a review of reviews of

The Return of the Grievous Angel

a tribute to Gram Parsons

various artists (1999)


The London Times

July 27 1999

Emmylou Harris tells Nigel Williamson how assembling an album of her mentor's work became a labour of love

Tribute to a tragic angel

The story of Gram Parsons is every bit as tragic as one of those mournful country ballads he loved to sing. His father, a Southern millionaire, killed himself when Gram was 12. His mother died of cirrhosis of the liver on the day he graduated from high school. Parentless but moneyed, he was hugely talented but carelessly self-destructive and there was an inevitability about the addictions that would eventually lead to his demise. When he died of an overdose aged 26, traces of cocaine, speed, morphine and alcohol were found in his system.

Yet even in death the Gothic drama that was his life was not quite over. On the way to the funeral organised by his step family and from which most of his true friends were excluded, his body was hijacked by his road manager Philip Kaufman and cremated in the Californian desert, in accordance with his own wishes.

When she heard of his death in California in September 1973, Parsons's singing partner Emmylou Harris was back east looking after her young daughter. "I felt truncated. It was like someone had chopped off my arm. The way I dealt with it was to throw myself into work. I put a band together, worked up all these songs, found a gig and I guess I haven't stopped since."

Parsons made just two solo albums in his short career but his voice touched everyone who heard him. Yet today Harris is commercially more successful than her old mentor ever was. "I feel self-conscious about that. It makes me want to say, 'Listen to this guy! The only reason I sing the way I do is because of Gram. He taught me how to sing and he gave me a reason to sing.' "

She has spent the past two years putting together an album of his songs performed not only by former colleagues such as ex-Byrds Chris Hillman and David Crosby, but also by many who were still in nappies when Parsons died, including Beck and the best of the current alternative country bands such as Wilco and Whiskeytown. In a genre that has become a horribly debased currency, what she has fashioned is not so much a tribute album as a labour of love.

"I resisted doing it for a long time but I felt that somebody was probably going to do a Gram tribute album, and if I could direct the traffic I could perhaps steer it away from a more obvious Nashville thing and come up with people who were innovative in their field like Gram was," Harris says.

Parsons was not a commercial success in his lifetime and the recorded legacy is small. Yet over the years his legend has grown to almost mythic proportions. So, too, has his influence, on everyone from the Stones to the Eagles to Beck, who duets with Harris on the new album on the apocalyptic Sin City.

Harris's relationship with Parsons, which changed her life, lasted less than two years. They met one night in October 1971 after he came to see her in a club in Washington DC looking for someone to sing country duets with him, like a hip George Jones and Tammy Wynette.

The chemistry between them wasn't quite as instant as the mythology has come to suggest. "We worked up some stuff between my sets sitting on the beer kegs down in the basement. People ask me what song we sang and I can't remember. Isn't that awful? But I admit that I didn't really hear the uniqueness in Gram's voice until later, when our version of Love Hurts was starting to come together."

Harris regrets that she wasn't around when he took his fatal overdose and that she failed to recognise Parsons's self-destructive tendencies. "I thought Gram was indestructible. He seemed so vital and such a wealth of inspiration. I couldn't imagine that anything was going to happen to him. I am amazed how blind I was. All I could see was a future in us working together. I thought he was on the road to recovery but if someone has an addiction the danger is always there."

Harris has resisted becoming "a professionally grieving widow" or the curator of a tribute industry "because Gram would have hated that". Her own memorial to him has been in the music. "The image I always hold of him in my mind is just the joy we had singing together. Before I just had a pretty voice. Gram made me a singer."

Return of the Grievous Angel - A Tribute to Gram Parsons is on Almo Sounds


LA Times

VARIOUS ARTISTS

"Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons"
ALMO Sounds
* * * *

Robert Hilburn

Just seeing that such respected artists as Emmylou Harris, Beck, the Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow and the Mavericks participated in this tribute should be evidence enough that the late Gram Parsons was someone special.

