When we last looked in on the Byrds, David Crosby had been fired and Michael Clarke had quit leaving the group with only two members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. The remaining Byrds needed a band and moved quickly to hire Kevin Kelley, Chris Hillman’s cousin, as a drummer and Gram Parsons as pianist. The key word here is hired, with both of the new band members coming on board as paid sidemen rather than full members of the group. The group appeared to jell and although not a full member of the group Gram immediately became a major force in the band, quickly moving from piano to guitar. Roger McGuinn was quoted in a May, 1968 article in Rolling Stone (Byrds: New Personnel For Some Old-Time Country Music) as saying “Gram added a whole hunk of country. Gram’s bag is country and we’re going to let him do his thing, and support him and work together on things.” The Byrds headed south, literally and figuratively. A good portion of their upcoming album was recorded in Nashville and their new sound was not the “country rock” sound of Poco but real serious, honest to God, traditional country music. You got a taste of this in Hickory Wind, a Gram song that I posted earlier this week. Here is another taste with Gram and the Byrds tackling Merle Haggard’s Life In Prison.
Just because the Byrds embraced county music, doesn’t mean that Nashville embraced them! You have to remember that this was the 60’s and being a long haired hippie, especially in the south, was taking your life in your own hands. They were soundly booed when they became the first rock group to play at the Grand Ole Opry and they were ridiculed during their appearance on WSM radio.
In the midst of the Byrds move to country music there was a real power struggle going on within the band. Gram was exerting more influence, and from everything that I have read, he was intent on taking over the band but this was never going to happen given that he was not a full member of the group. You could almost sense that things were not going to end well and the situation moved quicker than anyone might have predicted. There is no better way to hear the story than straight from the people that were there and lived it. I think you will enjoy this. (Don’t get confused by the title of the video, it actually traces the whole story of Gram and his time in the Byrds in less than five minutes)
So…Gram was out of the Byrds and the album that he so greatly influences, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, was still two months from being released. Gram wrote the only two original songs on the album and recorded the majority of the lead vocals before his departure; however, his role in the released album was greatly reduced during post-production work on the album prior to its release. The most significant change was that Roger McGuinn erased many of Gram’s lead vocals replacing them with his own. Gram’s vocals on Hickory Wind and Life In Prison were left untouched which is why I selected them for your listening enjoyment.
By now the Byrds were used to dealing with personnel turnover and they kept moving forward hiring Clarence White to replace Gram on guitar. But more change was in the air. Chris Hillman left the band a couple of months after Gram due to financial issues associated with the Byrd’s business manager. This left Roger McGuinn as the last original member of the Byrds, a position that left him in firm control of the band. He,and a revolving cast of sidemen, would go on for another five years and a number of albums before finally calling it quits in 1973. Although there would still be some interesting Byrd’s music to come their career had clearly peaked so we will leave them behind. While the Byrds were coming in for a landing a new group was taking flight on wings made out our tortillas.
It wasn’t long before Gram and Chris hooked up following their individual departures from the Byrds. If you watched Chris on the video above it was clear that he had found a kindred sprit in Gram, so it was really not a surprise to see them team up. They named the new group the Flying Burrito Brothers and recruited “Sneaky Pete Kleinow (steel guitar) and Chris Ethridge (bass) to round out the initial group. They used a variety of different drummers in their early work and eventually hired Michael Clarke (you will remember him as one of the original Byrds) as a full time drummer.
It will come as no surprise that the band had a seriously country sound. This sound was highlighted throughout their first album, named The Gilded Palace of Sin, on which all but two of the songs was written by Gram and/or Chris. The album would prove to be incredibly influential over time. It is ranked at 195 on Rolling Stones top 500 album list and was a major influence on all country rock/alt country performers that would follow in their path. Amazingly the album would never achieve any significant commercial success as reflected in the fact that it still has still not achieved Gold record status over 40 years after its release. Enough talking, let’s have a listen to Sin City written by Gram and Chris.
Now let’s listen to my favorite song from the album, Christine’s Tune, which was also written by Gram and Chris. As always, I apologize in advance for the advertisement in the video.
In my opinion that song/video is perfect: the suits; Gram and Chris trading lead vocals; the vocal harmony between Chris and Gram; and the crazy psychedelic sound that Sneaky Pete got out of that steel guitar. I would really like to be able to end this story right here on that high note but unfortunately I can’t.
The band started to come apart pretty quickly. Chris Ethridge left and was replaced by Bernie Leadon. Gram and Chris Hillman started to fall apart as Gram started to go off the deep end with drugs. Their next album Burrito Deluxe was cobbled together in the studio and featured little of the collaborative songwriting that had made the first album so special. Gram left soon after the albums release and as far I am concerned the Burritos that I knew and loved ended at that point. The band would trudge on running through a number of talented musicians (Rick Roberts, Al Perkins, Byron Berline, etc.) some of which will show up in later posts.
Gram will not be discussed in future posts in this series but we will come back to address the remainder of his career in a dedicated post in the future. For now I will give you the Readers Digest version of the sad story. His drug use continued to worsen after leaving the Burritos. He had a short but eventful solo career before dying of a drug overdose in 1973. The events following his death have taken on legendary status. and I will save them for the promised dedicated post in the future.
For now, I will leave you with this trailer from the Fallen Angel documentary about Gram.