Conmemorativo: a tribute to Gram Parsons

Various Artists – Rhino (CD)
Jill Van Vliet

Number 9….Number 9….

That’s the sound of me hitting the programming button on my CD player whenever I find this disc lodged there, for track number 9 is home to Uncle Tupelo’s fully-bloomed cover of “Blue Eyes.” With its tambourine and steel sounding as gangly and reckless as was Parsons himself, it is the highlight of a thankfully less-than-reverent tribute album.

CONMEMORATIVO is a spotty but ultimately satisfying whole, running the gamut from the distracting Rolling Stones sound of Finger’s “Still Feeling Blue” to the faithfulness of “Return of The Grievous Angel.” a cover sounding spookily as if Gram and Emmylou had decided to do a sadder but wiser version, without the youthful fearlessness of the original. Joey Burns and Victoria Williams, nonetheless, duet with hopeful naivete.

Like Uncle Tupelo’s contribution, the best covers here are rendered with originality and courage by artists whose own work is consistently singular and visionary, like Parsons’.

Carla Olson’s reedy voice also lends a bit of unspoken resentment to “Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome?” which sounds like a lost track from her late eighties work with Gene Clark. Appealingly Byrds-like is Stephen McCarthy’s “One Hundred Years From Now.” Bob Mould and Vic Chesnutt share steadfastly sorrowful vocals on an unadorned “Hickory Wind.” The Mekons treat “$1000 Wedding” with their unmistakably English-accented echoey vocals and Celtic accordion and fiddle flourishes. The biggest surprise is the Italian band Flor de Mal’s craggy version of “Juanita,” sung with a whiskeyed strain by Marcello Cunsolo while he strums an insistent guitar.

There are disappointments, particularly Clive Gregson and Boo Hewerdine’s slow-boat-to-nowhere-version of “Sin City” and “The New Soft Shoe” by Polly Parsons, Grams’ daughter, whose appearance is memorable only in terms of “torch bearing” and for the morbid curiosity it compels in the listener.

Inclusion of “November Nights,” a rolling, melodic beauty never recorded by Parsons but unearthed by Parsons archivist Sid Griffin (once of the Long Ryders) and performed by him and the Coal Porters, bears testimony to the reason this album exists at all. Gram Parsons, in his short life and career, wrote a passel of classic American songs. Like the best art, his words and melodies can withstand endless interpretation while retaining a distinctiveness that only artists with enough bravery to delve the darkness imprint on the soul of their work.