Parsons was born to wealth and privilege (he was the scion of one of Florida’s biggest citrus dynasties), hung out with Keith Richards and The Rolling Stones during the making of Exile on Main Street.,discovered the beautiful and gifted Emmylou Harris, and steered The Byrds, one of the most popular rock bands into the world, into a radically new direction on the seminal country-rock masterpieceSweetheart Of The Rodeo. Yet he died of a morphine overdose at 26 as a relative unknown, in spite of having made four classic, influential albums over the course of his brief but glorious career, both as a solo artist and a member of The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
But Parsons’ legend has flourished posthumously. Though a non-entity commercially over the course of his lifetime, Parsons inspired a generation of artists in multiple genres and became the preeminent martyr of the alt-country movement. He is a quintessential cult artist, relatively forgotten in his lifetime, yet a pioneer and creative giant in death.
Possible Gateway: 1974’s Grievous Angel
Why: Part of what made Parsons’ death so tragic was that he was in such a good groove creatively. 1974’s posthumous release Grievous Angel registers as both Parsons’ swan song and his magnum opus. Like GP, his masterful solo debut from the year before, Grievous Angel trades in the shaggy hippie-country sound and rough edges of the Flying Burrito Brothers for a newfangled purity and precision.
Much of that purity and precision can be attributed to the über-professionals Parsons hired as collaborators. For Grievous Angel, Parsons once again hired the core of Elvis Presley’s “TCB Band,” namely guitarist James Burton, pianist Glen D. Hardin, and drummer Ronnie Tutt, whose understated but virtuoso playing serves the songs without overpowering Parsons’ exquisitely fragile vocals or calling attention to themselves. But Grievous Angel wouldn’t be the masterpiece it is without the vocals of Emmylou Harris, whose tight harmonies play such a central role on the album that Parsons originally wanted it credited equally to himself and Harris, a plan Parsons’ widow, Gretchen (who was none too fond of the bond her husband shared with his beautiful protégé), vetoed.
Grievous Angel was cobbled together from old songs Parsons had lying around, some covers (Tom T. Hall’s “I Can’t Dance,” The Louvin Brothers’ “Cash On The Barrelhead,” which Parsons fused with his own “Hickory Wind,” “Hearts On Fire,” and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts”), and a pair of quickly conceived new songs (“In My Hour Of Darkness” and “Return Of The Grievous Angel”). Yet the album boasts a cohesion and fluidity that belies the ramshackle manner in which it was assembled.
“Return Of The Grievous Angel,” which Parsons adapted from a poem by Thomas Brown, is a bittersweet love song about the open road that is dense with surrealistic imagery, a song of swooning romanticism and playful sincerity that establishes a hypnotically dreamy mood.