxe audiophile treatment to this landmark cult-classic album, with a new 180-gram vinyl pressing.  (A hybrid stereo SACD edition will follow later this year, as well.)  Intervention’s reissue is both faithful to the sound of the original LP while actually improving on it.

That this was no ordinary country record, or rock record, was evident from the very first track.  “Christine’s Tune” was written and sung by Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, both late of The Byrds. (Parsons had also been a member of The International Submarine Band, itself a progenitor of the country rock genre.)  The band was rounded out by Chris Ethridge on bass and “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow on steel guitar, while the drum seat was occupied by a number of musicians including “Fast” Eddie Hoh“Christine’s Tune” has a classic country-and-western storyline about a woman who’s a “devil in disguise,” but underneath the harmonies and Parsons’ acoustic style was Hillman’s psychedelic electric guitar on the verge of a freakout, and Kleinow’s offbeat steel playing – both captivating and disconcerting.  (Bernie Leadon, who served in the group as of its second album and went on to join the Eagles, noted that Kleinow usually played an eight-string Fender cable pull steel tuned to B6 instead of the expected C6.  He played in a jazz style that others might typically have used an E9 tuning for, and utilized a fuzzbox and played his instrument through a rotating Leslie speaker, to add unusual effects.)  Kleinow’s presence was a reprieve for the steel guitar, an instrument that had been largely eschewed by Nashville in the wake of the lush, pop-oriented Nashville Sound.

Parsons and Hillman’s cautionary tale of “Sin City” was another classic country lament (“This old earthquake’s gonna leave me in the poorhouse/It seems like this whole town’s insane…”) but with striking religious imagery, as well.  Parsons and Hillman weren’t pulling any punches in bringing the rootsy country sound they loved – one which had been largely pushed to the side in the countrypolitan era – and fusing it to a youthful rock-and-roll sensibility.

A number of the Parsons/Hillman originals were very much of their time.  “My Uncle” juxtaposed a jaunty bluegrass melody with the narrator’s story of “heading for the nearest foreign border” to evade the draft, very much a specter lingering over young men in 1969.  “Wheels,” too, was transporting – a typical country song in its longing and plea to “come on wheels, take this boy away,” but also with a spiritual streak and likely drug references, as well.  Chris Etheridge’s barroom piano lends another happily unexpected grace note to the track.  Hillman recites the spoken-word “Hippie Boy” which ends the album on a note of sadness and tragedy.  (It was a direct reflection on the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots.)

Ethridge teamed with Parsons to write two of the album’s standout tracks, “Hot Burrito No. 1” and “Hot Burrito No. 2.”  Elvis Costello retitled the former “I’m Your Toy,” reasoning that the original title was dignified enough for this beautiful ballad which underscores the influence of southern soul writers like Dan Penn on the Burritos.  Both “No. 1” and the more driving “No. 2” feature quavering, tender leads from Parsons, joined on “No. 2” by Hillman and Ethridge on background vocals.  Barry Goldberg stepped in to co-write “Do You Know How It Feels” with Parsons, grafting a melancholy, classic country lyric to catchy melody ripe for a saloon sing-along.

The Gilded Palace of Sin‘s two covers were significant reminders of the R&B and soul underpinning, too.  Both were written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman: “Do Right Woman” and “Dark End of the Street.”  Though the songs undoubtedly belong to Aretha Franklin and James Carr, respectively, Hillman, Parsons and the Burritos traced a direct line from Memphis to Nashville – via Los Angeles, where the album was recorded.  (Note that “Dark End” is credited on the album to Penn’s most frequent writing partner, Spooner Oldham. This is not an error on Intervention’s part, but rather is just faithful to the original LP sleeve.)

Parsons only lasted for one more album with the Burritos, while Gilded Palace turned out to be Chris Ethridge’s debut and swansong with the band.  By the time of the band’s fourth album, released in 1972, Chris Hillman was The Last of the Red Hot Burritos.  Since then, various iterations of the band have formed and re-formed, and one such splinter group called The Burrito Brothers still tours today.  Gram Parsons died in 1973, having furthered his musical mission with a pair of solo records featuring Emmylou Harris – the second of which was released after his untimely death.  The Gilded Palace of Sin is still the most cohesive record of Parsons’ career, on which he crystallized his ambitions and talents into a singular piece of art.  Though few originally bought the record, its reputation quickly grew among artists and collectors alike, and its influence from pop to alt-country can hardly be understated.

