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Off the Beaten Tracks: Gram and Emmylou

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ONE of the greatest songs of any era, any genre, has to be Love Hurts (Mrs Ashworth writes: Definitely the best pop song ever). Written by the prolific Boudleaux Bryant, it was first recorded in 1960 by the Everly Brothers and also provided hits for Roy Orbison, Jim Capaldi and Nazareth among many others. I don’t claim to have heard all 100-plus of the cover versions out there but cannot believe there is any better than this duet by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, the latter’s sweet tones combining beautifully with Gram’s world-weary croak. So what was the history behind such an inspired collaboration?

Ingram Cecil Connor III was born on November 5, 1946. His father, ICC the Second, was nicknamed Coon Dog and was a World War II flying ace. Mother Avis was the daughter of John Snively, a citrus-fruit tycoon. The wealthy couple lived in Waycross, Georgia, but Avis returned temporarily to her home town of Winter Haven, Florida, to give birth to Gram and his younger sister, also Avis.

The parents were affectionate with their children and loved one another, but addiction was to blight the family through the generations. Avis was seized by depression and became an alcoholic, as did her husband. Two days before Christmas 1958, when Gram was 12, his father killed himself, leaving the children devastated. Coon Dog’s widow later married businessman Robert Parsons and her son and daughter took his name.

Gram had already developed ambitions to be a musician after seeing Elvis Presley perform in Waycross. Just into his teens he played in rock and roll bands including the Legends and the Pacers, appearing at clubs owned by his stepfather. Folk music then became his main influence and while at school in Greenville, South Carolina, he joined a band named the Shilohs, disciples of the Kingston Trio.

In 1965 Gram’s mother died of cirrhosis after an affair by her husband led her to drink more than ever. That same year her son graduated from high school and the Shilohs broke up. Accepted by Harvard, Gram heard a classmate play a Merle Haggard record and became hooked on country. Flunking out of his general education course after a single term, he formed the International Submarine Band with rock guitarist John Nuese. In 1967 they released an LP, Safe at Home, which includes the enduring Parsons song Luxury Liner

The following year the band broke up and Parsons was hired by the Byrds, whose bassist Chris Hillman he had met in a bank. His original role was on keyboards but he soon switched to guitar and vocals. Although he was not accepted as a fully fledged member of the band and was paid as a session man, (‘he was on salary – that was the only way we could get him to turn up’, said Hillman), he played a key part in their album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, writing the songs Hickory Wind and One Hundred Years From Now. During a visit to England, Gram became friendly with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. He walked out on the Byrds and spent time at Keef’s mansion, where they would sit around for hours listening to country music. 

In 1969 Parsons flew to Los Angeles and formed the Flying Burrito Brothers with Hillman on guitars, Chris Ethridge on bass and Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel – drums would be provided by session men. They recorded The Gilded Palace of Sin, a combination of country, soul and psychedelic rock. It was not a commercial success but the critics adored it for songs such as Hot Burrito #1. It would influence generations of musicians.

Rather than play with the Burritos, Parsons preferred to party with the Rolling Stones, who were in America to finish their album Let It Bleed. He shared with Richards a voracious appetite for drugs (financed by a family trust fund which paid him the annual equivalent of £150,000 today) and for much of the time was too far out of it to write songs. However he was persuaded into the studio to make 1970’s Burrito Deluxe, which included the first recorded version of the Stones song Wild Horses, later to appear on Sticky Fingers. He then left the band after a bust-up with Hillman, who deplored his lack of professionalism.

Any chance Parsons had of cleaning up his act was dashed when he moved in with record producer Terry Melcher, son of Doris Day, the intention being to create a solo album. Time went by in a haze of cocaine and heroin, and nothing was written let alone performed. Gram then hooked up again with the Stones and was with them at Villa Nellcote on the Cote d’Azur where they recorded Exile on Main Street. He was eventually thrown out on the orders of Keef’s old lady Anita Pallenberg for being a bad influence. (!)

Returning to the US after a spell in England at the home of Ric Grech, bassist with Family, Traffic and Blind Faith, Parsons made it up with Hillman, who took him to a club in Washington DC, saying: ‘You must hear this chick sing.’ This chick was Emmylou Harris.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on April 2, 1947, Emmylou was the daughter of Marine Corps officer Walter Rutland Harris and his wife Eugenia. Having studied music and drama, she dropped out of college and moved to New York City, where she performed folk songs in Greenwich Village coffee houses and worked as a waitress to make ends meet. After making an album, Gliding Bird, and an unsuccessful marriage she moved back to her parents’ home near Washington DC but continued to play in bars and attracted the attention of Chris Hillman. He thought about inviting her to become a Flying Burrito Sister but realised her voice would be ideal for Parsons, who was looking for a woman to sing on his first solo album, GP. It was harmony at first sight.