But the value of this collection isn't merely that it may introduce you to Parsons, the country-rock pioneer who was one of the greatest talents to pass through the Los Angeles pop-rock scene--someone whose style has been echoed in the country-rock leanings of everyone from the Rolling Stones and the Eagles to scores of contemporary bands, including Wilco and Son Volt. Most of these passionate versions of songs written by or associated with Parsons reflect so well the soulful innocence and longing of his music that they transcend the usual limitations of tributes. Co-produced with Paul Kremen by Harris, who shaped her own musical vision while touring and recording with Parsons in the '70s and went on to become the most imaginative female ever in country music, this isn't simply an affectionate tip of the hat to Parsons, but an extension of his legacy.

Chris Hillman (who co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers with Parsons) and country-rocker Steve Earle, for instance, nail the restless, honky-tonk spirit of "High Fashion Queen." Wilco shows such authority on its rowdy version of "One Hundred Years From This Day," a song Parsons wrote while briefly with the Byrds, that the track sounds like an outtake from "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." And Gillian Welch's caressing rendition of "Hickory Wind," one of Parson's signature songs, is so delicate and affecting that it's hard to imagine Welch not making it a fixture in her live shows. Best of all is the dream teaming of Beck and Harris on "Sin City," the tale of innocence and temptation that Parsons and Hillman wrote during the Burrito days. The song, a blueprint for the Eagles' "Hotel California," largely defined Parsons' vision, which was drawn equally from the sentimental strains of such country heroes as Merle Haggard and the rock 'n' roll swagger of the Stones.

Parsons, a Harvard dropout, spent much of his life in a struggle with alcohol and drugs, and died in 1973 of a combination of morphine and alcohol in a motel room in Joshua Tree, Calif. He was 26.


USA Today

Tuesday, July 20, 1999

Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (3 and a half out of 4 stars): Country-rock martyr Gram Parsons' musical legacy, both on his own and as a member of The Byrds, has lasted as long as his life, which ended with an overdose in 1973. By taking representatives of Nashville's country fringe (Steve Earle, The Mavericks), alt-country bands (Wilco, Whiskeytown) and rock singer/songwriters including Sheryl Crow and Elvis Costello, Return of the Grievous Angel shows a range of influences as broad as the ones Parsons drew upon. Those acts and others re-create the spirit of what Parsons called "cosmic American music," never falling back on the lethargy that often has marked Parsons' imitators. Executive producer Emmylou Harris, who sang backup in Parsons' band, reprises that role with Crow (Juanita), The Pretenders (She) and Beck (Sin City), making for an experience that's far more angelic than it is grievous. -

Brian Mansfield


Country Standard Time

Various Artists
Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute To Gram Parsons, 1999
Almo
Gram Parsons' too-brief tenure as the orginial cosmic cowboy has only gained in stature over the 25 years since his fatal overdose in 1973. Only 26, Parsons had already discovered Emmylou Harris, steered The Byrds away from the psychedelic and closer to country and inspired Keith Richards to write "Wild Horses." With a voice equal parts plaintive and plain and a vision that hewed close to old-timey sounds, he wrote songs like "Still Feeling Blue" and "Brass Buttons"- each one an encapsulation of self-affirmation in the face of self-pity, and a recasting of old tradition in new garb.
In the more than two decades since Parsons passed, country music hybrids, once relegated to the California-lite strummings and cynical outlook of The Eagles, have now sprouted everywhere. Uncle Tupelo has come and gone, Whiskeytown has mutated several times, and Emmylou Harris, once Parsons' backup singer, is herself considered a pioneer.
And so, here is a second tribute to Parsons (a first, 1993's Commemorotivo from Rhino, was issued before the modern explosion), packed with versions of his songs from some of the genre's best plus a few surprise guests. Compiled with Harris firmly at the wheel, "Return" mostly hews close to the originals. Emmylou and The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde turn in a beautiful version of "She," Elvis Costello rings in with a version of "Sleepless Nights" and former Byrd, Burrito Brother and Parsons collaborator Chris Hillman sings "High Fashion Queen" with Steve Earle. The Rolling Creekdippers - a consortium of Buddy and Julie Miller and Mark Olson and Victoria Williams and Jim Lauderdale - sing "In My Hour Of Darkness" and the similarities between Olsons' voice and Parsons' are eerie and yet appropriate.
The highlight has to be Lucinda Williams' rendition of the title track, a poignant tale of hard-won happiness sung in a voice that knows just how hard it is to capture a real, live love. Only the Cowboy Junkies offer a version that differs vastly from the original with their haunting, techno-take on "Ooh, Las Vegas."
No matter. It just goes to show how Parsons' brief oeuvre, once thought to be a founding element of modern country, might just have what it takes to go the distance.
- Brian Steinberg


