By Laura L. Bucuzzo
Late Summer of 1991, I packed up my beloved VW Jetta, bid goodbyes to family in Massachusetts, and headed West to graduate school in Wisconsin. Being a big Todd Rundgren fan, I decided to hit some of his Midwest shows on my way out to school. Before I left, I was sure to load up on my supply of Todd tapes for the long drive and in anticipation of the shows. I also tossed on to the passenger seat a copy of GP and Grievous Angel, in case I needed a change of pace. Rolling across Route 90 somewhere in upstate New York, I popped in Grievous Angel. It never left the deck again, until I transferred it to the boom box in my dorm room upon arrival in Madison. Poor Todd, upstaged by a honky tonk Georgia boy carrying me by the dairy farms and abandoned steel mills of Ohio and Indiana.
Four years later, the well-worn cassettes have been replaced by the clean, crisp sound of the CD, and Todd’s still on the back burner.
Grievous Angel is arguably one of Gram Parsons’ finest musical moments, of which there were many. From the twangy pedal steel opening of “Return of the Grievous Angel,” to the ironic final verses of “In My Hour of Darkness,” the album is at once inspiring, heartbreaking, funky, moving, and beautiful. While every track shines with Gram’s (and Emmylou Harris’ and the band’s) brilliance, some sparkle more than others. The more superior songs – “Hickory Wind” and “Brass Buttons” – have already been acknowledged as classics among both fans and critics. But some of the more subtle tracks, such as “$1000 Wedding,” with its subdued pacing and subtle melody, take a bit more time to grow on you. Eventually though, at some indescribable moment, songs you jumped over countless times suddenly resonate and you’re hooked once again.
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page once remarked that he found the band’s best performances to be when they were able to play loose, but also tight, “loosely tight” he called it – the apex achieved when band members were able to spin off into uncharted musical journeys, while keeping perfect synch with each other along the way. Gram’s aim for a “live” feel on both of his solo studio recordings resulted in a ‘loosely tight’ set of stellar performances, especially on Grievous Angel. As Gram himself remarked in an interview conducted with him prior to the release of Grievous Angel’s predecessor, GP, “a lot of what’s on my album is done live. Because there is just such a great engineer. I got Merle Haggard’s engineer, Hugh Davies…” he said. “They didn’t have to tear up the studio to get really crisp sounds out of their instruments, and they know how to rock.”
The “live” feel is also evident on Gram and Emmylou Harris’s beautiful duets, such as the haunting “Love Hurts. ” Don’t be dismayed when the first entry into the chorus reminds you of the rancid version of this song done in the 70’s by the group Nazareth. Repeated listenings of Gram and Emmylou’s sweet serenade will lull that horrific memory into perma-sleep. While Gram’s voice is timed beautifully to Emmylou’s harmony, the tiny cracks and unevenness of live vocals give the track (and others on the album) a warmth and sincerity not found in perfectly overdubbed recordings. Having had a chance to master the symmetry prior to recording Grievous Angel probably didn’t hurt. As Emmylou Harris remembered in an interview with Sid Griffin in his book, Gram Parsons: A Music Biography, many of the songs on Grievous Angel had already been sung many times by Gram and her during their long touring days together across the country promoting GP. “Most of those songs were written on the bus and sung in the back of the bus and we had sung them so many times we knew exactly what we were doing, ” she said.
Grievous Angel was released in January of 1974, four months after Gram’s death in September at the age of 26. Although the album was recorded during the summer of 1973, Gram didn’t live long enough to oversee the final choices on the track order or the cover art. Still, those who made the final decisions on sequencing did a pretty good job of sorting out the mood of an album whose overall tone tends toward the forlorn and nostalgic. To fuel these emotional fires, Gram chose content that is in keeping with the traditional themes associated with country and western – romantic loss in “Hearts on Fire,” or gambling’s sinful lure in “Ooh Las Vegas.” Sprinkled in with the sentimentality is a bit of wanderlust characterized in the opener, “Return of the Grievous Angel,” which conjures up images of late night road trips. In the song, Gram references the downfall of one of his childhood idols, Elvis Presley, when he sings about running into the king whose head is strewn with an “amphetamine crown.”
Some of the CD’s lighter moments come through on the tracks, “I Can’t Dance” and “Cash on the Barrelhead,” both covers. “I Can’t Dance” is pumped along by a thumping bass line as Gram and Emmylou’s voices soar over the top of the rhythm section. Gram acknowledges his love of old-time country and western singing partners by covering brothers Charlie and Ira Louvin’s “Cash on the Barrelhead.” It has been noted by some that in partnering up with Emmlou, Gram was not only trying to imitate the magic of George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s duets, but also the powerful harmonies of singing partners like the Louvin Brothers.
For Grievous Angel, Gram recruited friends and some of Elvis Presley’s old band members for the recording of his final masterpiece. And the result is a stellar performance by all involved. James Burton provides a too-short, but very sweet, solo for “Love Hurts.” And, Glen D. Hardin’s rambling piano intro to “In My Hour of Darkness” helps calm you down from your visit to Las Vegas and readies you for the CD’s final and prophetic song.
The best performance of all, however, is Gram and Emmlou’s singing. Their soulfulness, emotion, and synchronicity on these tracks is what makes the album both beautiful and haunting. Haunting because, as the final words draw “In My Hour of Darkness” – and the CD – to a close, you realize how much more there could have been, and the youthful promise of a future that never will be.