Two Grams to Take You Back

DVD: Return To Sin City: A Tribute To Gram Parsons by Various Artists/CD: Live At The Avalon Ballroom 1969 (Archive Volume One) by Gram Parsons with The Flying Burrito Bros — One of the most memorable shows of my rich and full life of music was seeing Gram Parsons in 1973 at Max’s Kansas City in New York City, sitting in the front row but six feet from the man who was pivotal, starting in the late 1960s with The Byrds, in bringing the influence of true country music into the rock’n’roll world. (That night was also the first time I saw and heard the wonderful Emmylou Harris, whose presence shone on Parsons’ Return Of The Grievous Angel album, released soon after.) Parsons died that same year from a lethal combination of tequila and heroin in Joshua Tree, Calif.

In recent years I’ve been privileged to become friends with his daughter, Polly Parsons, a very special and dear woman who was six years old when her father died and has been instrumental in keeping his legacy alive. In 2004 she put together the “Return To Sin City” show featuring artists like Keith Richards, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, Raul Malo, John Doe, Kathleen Edwards, Jim Lauderdale, Jay Farrar and Susan Marshall. This DVD documents the concert at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, which for me is gratifying to see as there were maybe 30 people at the club show I saw by Gram Parsons 31 years earlier. The contemporary artists inspired and influenced by the man whose vision was to create “cosmic American music” prove how he did that in their renditions of the songs he wrote and performed. I’m not much of a fan of live music on film, TV or DVD, as it’s one of those special things that is best experienced in the flesh. But this collection beautifully captures these magical, once-in-a-lifetime performances and underscores both the importance and the timelessness of the music and songs Parsons created.

Polly Parsons was also pivotal in the album release of her father’s 1969 San Francisco concert opening for The Grateful Dead, who would soon after turn their music towards country and American roots styles. Both of these documents have reminded me — and at a time when commercial country music has strayed too far from its origins and the Americana/alterative country movement has not fully met its potential (though with notable exceptions, among them the artists on the Return To Sin City DVD) — of the brilliance of vision and strength of artistry embodied in Gram Parsons. These discs and most of the rest of his recorded output are still out there to be savored by anyone who enjoys real American music. Though too often country is viewed by too many as conservative and reactionary, Parsons was the prime progenitor of a continuing line of artists that strive to demonstrate that it is a vital and rich legacy at the center of the American musical tradition. (The Sin City DVD also benefits the Musicians Assistance Program that aids musical creators struggling with substance abuse and is a part of MusiCares mentioned in my other column in this issue).

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2009


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