The Observer

July 11, 1999

Essential listening from the week's new CDs...;
Pop: Various Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons
(Almo ALMCD66)

NEIL SPENCER

Twenty-five years after his death, Gram Parsons still musters a formidable legend; a tragic burn-out who left a clutch of cult country-rock albums. The stellar cast assembled by executive producer Emmylou Harris, who sang with Parsons at the start of her career, offer straightforward homage for the most part. Songs of such shimmering power as 'Hickory Wind' (Gillian Welch) and 'Sin City' (Beck and Harris) need little else, though Wilco make a bar-room blast of '100 Years' and Cowboy Junkies steal the show with their country-noir version of 'Ooh Las Vegas'. Dependables such as Costello, Pretenders, Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle make for a more than worthy tribute.


Cleveland Plain Dealer

July 11, 1999

GRAM PARSONS TRIBUTE SHINES WITH STARS AND SPIRIT

Various artists

"Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons"
(Almo Sounds)

Many tribute albums are marketing ploys, but this is far more spirited, and spiritual, than most. Not only does it restore Parsons' original soul mate, Emmylou Harris, to her prominence in Parsons' ghostly, glittering canon, it suggests bands such as the Pretenders and the Cowboy Junkies thrive on great material. This is not always true about their original stuff. In tunes such as "Hot Burrito 1," "One Hundred Years From Now" and "Sleepless Nights," The Mavericks, Wilco and an unusually sympathetic Elvis Costello revive the work Parsons did in the Flying Burrito Bros. and the Byrds (whose 1968 "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" was the first country-rock album). Other contributors to this loving assemblage include Beck, Lucinda Williams and the Rolling Creekdrippers, an ad-hoc assemblage including Jim Lauderdale and Victoria Williams. Parsons was a brilliant songwriter whose meditations on sin and sensuality informed his own "GP" and "Grievous Angel" albums and influenced everyone from the Rolling Stones to Costello and Rodney Crowell. Even though he died of an overdose in 1973 at age 26, his work, preternaturally mature, decadent and rueful, continues to resonate.

Carlo Wolff


July 11, 1999 edition of Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Listen up

Country

VARIOUS ARTISTS "Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons" (Almo)

This collection (due in stores Tuesday), which pairs a disc of all-star covers with a second disc of the originals, is a neatly devised appreciation of what Parsons called his "cosmic American music," a marriage of Appalachian and blues, gospel and honky-tonk, pop and soul that gave birth to country rock. Though he played briefly with the Byrds and co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers in the late '60s, he's most revered for "GP" and "Grievous Angel," the early '70s albums he made on his own, before overdosing on morphine and tequila at age 26.

Co-producer Emmylou Harris, his most simpatico harmonizer, partner and keeper of the flame, adds her vocals in duets (with Beck on "Sin City" and Sheryl Crow on "Juanita") and backup harmony and pairs his lovely but lonely songs with the right singers. Hear how Cowboy Junkies vocalist Margo Timmins slows down Parsons' sparkly "Ooh Las Vegas," turning his exuberant ode to the crystal city into an echoey vapor trail, thick with '90s weariness.

The Mavericks don't alter the heartsick lament "Hot Burrito 1" much in terms of arrangement, but there's a strength in Raul Malo's voice that makes it completely different from Parson's nakedly needy original. Rustic country angel Gillian Welch is just the ticket for the high lonesome mountain sound of "Hickory Wind," and Elvis Costello's trembly croon turns the lights way down low on the achy "Sleepless Nights." 5312

-- Eileen M. Drennen, Cox News Service


San Francisco Chronicle

Gram Parsons Tribute Does The Country-Rock Pioneer Proud
Sunday, July 11, 1999

4 stars

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons
Almo Sounds

Twenty-six years after his death, Gram Parsons has hit critical mass. Local author Ben Fong- Torres' biography ``Hickory Wind'' was republished last fall. Tribute shows have been surfacing up and down the West Coast, from Slim's to Joshua Tree, where Parsons overdosed (and his friends torched his body) in 1973.