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Intervention’s splendidly detailed remaster of The Gilded Palace of Sin maintains the almost woozy, psychedelic ambiance of the album produced by the band, Larry Marks, and Henry Lewy, while bringing vivid detail and clarity to the stinging guitars, tight harmonies, and especially Chris Ethridge’s bass which anchors the LP with resonance.  Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio has remastered (100% AAA analog, notes the label) from a 1/2″ safety copy of the original stereo master tapes as housed in the Universal vaults.  This RTI pressing, on heavyweight vinyl, lives up to its promise of being “dead quiet” and makes a powerful case for the warmth of its analog sound.  The LP, boasting period A&M labels, is housed in a protective sleeve within a sturdy Stoughton-printed “tip-on” jacket, replicating the original artwork.

thanks To The Second Disc

So where would that leave the legacy of a cult artist like Gram Parsons, who died in 1973 at the age of 26 with but a small, yet influential body of work, as the 21st-century marches ever onward? If you are of a certain age, and presuming that you are a pretty big music fan, you no doubt have heard and hopefully appreciate the “cosmic American music” of this golden-voiced country rock progenitor/genius. To be sure, I think that there’s still a pretty strong cult following of Gram Parsons fans , but in 2017 its members tend to be know-it-all aging boomers with graying ponytails who want to give you their opinions of whatever album you happen to be looking at in a record store.

Only in Southern California, always a stronghold of Flying Burrito Bros. fandom, does there seem to be an organic all ages awareness of the great Gram Parsons. This has much to do with the desert and how inextricably intertwined the desert trip is with the mythos of Parsons’ death by OD in room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn and how his body was subsequently stolen and given a drunken cremation near Cap Rock by his manager, Phil Kaufman.

It’s a SoCal rite of passage to do magic mushrooms in Joshua Tree and trip out under the desert stars listening to “The Gilded Palace of Sin” by the Flying Burrito Bros. as there is simply no greater soundtrack for this sort of activity in that particular place . Its a specifically a desert thing. .

Which is why the word needs to get out about this release by Intervention Records who recently released vinyl and also SACD re-issue of “The Gilded Palace Of Sin”. Mastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio, this is one of the best-sounding slabs of wax that I’ve heard , which is exactly what you would want someone to say if you’re a new boutique record label catering to the jaded (and easily disappointed) audiophiles. Think you’ve heard it all? Wait until you’ve heard this! That beautiful young man’s quivering, vulnerable, plaintive voice, those harmonies with Chris Hillman and the exquisite chime of Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s buzzing, warmly-distorted almost psychedelic steel guitar, it’s all there in the grooves as never before, like they coaxed some extra music particles off the low generation analog tapes it was mastered from. Since I first heard The Gilded Palace Of Sin in the early 70’s .

I’ve listened to it hundreds of times, but this is something else entirely. Always an exhilarating—and well-recorded—album to begin with, this absolutely sparkling pressing by Intervention represents the apex of the state of the art analog “triple A” production (no digital anywhere in the workflow) going today. They even make a new vinyl stamper after every 5000 uses . If you’re looking for some primo vinyl to throw at your turntable, this is as good as it gets, a record you will find yourself flipping over and playing again and again and again. (And although I’d bet this is their showpiece, Intervention Records have also released exquisite editions of classic albums by Joe Jackson, Big Audio Dynamite, Stealers Wheel and they’ve announced some upcoming Judee Sill releases. Everything I’ve heard from them is crazy-ly good, 10/10 stuff. Every audiophile should keep an eye on what they’re releasing.)

Although there are several books, bootlegs, live albums and compilations, plus a great feature length documentary , there are precious few examples of Gram Parsons on film or video. Less than a handful for sure. This performance, provenance unknown to me, is the Flying Burrito Bros. doing one of their very best numbers—and perhaps Parsons’ greatest ever vocal performance—the oddly named heartbreaker “Hot Burrito #1” (It and “Hot Burrito #2” were both written on the same day and both recorded that very same evening.) If there can only be a few clips of Gram Parsons in action, this is the best.

Did Gram Parsons wrote “Wild Horses.”

