Bottle of Blues – Gram Parsons and what his music was
There are a number of ways I could characterize my entry into country music fandom. And probably in a few months’ time I’ll be using that line again and choosing a different example (it’s a cheap opener, okay?) – but today it feels like I can put it all down to one song.
‘To Love Somebody’. You know it. By the Bee Gees.
I don’t even like the Bee Gees much, to be honest, although I admire the way they don’t sound like anybody else ever: you can always tell a Bee Gees song, and the only other band that springs to mind of whom that can be said is ABBA.
Bear with me.
‘To Love Somebody’ is one of my absolute all-time essential songs, but in a somewhat different incarnation. When Gram Parsons sings it – when he sings, ‘but what good will breathing do, if I cain’t have you – if I cain’t have you’ – it sends me off into a different world where a lost country boy and his guitar are all that matter. All.
I only came to Gram Parsons through Emmylou Harris, like, I imagine, a whole bunch of people; Gram wasn’t around long enough to establish the kind of personal legacy that keeps hooking in new generations all by itself. But since he brought Emmylou to country, it seems fair to be brought by her to him. And thence to country.
It’s a cheat, in some ways. I suppose in some ways Emmylou herself is a cheat; I mean she doesn’t even call herself country anymore. Gram did grow up in Georgia, but he wasn’t doing much farm labour; whatever else they had (including plenty of issues) his family had money. And as far as country was concerned – if country was the establishment in Nashville – Gram Parsons was outside the club. He got on the Opry in 1968 with the Byrds. It didn’t go well. The soldier-rearing South was suspicious of anything that might indicate anti-Vietnam war sentiment, and long hair counted as an indication and so did folk music. The Byrds had lately cut their hair and weren’t planning to perform any of their blissy tambourine mangled-Dylan or Seeger numbers, but still they weren’t wanted on the sacred Opry stage, and they got jeered.
(The ties that had made folk and country songs virtually indistinguishable had been thoroughly loosened not much more than a decade before when the liberals got hold of folk, and politics got into both sides. Before that nobody poor thought it was un-American to sing about the children who starved to death while the rich rolled past in limousines. Take ‘Sixteen Tons’, perhaps one of the grimmest testimonies to the effects of capitalism ever sung; it was also one of the most successful country songs ever worldwide. It’s worth noting by the way that even after 1968 Merle Haggard could write a song like ‘They’re Tearing The Labor Camps Down’ – really it was patriotism, not blind capitalism, which rallied the country fans, although obviously there’s plenty of overlap there.)
Gram didn’t stay with the Byrds long after that Opry incident (if you take a look at the changes in line-up of that band you would credit them with showing Fleetwood Mac how to do it). But the music he ended up making – even his versions of Merle Haggard songs like or old classics – wasn’t really held as country; certainly not by the people who classify music and choose what to play on the radio. Apparently Parsons hated the term ‘country rock’, which who wouldn’t, but he was still credited with creating it. For myself I wouldn’t put Gram Parsons in any kind of bracket with the Eagles, but whatever. It was a new sound he made. And if he wasn’t given much country credit for folksy golden versions of Haggard, nor for renditions of old faithfuls like ‘Streets of Baltimore’ (my personal favourite ever Easter Egg was this song in the background during the scene in The Wire, Season 2, where McNulty and Bunk are ripping innocent crabs to splintery pieces), some part of what he did is expressed in the songs he took out of other genres and turned into country. Like ‘To Love Somebody.’ Or ‘The Dark End of the Street’ which had been a hit for James Carr and for Aretha Franklin. Or ‘Wild Horses’ – though that had almost been written for him, by his buddies the Rolling Stones; they wrote it after listening to his sound and sent it to him to cut before they’d released it themselves.
I would say Gram Parsons was country even if he wasn’t sure he wanted to be. Yes, he mixed up country with rock and roll and with blues and with soul and with songs that would be covered by, God help us, Michaels Bolton and Buble in the fullness of time. And complicating matters is his death, or rather what happened after it, when his manager stole his coffin at the airport and took it back to the Joshua Tree National Park where he had fatally overdosed, in order to burn his body, inefficiently, at Cap Rock in the desert. It’s so weird and so unfortunate and so evocative that Gram Parsons in death became a rock and roll cliché of his own.
But his life and what he made and what he did and what happened to him ache like country music aches; the ingredients of country music and its whole history are sprinkled almost too liberally all the way through his story. There was violent death (his father shot himself when Gram was only 12) and terrible substance abuse (his mother died of cirrhosis when he was still a teenager); there was loneliness and the longing for home and family – in the South. There was rebellion and smackdown and rejection, but there was also the musical culture and instinct of a man who from a child had been inhaling country music. There was the taking of the old greats and the building on them: country music has been built up, consciously, from country foundations by every generation of country stars since the very first, since the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. And like Jimmie Rodgers – and Charlie Poole and men and women who scraped by on music as a living before them as well as those who came after – he mixed up white folk and mountain and roots music with rhythm and blues and with soul and with black gospel tradition.
Besides all that there was love and despair and tragedy and self-destruction and beautiful creation. Nothing says country like that.