Gram Parsons – An Underrated Songwriter?

Everyone has his or her own definition of what makes for a great songwriter. Mine is seen by some as being a bit simplistic. I like simple definitions. So here goes: a great songwriter is one who has written one great song.

Simple yes, but hold on. My definition of “great,” while subjective, is a song that stands far above the field, basically a perfect song. For example, I’m not a big fan of Billy Joel, but I do think he’s a great songwriter just for “Piano Man.” Same with a lot of James Taylor, but “Sweet Baby James”? He’s in. Most folks would agree that Bob Dylan is a great songwriter. However, my criteria would be less on his incisive (and long) literary analyses of modern life and more on, say, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Many would disagree, but if it weren’t for Kristofferson’s first album, whose songs were largely in his guitar case before arriving in Nashville, I’m not sure I’d put him on that pedestal. However, he did and I do, as there are at least four absolutely perfect songs on that disk.

Lists of favorite or best songwriters pop up now and then, yet rarely is Gram Parsons’ name present. This seems to be truer today than about 10 years ago when everyone seemed to be on the Gram bandwagon. Almost 40 years since his passing, some seem to blame him for his bad habits and dying young, others like to criticize his voice (to me one of the best and most nuanced ever for the genre). Still others are embedded in the so-called Americana or roots movement, which Parsons’ legacy supposedly spawned (though Parsons’ influences were largely popular and even crossover) and which most recently seems to wander further from Gram’s vision, a vision Emmylou once called “regressive country.”

Gram Parsons is a great and distinguished songwriter, period. By my definition it’s tough to single out his greatest song, as there are so many he penned in a career cut short. Tough, but I’ll start by narrowing it down to probably his two best: “Hot Burrito #1″ and “Hot Burrito #2.” Although very different songs, they are often lumped together because of their titles, purposely ironic, I believe, as Gram knew he hit the mark but offered up whimsical titles (as he did with “Cosmic American Music” when pressed to label his music). Either of these centerpieces of the masterwork Gilded Palace of Sin is worthy of having been written by Leiber/Stoller, infusing rhythm and blues into a pure country form (Gram once referred to country music as “white soul,” which was an apt description until P.C. made this uncool). The anger and hurt come from deep inside, yet the words and delivery cleanse the soul. Everything about these two songs is perfect, and by my experience, they’ve been very hard for others to replicate live.

Some songs that Gram wrote as a very young man are undisputed masterpieces. “Luxury Liner,” written while with the International Submarine Band and made famous years later by Emmylou, stands out as one of the first. But even further back, the lesser known “November Nights” and “Apple Tree” merge mature lyrics and melody with youthful themes in a perfect complement not usually associated with those beginning to learn the craft. They figure forth creations that could only come from someone who only knew he loved, and could be hurt by, the world.

Yet for all the soulful suffering drawn from a tragic personal life, these songs and others can be almost jaunty and optimistic (as many have described Gram himself). Another is “Blue Eyes” from the ISB album, its sentiment worthy of John Denver and the song worthy of Buck Owens. And his almost bouncy “Do You Know How It Feels to Be Lonesome,” a reflection on the subject approaching the unapproachable “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” nevertheless holds something more, a matter-of-fact existential malaise that doesn’t cry in its beer, just notices, “Did you ever try to smile at some people, and all they ever seem to do is stare?”

As a student of Faulkner, I do not know of many songs that express such deep interior emotions that also reflect a transcending love for the South and its landscape and culture as GP’s “She” and “Song for You.” Together with “Hickory Wind,” another gem of a song, co-written with friend and ISB bandmate Bob Buchanan while on a speeding train to California,  these songs offer up a painful longing for something perennially lost, Gram’s own South. One feels in these the encroaching presence of L.A., if only for the homesickness of a boy so far from the green, green grass of home. “On the thirty-first floor, a gold-plated door, won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.” The record business, Wall Street, whatever, just couldn’t stand up to the fire and brimstone from rural Georgia. With the help of Chris Hillman, who knew from experience what the current audience wished to hear, the target turned outward, away from Gram’s own devils, by combining a futuristic perspective with old time evangelism. But it seems like this whole town’s insane, and Satan is real….