In Beyond Nashville, a BBC documentary, Emmylou said: ‘Until I had met Gram and started working with him I didn’t really understand or have a real love or feel for country music. Like most of my generation, country music was politically incorrect for us at that point. He taught me the beauty and the poetry, the simplicity, the honesty in the music. And the love of harmony came from really singing with him.’

Parsons had hoped the album would be produced by his idol Merle Haggard. The country legend pulled out owing to personal problems of his own, leaving Gram and Ric Grech in charge, but otherwise the omens were propitious. The services were secured of James Burton on guitar, Glen D Hardin on keyboards and drummer Ronnie Tutt, all from Elvis Presley’s TCB Band. After a lengthy and problematic gestation, the record came out in early 1973.

From the opening track, the Parsons original Still Feeling BlueGP is a straightahead declaration of his love for country, pure and simple. As Elvis Costello later wrote: ‘The songs are of lost or stolen love, crossed with an occasional R’n’B beat. If it should fail to move you, then you have a big problem.’

Track two has Parsons and Harris duetting on a cover of the Virginia songwriter Joyce Allsup’s We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning, beautifully played and sung. Next comes another original, the plaintive A Song For You, which ascends to another level when Gram’s piping, almost childlike voice is reinforced by Emmylou. The country standard Streets of Baltimore, by Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard, is a cautionary tale of a country girl seduced by the bright lights. Emmylou joins Gram for another duet, George Jones and Tammy Wynette-style, on the Jones song That’s All It Took. This is followed by another Parsons special, The New Soft Shoe. It’s amazing how well GP turned out given the state the artist was in. Uncut magazine’s David Cavanagh reported: ‘Gram was falling apart at the seams. He was in the grip of alcoholism. He gorged on cocaine. He was bloated and sweaty; friends estimated he’d put on three stone since his Burrito days.’ Emmylou said: ‘Gram was drinking a lot during that recording, and so there were times when he was together and times when he wasn’t. I hadn’t done that much recording in my life but I thought, “If this is the way people make records, I just don’t get this”.’ Parsons eventually acknowledged his problems, cut his boozing and finished the album.

In the forlorn hope of boosting record sales, Gram and Emmylou went on a month-long tour as Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels. The TCB Band members wanted too much money to join in so a bunch of scratch musicians was hired. The result was chaos, with only the iron will of Emmylou getting the show on stage every night. However, there were some good performances, as this radio recording would suggest.

In the summer of 1973 it was back into the studio with the TCB Band for Gram’s second solo album, Grievous Angel. Acoustic guitarist Herb Pedersen told David Cavanagh that Parsons arrived in a dreadful state from his addictions to heroin and alcohol.  ‘He came in late. Emmy brought him to the studio. She was kind of minding him. We’d already tracked four or five tunes, and he was not in any kind of shape to record with us. He was generally out of it.’ However, Gram again managed to pull himself together and the sessions went well. He wrote two new songs, In My Hour of Darkness, with Emmylou, (also features Linda Ronstadt on vocals) and Return of the Grievous Angel.  

The lovely Brass Buttons is a Parsons original dating back to the mid-Sixties. Hickory Wind was resurrected from his time with the Byrds. And then there is the peerless Love Hurts, performed here as a tribute by Keith Richards and a clearly starstruck Norah Jones.

By the time of Grievous Angel’s release in 1974, Gram Parsons was dead. In September 1973 he revisited the Joshua Tree National Park in California, where he had enjoyed happy times in the late 1960s and claimed to have seen UFOs. After swigging six double tequilas, and buying heroin from a female dealer who injected it into him, he overdosed in room 1 of the Joshua Tree Inn. Gram’s stepfather arranged a private funeral in New Orleans, to which no musicians were invited. However, bearing in mind Gram’s stated wish to be cremated at Joshua Tree, two friends stole his body from Los Angeles International Airport whence it was about to be flown to Louisiana. In a borrowed hearse, they drove it into the national park and doused his open coffin with five gallons of petrol before throwing in a lighted match, causing a huge fireball, and fleeing when police arrived. They were later arrested and fined.

Emmylou Harris, now 74, has always denied having a physical relationship with Parsons, but says: ‘A couple of weeks before his death, I finally accepted the fact that I was in love with him. I didn’t want to say it to him over the phone. I wanted to say it to him in person. But I never got the chance.’ She continues to perform his music to this day.

In 2012 a band called First Aid Kit, comprising Swedish sisters  Klara and Johanna Soderberg, released an album, The Lion’s Roar. Undoubted highlight is the wonderful song Emmylou, which compares Harris’s relationship with Parsons to that of Johnny Cash and June Carter.

I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June
If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too
No I’m not asking much of you
Just sing, little darling, sing with me.

In 2015 they performed the song in front of Emmylou herself at an awards ceremony in Stockholm. She was moved to tears and I wouldn’t be surprised if you are, too.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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