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London Sunday Times

He died 25 years ago, but as a new tribute album shows, Gram Parsons' influence lives on. MARK EDWARDS meets singer Emmylou Harris, keeper of the Parsons flame

MAN OF THE MOMENTS

If you spend any time at all reading the small print on record sleeves, you will probably have wondered at one time or another just what exactly an "executive producer" does on an album. It certainly sounds important. But since the records that credit an executive producer (or two, or three or four) also acknowledge the existence of the usual complement of producer, mixer and engineer, it's hard to work out exactly what their role might be.

Emmylou Harris is refreshingly candid about the extent of her duties as executive producer on Return of the Grievous Angel, the new tribute album to Gram Parsons. "I pretty much issued invitations to the artists, and now I'm talking about the record to the media. I guess I'm really working for the title now," she says.

Those invitations went out to a considerably more impressive line-up than you'll find on most tribute albums, including the Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Wilco, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, David Crosby and the Mavericks. Why would they all want to appear on a tribute album to a relatively obscure country singer?

Someone once said of the Velvet Underground that not many people bought their records, but everyone who did went out and formed a band. Much the same is true of Parsons. Spectacularly unsuccessful during his brief lifetime, he is now recognised as one of the most influential figures in modern popular music. The Eagles' Greatest Hits recently overtook Michael Jackson's Thriller to become the best-selling album of all time; without Parsons' influence, the Eagles would never have existed.

Parsons joined the Byrds just in time to stop them pursuing the bepop of Eight Miles High and steer them towards the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, which - along with the work of Parsons' other band, the Flying Burrito Brothers - pretty much invented country rock. He left the Byrds after that album and spent the best part of two years hanging out with the Rolling Stones just as the band hit their late 1960s creative peak. Parsons and Keith Richards formed what one critic has called the "ultimate rock'n'roll mutual admiration society", the results of which were obvious on what are arguably the Rolling Stones' three best albums - Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street - on a series of country-tinged songs such as Torn and Frayed, Sweet Virginia and Wild Horses. Let It Bleed's Country Honk has been anachronistically but accurately described as "the Gram Parsons remix of Honky Tonk Women".

Then Parsons recorded two classic solo albums, GP (1973) and Grievous Angel (1974), both of which featured the exquisite vocal duetting of Parsons and a young folk singer he'd discovered, Emmylou Harris. By the time Grievous Angel was released, Parsons - a long-time addict - was dead from a drugs overdose.

Stunned by his death, Harris set about ensuring that his music would survive. "I'll be the keep-er of the flame, till every soul hears what you're saying," she wrote in her song White Line. Recently the American trade magazine Billboard honoured Harris with its Century Award (given for distinguished achievement), saying that her work had kept Parsons' "pioneering alloy of country and rock on the front burner where insurgent country devotees could discover it".

This is Harris's true importance as executive producer of Return of the Grievous Angel. Were it not for Harris recording Parsons' songs on her own albums and spreading the word about his talent, many of the artists featured may never have come across his work; and Harris's presence on the project acted as a guarantee that Parsons' music would be properly honoured. Harris was able to attract such key figures as Chris Hillman (who played with Parsons in both the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers) and David Crosby (the Byrd that Parsons replaced); while Chrissie Hynde, Beck and Sheryl Crow all requested that Harris duet with them on their tracks.

But Harris nearly didn't get involved at all. "At first I said, oh, there's too many tribute records out there; and anyway I've always tried to pay tribute to Gram in a more organic way, and so I demurred a bit," she reveals. "But then I thought this record is probably going to get made anyway and perhaps I could direct traffic.

"I didn't want it to become Nashville pays tribute to Gram Parsons, because the country community has never embraced Gram," Harris explains. "I kind of wanted people who followed their own paths. If there isn't always an obvious musical connection, I wanted there to be a philosophical connection with Gram. Steve Earle really represents to me the outlaw, the renegade pushing the envelope - he's on the fringes of Nashville, and just like Gram, he's never played on the radio either."

Harris also tried to get Keith Richards, who was keen to contribute, but couldn't find time in the relentless Rolling Stones schedule. The heavily Stones-influenced Sheryl Crow makes an able substitute - her voice and Harris's work superbly together on Juanita - while Wilco's Jeff Tweedy manages an accurate impression of Richards' raspy whine on One Hundred Years From Now.

Beck, surprisingly, offers, as Harris says, "an even more traditional version of Sin City than Gram's", while the Mavericks place a clattering drum loop under Hot Burrito #1, one of Parsons' most plaintive melodies. Elvis Costello is in full crooner mode on Sleepless Nights, Lucinda Williams and Chrissie Hynde absorb their songs into their own trademark sounds, while the Cowboy Junkies live up to their reputation as masterful interpreters of others' songs with a completely transformed version of Ooh Las Vegas.

Whiskytown made it onto Harris's invitation list because when they were being courted by record companies they interviewed the A&R people by asking them questions about Gram: if they didn't know the answers, they wouldn't even consider signing to that label. They contribute a faithful version of A Song For You, one of only two artists to attempt a track from GP; perhaps because this is the album that features Parsons' voice at its most drink-ravagedly beautiful - a hard act to follow.

"Gram wasn't very together on that project," Harris recalls. "He was still drinking. He couldn't hit all the right notes and his voice would be breaking up. I listen back to that record now and there are moments of just extraordinary beauty and vulnerability. But at the time I was a bit prissy: 'well really, I sing six nights a week, three or four shows a night, and I never lose my voice'. I was horrible. I was such a goody two-shoes.

"But once we were on the road we sang all the time," she continues. "We sang in the hotel room, we sang in the bus, we sang before the show, and the more he sang the stronger he got, and he wouldn't be drinking. You know, I sometimes think if I'd been with him in the desert singing with him . . . things would have been different . . . but you can't sing for ever."

Return of the Grievous Angel is released on Almo on July 12

External links

http://www.gramparsons.com/ - "Award-winning" Parsons website devoted to the "world's first and most outrageous country rock musician"

http://www.nashville.net/~kate/ - Comprehensive (unofficial) site chronicling Harris's career, includes everything from TV appearances and reviews to tour dates and discography

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