Tuesday, March 27, 2007
I started working in a used and new record store in Seattle in 1987. A significant portion of my dreams came true when I actually got paid (very little, of course) to flip through records all day. One of the benefits of working there was I got first dibs on any used records I bought for the store. At that time, CDs were making vinyl practically obsolete. People couldn't trade in their records fast enough. Great vinyl abounded. One day I came upon my first Gram Parsons record. Or rather my first Flying Burrito Brothers record. The album, Burrito Deluxe, featured a photo of a burrito encrusted with sequins. The cover intrigued and disgusted me, so onto the turntable The Burritos went. But since I am a sucker for what I know as much as the next girl, I dropped the needle right on the Burrito version of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses." So while my music interests were willfully adventurous and I was always up for hearing the unfamiliar, once committed I did gravitate to the most familiar bit of the unfamiliar. The singing was slightly distorted by a tiny warp in the vinyl but pretty clear otherwise: a gorgeously sad and lonesome vocal. I was instantly in love, this poor guy meant it, lord he did. Later I would discover the Burritos did their version first. Some say the Stones got their arrangement from Gram Parsons (although the Nicky Hopkins-like piano perhaps indicates it was Parsons' version of a demo that already had the beginnings of the Stones' final arrangement). None of that interested me. I just wanted more Gram. In any case, I soon acquired all the Parsons material. I loved his original songs, but he always included some fascinating covers of other peoples' songs. Which brings me to my subject: the fascination of covers and Gram Parsons' cover choices in particular. (I see from Wikipedia that the term "cover" is fraught - although the term's fraughtness is also apparently fraught because there is a disclaimer attached to the entry. Some people think the term "cover" specifically refers to making a white version of a black artist's song to score a rip-off hit, particularly in the 1950s. They prefer "remake" for a nonexploitative recording of another person's song. I'm sticking with my broader definition of a cover. I'm using the term "cover" to simply mean recording a new version of a song someone has previously recorded under any circumstance.)

Parsons' albums made his cover versions as much a part of his art as his orginals. As noted, certainly part of the appeal of a cover song is the strange combined with the familiar. But in Parsons' case the covers were often songs that were obscure to a rock and roll audience. It is almost as though Parsons is proselytizing with his covers. Some of his other choices just seem perverse until you hear them. Covers are a way for an artist to tell you where he's coming from and whose shoulders he is standing on while at the same time indicating how different he is by doing his distinct rendering of the earlier artist's song. (I have always been envious of how musicians can do cover songs. There isn't a literary equivalent: it is not a mere reference, or a quote. Or a tribute. It has elements of collaboration. It is an intimate hybrid, unique to music.) Parson covers helped, in a very deliberate way, indicate what he his ambitions were: mixing country music (and a country music sound) with R & B (soul) music and rock and roll music. He called it Cosmic American Music, which is just fine by me. For someone who sang with such remarkable and unaffected sincerity, he was single-minded and very self-conscious in laying down his concept. I think he escapes seeming contrived because his feel for the music was quite genuine and organic. He just took what he liked from all the music he loved (and discarded what he didn't like).

The International Submarine Band
Safe At Home
LHI : 1968
[Buy It]

This song was a hit for Porter Wagoner in the 50s. Parsons covered a lot of country music classics and did not shy away from the slide or steel guitar sound (which took balls in 1968). But although he uses the same country steel guitar sound as in the original, his singing style is real breathy, more folky than country. And he stretches out the words until his voice almost breaks, making it sound much more desperate than Wagoner's more polished style. Gram would shamelessly sing country songs, but he would sing them with a folk/rock sensibility. (Wagoner also wore sequin-crusted suits, and Parsons soon took to wearing his rock variation in his famous Nudie suits. Wearing a sequin suit was brave in the days of the late 60s when you were supposed to wear a poncho like Steven Stills or, at most, velvet pants like Hendrix. Even Elvis was in black in the late 60s. Parsons wore country sequins, but had long hippie hair. And his sequins and embroidery depicted marijuana leaves as well as a crucifix, somehow giving it all a counter-culture flair. Anyway, it looked really good, cosmic American even.)

The Flying Burrito Brothers
Burrito Deluxe
A&M : 1970
[Buy It]

This Bee Gees song was covered by everyone. The men, including the Bee Gees, tend to sing it as a declaration - slightly menacing even - of obsessive love. Eric Burdon sings it that way. Gary Pucket does too, with orchestration to prop up its grandiose sentiments. But when women sing it, like Janis Joplin, and especially Roberta Flack, they sing it with torch-song, self-immolating masochism. They sing it as confession, low down and sad. Gram Parson sings it the way the women do, all submissive and girly. (Yeah, he out girls even the Bee Gees.) He gets rid of the orchestra and keeps the vocal real up front and slow. So that's another Parsons component: his extreme vulnerability. His willingness to out girl the girls, his willingness to let his voice break. His unimpeachable sincerity. Very soon male vulnerability would be everywhere in the singer-songwriters. But before 1970 you really had to look to the black male soul singers. This brings us to the other main component in Parsons' vision.

The Flying Burrito Brothers
Gilded Palace Of Sin
A&M : 1969
[Buy It]

William Bell
The Soul of a Bell
Stax : 1967
[Buy It]

Aretha Franklin had a great soul-mama version, but the amazing William Bell also had recorded a version of this song. Bell used elements of country sound in his soul music, so he was a natural influence on Parsons. The Burritos sing "Do Right Woman" in a vocal style very similar to Bell's, really soulful and emotional. The only difference is they put a pedal steel guitar on it (played by Sneaky Pete Kleinow, who just died this year). Parsons connects soul music and country music in a way that hadn't been done before. He saw them as one southern tradition, and by simply putting the classic country sound of the pedal steel on this classic soul song, he brings it all home. Finally he adds rock-style harmonies, and what do you know? It is really sounds different from everyone else. No wonder people didn't like it.

The Flying Burrito Brothers
Sleepless Nights
A&M : 1976
[Buy It]

Merle Haggard & The Strangers
Sing Me Back Home
EMI : 1968

This is such a great Merle Haggard hit song. It is a real country prison ballad. I include it because Parsons sings it the way he'd sing a gospel song or a love song. He sings it almost delicately, as if he might weep from longing. Country music had self pity, but that isn't the same as vulnerability. Parsons sings as though singing is his salvation. Merle Haggard's version is more self-contained and polished. I think this song has some of the prettiest singing Parsons ever did.

Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris
Greivous Angel
Reprise : 1974
[Buy It]

Hair of the Dog
A&M : 1975
[Buy It]

Another song that everyone covered. It was a hit for Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers. Parsons sings this as a straight ballad with Emmylou Harris. The harmonies are close, like the Everly version, but they slow it way down. The passion in the singing is touching but not at all corny despite the lyrics ("love is like a stove, burns you when it's hot"!). Nazareth later had a horrible version that became a swollen, lumbering hit single, one of the proto-metal power ballads. Gram's version didn't sell. And then of course he died. But hey, check out Ryan Adams' cover of Parsons' Return of the Grievous Angel....

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Dana Spiotta is the author of the novels Lightning Field and Eat the Document.

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posted by Alex