Or at least maybe he co-wrote it. maybe he gave the lyrics to Keith. Whatever, I don’t care. Is it Gram’s style of songwriting, we also know the Stones‘ style, both before and after meeting Gram (and musically, Ry Cooder).

Now in the February ’13 issue of Uncut we have Mick’s brother saying it was a Gram Parsons’ composition (“not that he ever got anything for it”). And we have an old quote from Mick himself, “I remember we sat around originally doing this with Gram Parsons…” Etc. Really Mick, you “remember” that much… in ’71? And knowing Gram, I imagine he wasn’t doing anything? Just sitting around, watching?.

No, there’s no proof. Unless you believe in the analysis of art and life as proof.Is it possible that the original lyrics, written by Gram and perhaps modified slightly by the Rolling Stones, were written about/for Gram’s sister Little Avis. Gram Parsons felt tremendous responsibility for Avis after their parents’ death, and overwhelming guilt at times for leaving her. And, no doubt, some guilt over what was happening to him, and that he would also soon be leaving her for good. “Faith has been broken, tears must be cried.” His letters to Avis mirror the thoughts and feelings in the song. The notebook, with the lyrics and chords to Wild Horses wtitten in Grams handwriting that people point to as “evidence” that Gram wrote the song actually points to the opposite conclusion. The lyrics are all written out exactly as they are on the record. When you compose a song you scribble out lines, try new ones and write stuff in the matgins. It looks messy. The version in Gram’s notebook looks more like it was transcribed from another source.

Keith Richards has stated in interviews and in writing that he began writing the song for his son, Marlon, as he was about to leave on tour. He showed the roughed out lyrics to Mick and Mick turned it into a love song. What reason would Keith have to lie about it? He has always gone out of his way to sing Gram’s praises. Mick and Keith are two of the most prolific song writers in the history of popular music history and have more big hits under their belts than you can count. They also have a history of doing lots of covers and giving the writers of those covers their due.

Childhood living is easy to do
The things you wanted I bought them for you
Graceless lady you know who I am,
You know I can’t let you slide through my hands

I watched you suffer a dull aching pain,
Now you’ve decided to show me the same
No sweeping exits or offstage lines
Can make me feel bitter or treat you unkind

I know I dreamed you a sin and a lie,
I have my freedom but I don’t have much time
Faith has been broken, tears must be cried,
Let’s do some living after we die

Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.

Originally published in Gram Parsons InterNational blog, 2013

Gram Parsons. © Jim McCrary/Getty Images

The 1960s were coming to a close when rising country rock musician Gram Parsons posed next to Nudie Cohn, the celebrated Western-wear designer more than three times his senior. Raeanne Rubenstein shot their portrait for Show: The Magazine of the Arts at Nudie’s Los Angeles workshop. Over a smooth bare chest and midriff, the twenty-something Parsons wore the suit Nudie designed for him for the cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ debut album, The Gilded Palace of Sin. Made of white cavalry twill, it was embroidered with crudely rendered naked ladies, rhinestone-studded marijuana leaves, and sequin-dotted poppies. Tuinal and Seconal capsules and sugar cubes laced with LSD decorated the sleeves. On the back shined a giant, gleaming cross. Flames licked the sides of both bell-bottom legs. Rubenstein’s shutter clicked, capturing the near-familial warmth and affection between the two men, neither of whom would have predicted that the suit, which went on to help make Parsons a legend, also foretold of his death.

Nudie, who came to Hollywood in the 1940s and hung his hat as the “Rodeo Tailor,” was legendary for creating what we think of today as an iconic American look: flashy Western high style. Born Nuta Kotlyarenko to a Jewish family in Kiev, then part of the Russian Empire, he immigrated to America in 1913, when he was eleven, and a customs agent on Ellis Island renamed him “Nudie Cohn.” He went on to dress the preponderance of Hollywood’s cowboys—Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, John Wayne—as well as country music’s biggest stars, from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash. Nudie’s first designs depicted classical Western motifs in rhinestones: cactuses, covered wagons, hearts, and roses. In 1957, he designed Elvis’s most famous outfit: the gold lamé suit the King wore on the cover of 50,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. (The suit cost Elvis $10,000, equivalent to $85,000 today.)

