by Brian Everett
When The Byrds conceived their sixth album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, their main intention was to create a kaleidoscope of American popular music. Strictly a psychedelic rock band, they group acquired country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons as a sideman to help with the task. What happened over the next five years would forever change country music.
In March of 1968 Gram Parsons influenced The Byrds to record part of Sweetheart of the Rodeo in Nashville at Columbia Studios. During the week-long recording session, Gram’s fingerprints were stitched into the band’s fabric, and songs written by artists such as Bob Dylan, Cindy Walker, Woody Guthrie, The Louvin Brothers and Merle Haggard ended up as covers on the album. Incidentally, while recording in Nashville the band was invited to play at the Grand Ole Opry, but when they walked on stage they were quickly dismissed by the conservative audience and would never be invited back. The Byrds ended up returning to Los Angeles to finish recording the album in May of 1968. Ultimately, Sweetheart of the Rodeo successfully fused the genres of traditional country and folk with rock & roll, exposed the country music genre to long-haired members of the 60’s counter culture, and boom, Cosmic American Music was born.
Due to internal conflicts with multiple members of the band, Gram Parsons left The Byrds with fellow bandmate Chris Hillman before the commercial release of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The two formed The Flying Burrito Brothers and took their sound to another level by adding R&B, soul and gospel to their brand of country-rock. Gram ended up recording two albums with the group, The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969) and Burrito Deluxe (1970). In 1970, Gram was fired by the Burritos due to his escalating drug use and its collateral effects on the members of the band.
Finding himself in another state of transition, Gram decided to go solo. Around this time, Chris Hillman suggested that Parsons check out an Emmylou Harris show at a small club in Washington DC. Impressed with the performance, Gram quickly became friends with Emmylou and she was later featured as Gram’s duet partner on his two releases with Reprise Records: GP (1973) and Grievous Angel (1974).
Sadly, Gram would never witness the release of Grievous Angel. In September of 1973 he died at the young age of 26 from a drug overdose, just four months prior to the album’s release.
The two solo records and the three albums on which Gram Parsons contributed with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers between 1968 and 1973 went on to create one of the more fascinating legacies in recorded music. In that short time, Gram recorded with musicians that are still earning a living at it now - 40 years later. His breed of Cosmic American Music would later influence bands and artists such as Uncle Tupelo, The Mavericks (Raul Malo), Whiskeytown (Ryan Adams), Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and so many others. In short, the world of music would not be the same without Gram Parsons.
For more info on the life of Gram Parsons, be sure to check out the 2004 documentary “Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel.” It’s an impeccably presented account of Gram’s upbringing, his musical journey, untimely death and the extraordinary events that followed.