Now Beck, Lucinda Williams and other outstanding talents have contributed cover versions of Parsons' songs for this tribute album, in stores Tuesday. It's at least the third Parsons tribute in recent years, and it's by far the best.

Although he thoroughly rerouted the sound of the Byrds when he joined that landmark group (``Sweethearts of the Rodeo''), Parsons wasn't widely celebrated in life. But his paradoxical vision of redneck music for hippie spirits -- he called it ``cosmic American music'' -- laid the groundwork for some of the biggest successes of the '70s, including the Eagles, the Stones' ``Wild Horses'' and the entire alternative-country community of the '90s. There can be no question that his style has reached a peak: K-Tel just released a two-disc ``alt.country'' collection, which closes with Parsons' ``In My Hour of Darkness.''

Parsons' protege, the elegant Emmylou Harris, threw herself into ``Return of the Grievous Angel,'' which was named for Parsons' posthumous solo album. She's the executive producer, and she harmonizes on several cuts, with Beck, Sheryl Crow and the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde. Alongside her on the easygoing ``Sin City,'' Beck sounds warbly and sinusy. But his genius for stylistic appropriation -- not to mention his penchant for fringed, Parsons-style Vegas wear -- makes him a perfect candidate for the tribute. Another ideal contributor is the Mavericks, whose version of ``Hot Burrito 1'' is the pick of the litter. Despite the silly title (courtesy of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons' band with fellow ex-Byrd Chris Hillman), the song is Parsons' most affecting love song. And Raul Malo's hefty baritone serves it well. The track is underscored by a lightly clattering rhythm track that might sound trendy in other hands but works wonderfully here.

Victoria Williams' granny trill is one of several voices on ``In My Hour of Darkness,'' credited to the ad hoc Rolling Creekdippers. She's one link to the 1993 Parsons tribute ``Conmemorativo,'' which also featured the Mekons, Bob Mould and Vic Chesnutt.

Another is Uncle Tupelo, the defunct southern Illinois band that still defines the alt.country sound for many. UT's Jeff Tweedy shows up on ``Return'' with his current band, Wilco, taking a cheery stab at the Byrds' ``One Hundred Years From Now.''

One hundred years from now, Parsons may be all but forgotten. Then again, he might be revered as one of the true originals of rock's first few decades. He sure seems to have believed it himself. Such self- confidence, of course, is one of the greatest assets a performer can have.

-- James Sullivan


Boston Globe

CD Pick
Various Artists
A Tribute to Gram Parsons: Return of the Grievous Angel
Almo Records

I remember seeing Gram Parsons perform the year after he left the Byrds, with whom he made the seminal country-rock album, ``Sweetheart of the Rodeo.'' Parsons walked through the crowd resplendent in a rhinestone-studded Nudie suit, and you just knew this guy was different. We've not seen his likes again, but he's beautifully commemorated on this tribute executive produced by his former duet partner, Emmylou Harris, who sings with Sheryl Crow on the bittersweet ``Juanita,'' with Beck on the apocalyptic ``Sin City,'' and with Chrissie Hynde on the plaintive ``She.'' Parsons went to Harvard and was from an aristocratic Southern family, but he had the soul of restless seeker. No wonder the tribute attracts such disparate artists as Elvis Costello (doing a moving, vibrato-drenched ``Sleepless Nights''), Lucinda Williams and David Crosby (in the honky-tonking on ``Return of the Grievous Angel''), the Cowboy Junkies (who lighten ``Ooh Las Vegas'' with a gauzy atmosphere), and even alt-rockers Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield (who sing the heartfelt ballad ``$1000 Wedding''). Another treat is a second CD of Parsons doing the originals of these same songs. A highly recommended set.