Image of Custom Nudie Suit - Made to Measure

Many consider Parsons’s “Nudie suit” to be the designer’s masterpiece. Nicknamed “Sin City,” after a song on the Burritos’ album, the suit has been called “the Sistine Chapel ceiling of cowboy attire” by Guardian critic John Robinson. It is a study in dualities: vice and sanctity, irony and earnestness, and country music style and rock & roll sensibility. Aesthetically, it is the perfect visual expression of Parsons’s music, which melded country to rock and gave rise to an entirely new sound. Bands such as the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers, and later-generation artists Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, Old 97’s, and Steve Earle—and the entire Americana and alt-country movements—would be inconceivable without the example Parsons set. Contemporary musicians such as Jack White and Jeff Tweedy continue to wear Nudie- and Parsons-inspired looks to this day.

Ingram “Gram” Cecil Connor was born into a family of wealth, thanks to his grandfather’s citrus empire. In his native Waycross, Georgia, he often traveled in chauffeured Cadillacs and journeyed to Florida in plush, private train cars. At age nine, Gram saw Elvis Presley open for Little Jimmy Dickens at the Waycross City Auditorium, an experience that changed the budding musician’s life. In Twenty Thousand Roads, a biography of Parsons, David N. Meyer quotes Gram’s nanny, Louise Cone: “Gram was a sweet child as long as you let him be Elvis Presley.”

Parsons also knew suffering. Two days before Christmas of 1958, when Gram was twelve, his alcoholic father, Ingram Cecil “Coon Dog” Connor, committed suicide with a bullet to his head. Gram moved to his grandparents’ family compound in Winter Haven, Florida, with his mother, Avis, and little sister. A few months later, Avis married a smooth-talking, slickly dressed man named Robert Parsons, and Gram Connor officially became Gram Parsons.

When he was fifteen, Parsons performed in a band called the Legends—they wore matching red blazers and traveled to gigs in a customized VW bus detailed with the band’s name. Parsons, whose family had hired a manager for him, traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, to a solo gig on the Coca-Cola Hi-Fi Club Hootenanny, where he met and joined the Carolina-based, Journeymen-inspired Shilos. The band spent the summer after Parsons’s junior year in New York City playing the legendary folk clubs Café Wha?, Café Rafio, and the Bitter End. Back in Florida, on the day of Parsons’s high school graduation in 1965, his hard-drinking mother died from cirrhosis of the liver.

It was a pivotal year for Parsons, who headed to Harvard, and for American music. That summer, Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, a move that kicked folk back to the dustbin. Country was readily accessible across the U.S., but as Parsons’s eventual bandmate, guitarist John Nuese, told biographer Meyer, “Nobody was listening to what they’d call redneck country-western shit.”

Parsons dropped out of Harvard after one semester, moved to New York City with his musician friends, and formed the International Submarine Band. While he’d had a strong formative exposure to country in Georgia and Florida, it was Nuese who introduced the band to contemporary twang, including the genre’s older, more obscure ballads and songs. “We were discovering the depths of how impassioned that music is,” said ISB bassist Ian Dunlop. “It’s magnetic and terrifically poetic. It’s the human condition exposed.”

The band spun and studied modern albums by Bakersfield musicians Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, as well as George Jones. Though Parsons didn’t know him yet, Nudie had already dressed all three of these men; as his designs matured, he made special stage suits for artists in celebration of their greatest hits. He embellished a black suit with moonshine bottles and lightning bolts for Jones’s first No. 1 country single, “White Lightning.” For Webb Pierce’s hit version of Jimmie Rodgers’s “In the Jailhouse Now,” Nudie covered the front of a suit with jailhouses and on the back embroidered a picture of Pierce strumming a guitar behind bars.

By the spring of 1967, the ISB moved to Los Angeles, where things finally began to come together musically for Parsons. In 1968, the ISB cut an album, Safe at Home, that had a unique, countrified rock sound informed by the band’s deep study of Americana. But before the album was released, Gram left the group to join the most popular band in the country: the Byrds. He lasted only six months. Still, it was long enough for him to lead them to completely change their sound for Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which Country Music Hall of Fame writer Peter Cooper described as “the gateway drug to country.” Cooper also stated, “Gram turned the Byrds from America’s most popular rock band to one of America’s least popular country bands.” Audiences didn’t yet know what to make of the marriage of the two genres. Parsons called it “Cosmic American Music.”

