New anthologies showcase country greats
By Greg Cahill
Hundreds of bodies were recovered from the icy waters of the North Atlantic after the 1912 Titanic disaster, including many passengers who remained unidentified for years. Among the John and Jane Does were an unknown woman and toddler, buried--purely by chance--side by side in neighboring graves. DNA testing and other forensic techniques recently have shown that in life they were mother and child, uncannily placed for eternity within arm's reach of each other.
A poignant story, to be sure. And strangely--albeit somewhat grimly--reminiscent of progressive country stars Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, close friends and ex- lovers whose paths continue to cross nearly 30 years after Parsons' untimely demise.
(Feel free to imagine the bloated recording industry as the metaphorical Titanic in this example.)
In the early '70s, Harris--the modest cheerleader and former beauty queen--and Parsons--the nihilistic Southerner who inspired the Rolling Stones' hit "Wild Horses"--became unlikely musical partners, singing duets and collaborating on two Parsons albums and a concert tour. That relationship came to an abrupt, and for Harris painful, halt in 1973 when Parsons' lifeless body was found in a cheap desert motel room after an overdose of tequila and morphine.
Now the pair are together again, the subject of separate, newly released two-CD retrospectives--Emmylou Harris: Anthology, the Warner/Reprise Years and The Gram Parsons Anthology: Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels, both on the Warner Archives/Rhino label and each accompanied by a handy booklet with bio and discography.
Musically, the footprints of their relationship imbues these discs, especially on Harris' work. Her anthology--which contains mostly singles--includes the plaintive "Boulder to Birmingham," a 1975 ode to Parsons featuring several of his former sidemen, but it's easy to imagine that Harris has sung many of her songs to the man who became known as the Waycross Waif. Overall, this is a brilliant collection of mostly pure country, from an artist who once spoofed Nashville during her nightclub days and has since moved on to avant-pop and alt-country territory. From the wistful covers of such classic pop songs as Lennon/McCarthy's "Here, There and Everywhere" and Paul Simon's "The Boxer" to Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On" and Phil Spector's "To Know Him Is to Love Him" (with Dolly parton and Linda Ronstadt), Harris time and again shows herself to be a masterful song interpreter. Her own underused songwriting talents are displayed here for the most part on a handful of songs from 1984's The Ballad of Sally Rose.
Parsons' definitive retrospective spans seven years in the singer/songwriter's short but influential career that established him as a cosmic country-rock pioneer. There are six tracks from the improbably named International Submarine Band (including "Luxury Liner," a song Harris covered on a 1977 album by the same name); five from the Byrds, including his landmark "Hickory Wind"; 14 more from his fruitful association with the Flying Burrito Bros.; and another 21 either solo or with the Fallen Angels--and often with Harris at his side.
Essential stuff for Americana fans.
Of course, these days Parsons is a wellspring of inspiration for trendy No Depression scene--a situation for which Harris can take considerable credit. On last year's Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (Almo), produced by Harris, such critics' darlings as Wilco, Whiskeytown, Beck, Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, and the Pretenders tackled Parsons' songbook and furthered the legend that Harris has nurtured for three decades. That collection is the ragtop Cadillac of alt-country. It found Harris cropping up on three duets and enhanced Parsons' near-mythic status.
Do yourself a favor. Buy both retrospectives--it's only fitting that these former partners remain within arm's reach of each other, even if it's just on your CD rack.
From the May 31-June 6, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.