By the time he had reached his early twenties, Gram Parsons had already completely revamped the sound of The Byrds with his love of twanged-out Americana and brought a country rock hybrid flavor to the masses as a pioneering member of both the International Submarine Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers. After being asked to leave the latter for his rampant drug use, Parsons was forced to reevaluate his life. Taking what he had learned from his close knit friendship with the Rolling Stones, he was ready to craft his first solo album, unleashing an unfiltered vehicle upon which to display what he had affectionately called “Cosmic American Music.”
While Parsons had birthed the lovechild of honky-tonk and rock and roll, with GP, he gave way to a smoother, more subdued sound. This is thanks in no small part to his blossoming musical partnership with Emmylou Harris, a roots folk singer Parsons was urged to check out by his former bandmates. Together, as seen on this seminal album, the pair would form one of the most cohesive and harmonious musical duos to ever grace the airwaves. Along with a band that included James Burton, the lead guitarist for Elvis Presley, GP drew from both Parsons’s songwriting idols and his inner demons, following a trail of breadcrumbs down to the Delta and crafting a record that is unabashedly American.
Cashing in on the old country music trick of romanticizing heartache, Parsons opens his debut with “Still Feeling Blue,” setting the scene in a smoky dive bar on the outskirts of a working class town. As he exposes turns of phrase and double meanings, he wastes no time demonstrating his abilities as a wordsmith that had gotten him admitted into Harvard. The song is also a deliberate homage to the whiskey-soaked Southern music Parsons was turned onto as a young man, rifling through the history of Americana by highlighting fiddle, pedal steel guitar, and even Alan Munde plucking away on the banjo.
Slowing down the tempo a bit, “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning” was the proper introduction to Emmylou Harris, whose star power shone through with each haunting refrain. Together with Parsons, she was laying the groundwork for the unfaltering conception of a match made in artistic heaven. The track was eerily prophetic, detailing a burning love that could never last. Although they would vehemently deny the insinuation, it’s all too easy to read autobiographical leanings from the performers. True or otherwise, the palpable chemistry between Harris and Parsons adds a layer or sensuality that truly sells the atmosphere of the song.
A delicate, spiritual love letter, “A Song for You” is a contemplative marriage of country and soul music, coupling whining fiddle with a church organ. The verses are dripping with poetic lyricism, much more heavily steeped in metaphor than most of the other tracks featured on the record, which are fairly straightforward by comparison. The pain in his voice permeates as it cracks with emotion on the high notes. The argument could be made that “A Song for You” single-handedly sparked the career of Ryan Adams.
Continuing the quest for redemption is “Streets of Baltimore,” an oft-covered country standard with a jarringly relatable theme: a futile longing for fulfillment. The actions of the speaker are well-intentioned as he strives to keep his sweetheart satisfied, but they are ultimately doomed to fail. As they recognize each other’s strengths and utilize them, Parsons and Harris effortlessly sell this heartbreaking, lived-in tale. There are many versions of this song, but it isn’t difficult to see why this is the one with longevity.
Co-written with frequent collaborator Chris Ethridge, the jazzy, laid back “She” pulls from a long Southern tradition of oral storytelling, complete with farm labor and religious overtones. Reminiscent of a Rick Danko-led track The Band would have put out during this era, the track is yet another story of failed romance, as well as the importance of song: “They used to walk, singing songs by the river / Even when she knew for sure she had to go away.” A sweet and tender ballad, “She” finds Parsons crooning over twangy chromatic runs.
A notably trying George Jones and Gene Pitney duet, “That’s All It Took” was the song Gram Parsons chose to test Emmylou Harris’s abilities as a singer when the pair first met. It’s safe to say that she crushed the audition, and the proof is right here on the track. Much like many of Parsons’s tunes, this song brings the ghosts of the past into the present, with a narrator who is unable to live down the aftermath of love gone by, making for a great drinking song. Parsons has a timeless feel to his music, and he is able to make this classic entirely his own.
Roots music has long been fascinated with passing down oral narratives, and this tradition isn’t lost on Gram Parsons, as is evidenced by a track like “The New Soft Shoe.” A modern reimagining of a traditional country ballad, the number is bogged down by the emotional baggage of missed opportunities. Parsons brings the story to life with seemingly meaningless details, recounting the color of the characters’ clothes and how the chose to address one another. Perhaps the true stand-out on the song is Al Perkins, whose steel guitar solo is as smooth as fresh butter.
The pains of love lost only intensify when offspring are involved, as we see in “Kiss the Children.” The speaker knows his spouse is gone for good, and he can’t share the blame with anyone else. He has just one final request before she walks out of his live forever: “Just remember, little darling, that I love you / And kiss the children for me, please, before you go.” It’s a heartbreaking plea, and the backing chorus amplifies the song’s emotional weight, repeating previous lines for further emphasis.
For “Cry One More Time,” Parsons steps outside the traditional country pattern, bringing in a horn section to give the song a bluesy sway. As he’s surrounded by a cast of key players, the song becomes more about the ensemble than it is about staying true to a singular artistic vision. It even gives way to a raucous guitar solo. Although this is a song of heartbreak, it has an infectious groove that makes it all too easy to dance to.
The shortest song on the record, “How Much I’ve Lied” is an all-out admission of guilt, an ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ prototype: “So, one like you should surely be miles and miles away from me / Then you’d never care how much I’ve lied.” The track stands out because of the explosion of layered harmonies on the chorus and the twanged-out dobro picking, courtesy of James Burton. It is a brilliantly positioned honky tonk bridge between burning jam tracks.
The album comes to a close with “Big Mouth Blues,” another blues rock anthem that brings back the horn section, cranking up both the tempo and the volume. A real toe-tapper, the song calls to mind the fast-paced, bar brawl Americana that Bob Dylan was experimenting with at the same time. It’s a bouncy swamp tune that chronicles an inflated ego getting a smooth talker into trouble: “I wish there was a way that I knew to get even / Way to get a lick in /A ‘bobbin and a’weavin’ / And all the things besides goin’ and a’leavin’.”
In a self-fulfilling twist, Parsons fatally overdosed just eight months after the album’s release. Nevertheless, the legacy took root. Gram Parsons remains one of the most influential figures in the world of music to never find mainstream success. With GP, it’s not difficult to follow the trajectory of where his career was headed, had his life not been cut tragically short. Still, nearly half a century later, musicians and critics alike continue to benefit from the wit and humanity of his brief yet prolific catalog.