The divide between rock and country held true in fashion, as well. Pianist David Barry, who was active in the L.A. music scene, said, “People like me wore jeans and boots, which is exactly what real country stars didn’t want to wear because it suggested they came from country’s poor white roots.” The “real” country stars “looked like a Las Vegas joke.”

In the late 1960s, Nudie’s son-in-law and head tailor Manuel Cuevas met Parsons and enticed him into Nudie’s shop. In addition to working for Nudie, Manuel, who goes by his first name professionally, was working on crafting the Grateful Dead’s skeleton-and-roses insignia and designing the suits for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album. Soon after, Parsons began sporting Nudie’s outlandish creations as the visual corollary to his unique sound. Nudie would hop in his custom Western-themed Cadillac convertible, with pistols for door handles, a hand-tooled leather dashboard covered in silver dollars, horseshoe hood ornaments, and steer horns jutting forth from the front grill, and drive to the clubs to hear the band play. Parsons had started a new band called the Flying Burrito Brothers with Chris Hillman, another ex-Byrd. “Nudie loved seeing Gram up on the stage, sparkling and looking so beautiful in his designs,” said photographer Raeanne Rubenstein. When it came time for the Burritos to record their debut album, The Gilded Palace of Sin, Nudie was the obvious choice to help put together their look.

Band member Chris Hillman generously donated the suit he wore on The Gilded Palace of Sin to the Autry in 2002. With the passing of Chris Etheridge earlier this year, Hillman is the only surviving band member.

Nudie and his staff made outfits for all four of the Burritos, each to their own tastes and whims. Chris Hillman, who played guitar and shared vocals and songwriting credits with Parsons, opted for a lush cobalt blue suit with peacocks on the front and a giant sun on the back. Peter “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow, the band’s pedal steel player, requested a suit embroidered with a pterodactyl and a tyrannosaurus rex. Bassist Chris Ethridge asked that his Edwardian frock coat and pants be covered in a classic motif of red and yellow roses. “We talked for months and months before we put it together,” Manuel told me. He stitched the embroidery on Parsons’s suit himself because Rose Clements, Nudie’s chief embroiderer, refused to sew the pictures of drugs and naked women.

Parsons may have been going for an authentic country look, but his suit was equally tongue-in-cheek, like some of his songs. The rhinestones and cross are in homage to classic country culture, while the marijuana gave a blatant middle finger to that world. The suit cut the other way, too, celebrating hippie drugs in high redneck style. Nudie’s designs conveyed a subtler narrative—that of the Southern innocent forever corrupted by urban life. In country music, the narrator often ends up calling the past his home, but Gram Parsons’s past offered no solace.

Though now considered a classic, The Gilded Palace of Sin sold dismally. Rolling Stone critic and fellow Waycross native Stanley Booth gave it a rave review and Dylan said the album “instantly knocked me out,” but the Burritos’ music was still too rock for country audiences and too country for the rock set.

At the time, the album’s greatest success belonged to Nudie—four months after Gilded’s release, he was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone. Before long, John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Sly Stone, and Bootsy Collins, among others, would all wear his styles, inspiring Western wear’s popularity in the 1970s. But in early 1968, the Burritos caught flack for their bedazzled attire. “Just because we wear sequined suits doesn’t mean we think we’re great,” Parsons said. “It means we think sequins are great.”

Nudie Cohn on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1969:

The drugs that decorated “Sin City” eventually began to catch up to Parsons; he had started using barbiturates and heroin. In April of 1970 he released a middling second album with the Burritos, Burrito Deluxe. Two months later, Chris Hillman, who was growing tired of Parsons’s “rock-star games,” fired him on the spot when he showed up late and high to a gig. Afterward, Parsons went to hang out with Keith Richards, with whom he’d developed a friendship solidified by drugs and music, at Nellcote, the French villa where the Stones were recording Exile on Main Street. Today, many attribute the band’s new direction on that album to Parsons’s influence, particularly its twangier numbers, even if the Stones did boot him from their idyll.

Eventually, Parsons got clean enough to cut a solo album, GP, featuring the harmonies of Emmylou Harris, then an unknown. Rolling Stone reviewer Bud Scoppa saw Parsons and Harris perform during their tour, and wrote: “That night—for me, at least—Gram Parsons was transformed into a latter-day Hank Williams: an innovator still revering the past and proud to be bound to it, an anguished genius daring to use his pain as the foundation of his art, no matter what the consequences. He was beautiful, but there was danger in the beauty.”