“The New Soft Shoe” explores a century of nation building through the sales pitch in a visual work worthy of Edward Hopper. The tormented self realizations of “How Much I’ve Lied” match the best of Cash. Gram’s brilliant “1,000 Dollar Wedding” is an enigmatic story song that takes the country story telling motif to a whole new level. And the heartbreaking “Brass Buttons,” written also very early for his terribly sick but deeply loved mother Avis, exists as a beautiful and timeless still life arrangement. The more one looks at these songs, the more one begins to understand, maybe, why it was so hard to sell this brand of country music, old in form yet something new in scope. In some ways it represented a whole new Western “tough guy,” one who was toughing it out with his own interior self.

Perhaps Gram’s signature song, even if based on a poem by someone else, “Return of the Grievous Angel” is epic in scope and ties our past with Fitzgerald’s ever-receding American dream, always beyond the horizon. It’s a hallmark of Gram’s songwriting genius.

One could go on and on, there are more examples of such magnificent perfection in Parsons’ catalog, a catalog larger than many who have grown to a ripe old age. But one must probably conclude with “In My Hour of Darkness,” a eulogy as well as a celebration for three of his closest friends whom he had lost (loss being a major theme in his work as in his life, also common to many great Southern writers). We don’t need to mention the names of those friends; most of us know them by now. Moreover, the song stands as a paean to Parsons himself, and to all country boys who have it in them to become something more, even through deceptively “simple” country songs.

Another young man safely strummed
His silver stringed guitar
And he played to people everywhere
Some say he was a star
But he was just a country boy
His simple songs confess
And the music he had in him
So very few possessed.

Originally published in

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Tags: americana, band, brothers, burrito, flying, gram, international, parsons, songwriter, songwriting, More…submarine

Comment by Larabee on November 30, 2011 at 8:06pm

Nice article.  When I started reading it, all I could think about were the songs that Gram recorded that were written by others.  Seeing the list of his songs in this article fully supports your position.  

Comment by Will James on November 30, 2011 at 8:25pm

Thanks. I actually had to cull it down. Didn't touch on one of my favorites (I meant to): "One Hundred Years from Now"; its ambiguous shifting from the unknown future to the personal present in line next to line. It just seems people are losing track about one of the many aspects that made this artist a guiding light.

Comment by chris sweeney on November 30, 2011 at 8:28pm

Great post Will James. I agree with you on the songwriting genius of Gram Parsons.

I'll always remember lying in bed with my headphones on listening to the Rice University radio show that used "Grevious Angel" as their opening song. My musical compass was forever changed in a very good way at that time!

Comment by Easy Ed on December 1, 2011 at 7:58am

Interesting post Will. I enjoyed reading it. In Chris Hillman's Smithsonian appearance which can be found somewhere on this site or over at You Tube, he speaks about how he and Gram collaborated on "Sin City" and I recall that it's a damn funny story. While I'm not sure I agree that writing one great song is a qualification for being a great songwriter, I think its a blessing whenever one comes out from whoever, whenever and wherever.

Comment by Turnstyled, Junkpiled on December 4, 2011 at 4:15pm

Nice to see Will. Keep em comin'.

Comment by Jack on December 4, 2011 at 5:37pm

Will, very nicely written.  My sense is that your definition of a great songwriter is over simplified in the extreme.  It does injustice to people like Jimmy Webb, Billy Joe Shaver, and countless others who are great songwriters in part because of peak moments but also because they sustain a high level of writing. That's where greatness comes in, not one fleeting moment.  But yes, a great song is a great song.

Comment by Shane on December 4, 2011 at 6:15pm

Thanks for the post Will. Great read.


Comment by Will James on December 4, 2011 at 7:12pm

See your point Jack. But I didn't say they wrote *just* one great song, just saying one at the highest level is enough. See your point though, should have edited that out as irrelevant. Though I stand by it. Thanks.

Comment by Eddie P on December 5, 2011 at 5:15pm

I love curve balls.  I was convinced that this would be yet another Gram Parsons lovefest article, and I am glad you didn't go there.  You bring up a lot of well thought out points, and you put Gram in a very pure light.  My take on GP is like this - he was somewhat underrated while alive, completely forgotten within a year of his death, only to be deified a couple generations later to the point of almost being overrated.  He was an artist first, a songwriter second.  Much more a musical visionary than a writer of standards, though, I do believe that Hickory Wind will live on as a standard for years to come.

Comment by Will James on December 5, 2011 at 5:52pm

Agreed, underrated was not good, forgotten was not good, and deified did not help. I've lived through all of that. I think over time it all will even out and he will earn his legitimate and proper place as a musical visionary. Obviously he won't he there to see it; not sure any of us will. 


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.