Has an album ever changed your life? During my mid 20s, I was accidentally introduced to the music of Gram Parsons, the founder of what he called “cosmic American music,” or more broadly, Country Rock. I was deep in a rock-n-roll only phase when I discovered this music by way of Dinosaur Jr. covering “Hot Burrito #2.” This was a song by Parsons’ oddly named band The Flying Burrito Brothers. I bought the first two albums of that band and my curiosity about Parsons grew.
When I first heard this music I remember thinking many things. How had I not heard this before? Was there similar sounding stuff out there? I always assumed I’d hate the music my dad loved, but these songs made country music make sense.
Parsons’ career path catapulted him through some of the most popular bands of the late 60s. He helped The Byrds go country with Sweetheart Of The Rodeo before running off with Byrds’ bassist Chris Hillman. They bought some flashy, hippie, cowboy suits and formed The Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons purportedly left the Burritos after just one year.
Though he never joined the Rolling Stones, Parsons was very close to Keith Richards. His Country Rock/Honky-Tonk influence is felt on tunes such as “Sweet Virginia,” “Wild Horses” and “Honky-Tonk Woman.” Parsons eventually teamed up with then unknown Emmylou Harris, some say his musical soul mate or harmony-singing counterpart, to create his first solo albums. It was these solo albums that I fell head-over-heels for. And this helped me realize what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Admittedly, the lore surrounding Parsons’ early death further intrigued me to pick up a vinyl copy of GP, his 1973 solo debut. Long story short – Parsons and his road manager Phil Kaufman had a pact that if one of them should die, the other would scatter his ashes inside the Joshua Tree National Park. On September 19th, 1973, Parsons suffered a fatal overdose at age 26. As his casket was en route to New Orleans to be buried alongside his deceased parents, Kaufman stole Parsons’ body, drove it out to Joshua Tree and set it on fire. Promise kept.
Elvis Presley’s band played on Parsons’ solo albums, and these were the first recordings where he and Harris sang those emotionally wrought high-lonesome harmonies. Parsons’ music was starting to be described as Country Rock. But he hated pigeonholing his music into such a genre.
As a musician, the term Country rock makes sense. If you can make country music rock, call it what it is. It may have been Country Rock’s association with The Eagles that turned Parsons off on this genre name. He likely felt that they stole his musical vision and turned it into their success. An old bandmate of Parsons’ once told a music journalist that Eagles founders Don Henley and Glenn Frey were spotted at many of their early Los Angeles performances, closely studying Parsons and band. The Eagles went on to have 14 radio hits. Parsons never had one radio hit. Adding insult-to-injury, through much of the early 70’s music critics credited The Eagles for inventing Country Rock. Parsons was only hailed as the genre’s pioneer posthumously.
After first learning about Parsons I headed down a Country Rock rabbit hole that I’m still exploring today. I don’t think it’s fair to fully credit either Parsons or the The Eagles for igniting the Country Rock explosion of the ‘70s. Folk Rock sort of naturally evolved into Country Rock. The Byrds were getting twangy before Parsons joined them. Buffalo Springfield was flirting with pastoral psychedelia. Linda Ronstadt was churning folky pop into rootsy rock ‘n’ roll. Even the Everly Brothers were getting weird back in 1968.
Long after discovering Country Rock by way of Parsons’ music, half my nights are still devoted to playing with a group of guys hell-bent on putting a new twist to an old style of music (I even host a yearly Gram Parsons tribute night in San Francisco called Sleepless Nights – we’re coming up on the 13th annual concert).
And the sum of all this is why building Pandora’s 70s Country Rock genre station has been my favorite project thus far. Along with all the immediate branches of the Gram Parsons musical family tree, you’ll also hear music by The Eagles, Poco, ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith, CSN&Y, America, Pure Prairie League, Terry Reid, Graham Nash, Manassas and countless others. But I’ve also dotted the station with some modern-day bands that are so inspired by the past; you may not be able to tell the difference between old and new. That is unless you get ahold of some of these recordings and read the liner notes. But be careful – you never know when an album just might change your life.