- Steve Morse


Rolling Stone - July 8, 1999

SPACE COWBOY

All country-rock roads lead back to Gram Parsons

**** (4 stars) Return of the Grievous Angel:
A Tribute to Gram Parsons
Almo Sounds

In the seven years before his death from a drug overdose in 1973 at age twenty-six, singer-songwriter Gram Parsons seemed hellbent on destruction - he meant to kick down the walls between country & western, R&B and rock & roll. In the course of six albums - recorded with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and as a solo artist - Parsons delivered more Dixie-fried soul and twangy heartache than can be found in the combined catalogs of his country-rock contemporaries the Eagles and today's Nashville hitmakers. Emmylou Harris, Parsons' protege and duet partner on GP (1973) and Grievous Angel (1974), has carried his musical torch ever since. As co-executive producer of Return of the Grievous Angel, she enlisted some musical renegades to pay homage to the man's legacy. Perhaps the real tribute to Parsons is that most of the artists featured on this collection - Lucinda Williams to Beck to Elvis Costello to Steve Earle - have themselves refused to be pigeonholed musically; instead, they all concoct the sonic stew that Parsons called "cosmic American music." There's not a bad track among the thirteen here, though some come closer than others to hitting the raw emotional mark that characterized Parsons' work. Harris reprises "She," her 1973 duet with Parsons, to transcendent, glowing effect with Chrissie Hynde, and adds an otherwordly quality to the 1969 Burrito Brothers weeper "Juanita" by harmonizing exquisitely with Sheryl Crow. Costello, a longtime aficionado who covered two Parsons songs on 1981's Almost Blue, gives a piano-driven, gut-wrenching reading of the Parsons-Harris version of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant's "Sleepless Nights." A raucuos Wilco crank up the previously midtempo "One Hundred Years From Now" (from the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo), while Chris Hillman, Parsons' collaborator in the Byrds and Burritos, tangles with Earle to restyle 1970's "High Fashion Queen" into a rollicking honky-tonk shuffle. Parsons fans won't be disappointed with Lucinda Williams' lived-in reading of the album's title track. Her evocative vibrato (backed by former Byrd David Crosby) conveys the bittersweet conflict between wanderlust and the lure of home fires that fueled the chorus of Parsons' posthumous signature song: "Twenty thousand roads I went down down down/But they all led me straight back home to you." For the uninitiated, Return of the Grievous Angel is sure to point homeward as well, to the original Gram Parsons recordings - an American-music journey well worth taking. - Holly George-Warren

 


CD Now Feature Review

They Done Him Right
by Steve Baltin

Various Artists
Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons
(EMI/Almo Sounds)

The more popular "country-rock" becomes, the more the legend and influence of the late Gram Parsons grows.

Parsons is generally thought of as the father of the genre, a title he earned during his days with the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and as a solo artist. His influence, while felt most profoundly by the new generation of "alt-country" acts, such as Son Volt, Wilco and Whiskeytown, is not limited to those bands. Parsons is highly regarded as a songwriter by artists of all genres, as evidenced by the diverse roster of acts that have gathered on this collection to honor his music.

Although it is an eclectic stable of musicians, from the Mavericks to the Pretenders to Wilco, there is a consistent twang and sadness throughout the 13 songs. Somewhat surprisingly, almost all of the covers on Return of the Grievous Angel find the bands involved morphing their sound to Parsons' style (perhaps a testament to the reverence these artists hold for Parson's music).

The strength of both the original songs and the artists covering them keeps the album from getting redundant, though. There are several high points on the album. Among them: Elvis Costello's lullaby-esque interpretation of "Sleepless Nights" (this is one of his finest vocal performances); Beck and Emmylou Harris's modest acoustic rendition of "Sin City"; Chris Hillman and Steve Earle's frisky take on "High Fashion Queen"; The Mavericks' crooning "Hot Burrito #1"; Lucinda Williams and David Crosby's impassioned version of the title track and Whiskeytown's bittersweet "A Song for You," a classic sad song.

There really isn't a weak moment on Return of the Grievous Angel, an almost unheard of compliment to pay to any various artists compilation. It's as if the obvious love the artists here feel for these songs, which comes through on every note, wouldn't let them turn in anything but their best. It's almost like a group of kids trying to please their parents. Wherever he might be, Gram Parsons should be one proud papa.

Copyright 1994-1999 CDNOW, Inc. All rights reserved.

 

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