Hank Williams had been a client of Nudie’s, and the two had grown close before Williams’s tragic death at twenty-nine. Likewise, Parsons and Nudie developed a strong bond. “Nudie took him under his wing like he would a son,” according to the designer’s granddaughter Jamie Lee Nudie. But, she remembers, Nudie’s wife, Bobbie, often said that there was simply something deeply sad about Parsons.

After the tour for GP, Parsons was arrested for getting into a drunken, drug-inspired bar fight, and Nudie bailed him out—but no one, not even Parsons’s closest friends, could save him from himself. “Nudie saw what was happening, and it devastated him,” said Jamie Lee.

In 1973, at twenty-six, Parsons died of an overdose in Joshua Tree, California, right before the release of his follow-up solo effort, Grievous Angel. Gram had traveled far in his short life, but ultimately could not escape the illness that also claimed his parents’ lives: addiction.

Though Parsons is not a Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, his Nudie suit is on display at the museum, where it celebrates Parsons’s and Nudie’s respective revolutionary approaches of conjoining two otherwise opposing aesthetics: country and rock. Filling a glass case between two guitars, the suit also stands as a compelling sartorial portrait of Parsons the man and musician, the sinner and seeker. Like much of his Cosmic American Music, it is made all the more haunting for its irony and beauty, and the story of its grievous angel whose life was shot through with loss.

many thanks to Elyssa East

Gram Parsons biographies.


When Gram Parsons’ name is mentioned, it is often done so in association with those more well-known artists he influenced, such as The Byrds, who took Parsons’ lead during his brief tenure in the band for their groundbreaking album “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo”, or The Rolling Stones, whose admiration for Parsons shined through in their own forays into country music in the early ’70s.

Yet the recorded evidence of Parsons’ genius is frustratingly finite. As Keith Richards wrote in a tribute for Rolling Stone about his buddy, “I think he was just getting into his stride when he died. His actual output — the number of records he made and sold — was pretty minimal. But his effect on country music is enormous. This is why we’re talking about him now. But we can’t know what his full impact could have been.”

Luckily, in addition to his work with the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons made a pair of stellar solo albums before he died in 1973 that make clear why he is so revered. From “Grievous Angel”, the second of those albums which was released posthumously in 1974, came “$1,000 Wedding,” which stands as one of the saddest songs in history even though nobody is quite sure what transpires in it. Enigmatic though it may be, it demonstrates Parsons’ ability to add idiosyncratic touches to traditional material and perform it in mesmerizing fashion.

With a solemn piano tiptoeing in to begin the arrangement, Parsons starts his tale about a groom left standing at the altar under mysterious circumstances. All the narrator offers is that “the young bride went away.” Parsons makes things even more difficult to parse by switching haphazardly from third-person to first-person narrative. He hints at the protagonist’s friends perhaps joining him in some deception (“And he felt so bad when he saw the traces/Of old lies still on their faces”), but he never lets us know just what.

Most confounding of all, the narrator seems at times to be at the scene of a wedding gone awry and at others to be in the midst of a funeral. Certainly Parsons is toying with our expectations here and the fact that the most celebratory day in one’s life is held in the same location as the saddest. Parsons also takes country clichés like the mean mother-in-law and the preacher spewing fire and brimstone and balances them with the honest and raw sadness of the narrator, evident in his woeful delivery of the song’s closing couplet: “Supposed to be a funeral/It’s been a bad, bad day.”

For the record, this writer’s opinion is that the events being described are two separate occasions which the narrator jumbles into a single song. She initially did leave him at the altar, likely due to some sort of indiscretion he committed, hence his regret and wish to be put to sleep like the beasts in the preacher’s sermon. He’s there also for the girl’s funeral, perhaps not as fully attended as the wedding, which explains his concern that there isn’t the proper fanfare to mourn her.

Of course, you can take that interpretation with a grain of salt and blow it all into the Hickory Wind. What’s so great about “$1,000 Wedding” is that you can feel it plenty even if you don’t fully understand it. And what’s great about  is that he left us songs that are somehow as potent and vast as the shadow he cast on the music world.