Back to Sin City

By Bill Crandall

Before Gram Parsons took what would prove to be a lethal dose of morphine and tequila on a September night in 1973, he had written and recorded country-rock's definitive body of work. Through his stints in the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and as a solo artist, Parsons seemlessly mended country and rock & roll, two genres that were barely on speaking terms.

Parsons' co-vocalist on his solo albums was a young folk singer named Emmylou Harris. The younger generation's George and Tammy, the two recorded some of the most gorgeous duets in music -- country or rock -- history.

Twenty-six years later, Harris, now a country star in her own right, has helped gather a collection of rock and country's brass to pay tribute to Parsons. The 13-song Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons features Beck, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Wilco, Chris Hillman (Parson's old bandmate in the Byrds and the Burritos), and, of course, Harris. We caught up with Harris in Nashville to talk about all things Parsons.

CDNOW: How did the Return of the Grievous Angel project come about?

Emmylou Harris: [Almo Sounds General Manager] Paul Kremen wanted to do this record, and he contacted me. And I was less than enthusiastic. I just thought that there are so many tribute records, and I was sort of afraid of failure because obviously [Gram Parsons] means something to me.

I've always kind of just paid tribute to Gram in my own subtle way. But then I started thinking [the tribute album] was gonna get done with or without me, and perhaps I would like to have something to say in the matter. I also thought that this is not so much a tribute record as it is an introduction to Gram's music, because, outside of musicians and music writers, most people have never heard of Gram.

"This is not so much a tribute record as it is an introduction to Gram's music, because, outside of musicians and music writers, most people have never heard of Gram."

How did Gram Parsons the person differ from Gram Parsons the legend?

Well, he was one of those rock-&-roll deaths, one of those rock-&-roll casualties, so that's usually what people pick up on, because there's a certain power to that. We're all drawn to that; you know, "Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful memory" -- which is a country song, by the way.

In the short time I knew Gram, it was his aliveness, his humor, his kindness, his generosity, his enthusiasm for the music, but there was obviously a deep, serious side to him, and a melancholy side, but he didn't show that. I think he put it into his music. He didn't sit around talking about how depressed he was or contacting his inner child.

What most inspired you about him musically?

Well, he really taught me to sing. On one level, I learned so much from him, and he turned me onto country music. I was aware of country music -- my brother was, and is, a big country music fan -- but I didn't hear it with my heart. I kind of looked down my nose at it; it was politically incorrect.

I was a folksinger and country music was associated with all the things that we looked down upon, and I was throwing the baby out with the bath water. It was Gram that made me realize that there was such beauty and power and poetry in a lot of it. But then, as I started working with him and going on the road with him and singing with him all the time, all of a sudden I realized that he was one of those guys [laughs].

But Gram was different because he was bringing the poetry of his particular experience and generation into this form, this genre of music, and he was changing it. But he was keeping the heart and soul of it; he wasn't just using it cosmetically, like, "Oh, isn't that cute, a pedal steel." He really understood things that the rest of us just hadn't picked up on. I wish I could say that the first time I heard him sing I was blown away, but I wasn't. What Gram was doing was very subtle, and it took me a while, but when I got it I was converted so thoroughly that, well, here I am [laughs].

Would you agree that it's even more important for a generation raised on a very different sort of "country" music to hear Gram's songs?

Yeah, Gram's songs were not these sort of cute "Let's write a country song because they're so simple anybody can do it" kind of thing. His songs stand the test of time; they have a universal, timeless quality to them. And all of them were written before the age of 26, when he died. So it's pretty amazing to think of what he came up with. His songs run the gamut from being deeply romantic and touching, and sad, and playful and funny to apocalyptic. Even in "Sin City," with that apocalyptic thing that's going on, it's not like "Eve of Destruction" [laughs]. There's poetry in it, so that it elevates you; it makes you think.

A friend of mine insists that, that song's about Las Vegas, and I think it's about Los Angeles, so please settle an argument.

I can't settle it; Gram never told me. All I know is that I was on the road once somewhere in California, and I had on this "Sin City" jacket that someone had given me, and this little old lady came up to me in a mall and tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Are you from Fresno?" [laughs] So there you have it. I think it is about Los Angeles, though.

So talk about recording "Sin City" as a duet with Beck.

It was pretty straight ahead. He had his country band that he had just done some shows at [L.A.'s] El Rey. He was actually hoping to do "Sleepless Nights," and he finds out that Elvis Costello had already done it, so he was searching around, and he decided on "Sin City." He sang it in a more traditional way than even Gram. He understands that there are all kinds of ways to push the envelope: You can go back, you can go forward, you can go from side to side.

"I wish I could say that the first time I heard him sing I was blown away, but I wasn't. What Gram was doing was very subtle, and it took me a while."

How about doing "Juanita" with Sheryl Crow?

That was a real joy. I had just run into her in New York the day before and asked her if she still wanted to do the project, and she said, "Oh, yeah, I have tomorrow off. Let's you and I do something." I had suggested "Juanita" just 'cause I love that song. So we were just sitting in the control room, with our guitars, and we were facing each other and without headphones, and that was the second take.

You gave Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch, who both appear on Return of the Grievous Angel, a big hand up by recording their songs for [your 1995 album] Wrecking Ball.

I think they would have gotten there without me [laughs].

Are you proud that the music world has caught up with your taste?

Anytime somebody comes into the scene who is that good and that different, I think it raises the standard. I'm so glad I can still be moved and that there's still good stuff out there, and there always will be. I think a lot of times we stop listening as we get older. I don't know why we sometimes lose our hunger and our passion; I don't know whether life gets in the way, but music can help with so much that way. When you hear Lucinda Williams, you hear Gillian Welch. It's like this amazing light gets turned on. And I'm hoping that people will discover Gram and will have that experience, too.

OK, with a gun to your head, what's your favorite Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris duet?

Oh, well, I know people think it's "Love Hurts," and it is, but I've always loved "The Angels Rejoiced in Heaven Tonight," so I'll say those two.

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