Sharps & flats

More than 25 years after country songwriter Gram Parsons died, Emmylou Harris still carries a torch for him.


David Bowman
August 12, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons made psychic love when they sang duets. Whether they had an actual affair is open to speculation. But ever since Parsons died in 1973, his protigi has carried a musical torch for the young/dead country singer, and mythologized their relationship on her 1985 concept album, "Sally Rose." In their "Encyclopedia of Rock Stars," Dafydd Rees and Luke Crampton flat-out call Harris Parsons' "girlfriend." But in "Hickory Wind: The Life and Time of Gram Parsons," Ben Fong-Torres came up with another set of answers for whether or not they shared carnal joy: yes, yes, well maybe not, no. During their less than two years together, the post-Byrds, post-Flying Burrito Brothers Parsons was mostly drinked-up, fat and fighting with his wife, Gretchen. Trysts with Harris would have to have been fast and furious, if not far between.

In the end, it's none of our business, of course. Let's cherish whatever remnants of privacy still exist in this media world.

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Wait. To hell with privacy. For the history books, it'd be nice to know whether "Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons" was produced by Parsons' ex-lover or only a grateful acolyte. Either way, Harris' production reveals a mostly satisfying collection of predictable contributors like Burrito Brother Chris Hillman ("High Fashion Queen") and some unusual Harris duets with Beck ("Sin City"), Sheryl Crow ("Juanita") and Chrissie Hynde ("She").

The Hynde duet is the most superb, the tough chick rocker blending perfectly with the Mary Magdalene of country music. The song itself is about an ugly singer and her encounter with a mysterious "he" -- either the richest guy in town, a Los Angeles record producer or God himself. "He" overlooks her ugliness, and everyone assumes that "he" is going to "help her some." The singer, turns out, doesn't need any help: She transcends it all by just belting out, "Hallelujah." It's the perfect song for a pair of singers who have both transcended their dead male music partners (in Hynde's case, Pretenders Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott).

Like every tribute album, this one contains some songs that don't work. Elvis Costello sings "Sleepless Nights" with his usual overdone vibrato. Jeff Tweedy's innocuous singing and Wilco's strum-strum-strum guitars make their version of "100 Years" just another piece of No Depression pap.

On the other hand, Gillian Welch's quiet droning on "Hickory Wind" is adorable. Then there's Lucinda Williams' and David Crosby's duet on "Return of the Grievous Angel," the most astonishing version of the song since Parsons and Harris sang it a quarter of a century ago. Crosby, like Parsons, lets the achingly lovely voice of his partner become the centerpiece of one of Parsons' most melodic songs.

The last cut, "In My Hour of Darkness," mires what should have been the album's finest hour. How could Harris let Julie Miller contribute her god-awful Olive Oyle vocals to the chorus of Parsons' greatest piece? It's like bringing a howling baby to a screening of "Eyes Wide Shut." What's particularly galling is that even if "In My Hour of Darkness" were the only song Parsons ever wrote (and he co-wrote it with Harris), its power would still guarantee his musical life after death, a mythography that began shortly after the 26-year-old died a sordid death in a Mojave motel and was later illegally cremated in Joshua Tree National Park.

By age 26, most of us understand or have understood disappointment, but Parson was intimate with Old Man Regret, the essence of country music. Only greats like Hank Williams plugged into that vibe so young. Fong-Torres tells the story of when Parsons fucked with guitarist Clarence White's amp onstage. White buttonholed the singer offstage, shouting, "Listen, you son of a bitch, I've played more country music than you've ever played, and I know more about it than you'll ever know." Parsons' "Southern manners came back and managed an apology ... 'I didn't mean to offend.'" White was satisfied, and the two became fast friends. But a month later in California's San Fernando Valley, White was clipped and killed by a drunk driver.

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Parson wrote the following words for the dead man, but they ended up being a eulogy for both himself and his music, work that "Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons" graciously recalls: "Some say he was a star/But he was a just a country boy, his simple songs confess/And the music he had in him/So very few possess."


David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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