James Beaty: OPINION: RAMBLIN: Gram Parsons: 'Return of the Grievous Angel'

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Nov. 12—I sometimes imagine a music buff hearing these lines from a David Allen Coe song for the first time and doing a double take while pondering their meaning:

"I heard the burritos out in California could fly higher than the birds."

What? That's the way the lyrics are written on a number of Internet sites — but the way Coe originally wrote them includes a couple of capital letters left off many other lyrical transcriptions.

Well, it's all in the capitalization, because the lines as originally written by Coe read as follows:

"I heard The Burritos out in California could fly higher than The Byrds."

Yep, Coe wasn't referring to a flying Tex-Mex dish or our feathered friends, but to a couple of bands, The Flying Burrito Bothers and The Byrds.'

He even made sure everyone knew he wasn't dissing The Byrds, by name-checking the band's jingly-jangly lead guitarist, singer and longest-serving member in the next line:

"Roger McGuinn had a 12-string guitar, It was like nothing I'd ever heard," Coe sang.

He then gives a nod to another band, before moving on to a couple of his musical pals and himself:

"And the Eagles flew in from the West Coast, like The Byrds, they were trying to be free. While in Texas, the talk turned to outlaws, like Willie and Waylon and me."

I thought about the song this week because of its reference to The Flying Burrito Brothers — a band that had been helmed by former Byrds members Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman.

Today, many music historians remember The Flying Burrito Brothers as one of the bands that pioneered country music for rock audiences, and sometimes vice-versa.

It's also known as a band that included some of Gram Parson's best work — along with his solo albums, his work with The Byrds and others.

With everything else going on in music these days, I only noticed this week that Nov. 5 would have marked another birthday for Parsons.

I also noticed Wednesday night that 2023 marks the 50th year since he passed from this earth, on Sept. 17, 1973.

Although far from a household name, Parsons is revered by many music aficionados as one of the first artists who brought hard core straight-ahead country music to rock audiences.

Don't call it country rock — a label Parsons deplored. He preferred to call it Great American Cosmic Music, a name he came up with himself. In addition to The Byrds — a group he performed with for only one album — Parsons is also known to have been a heavy influence on another band, the Rolling Stones.

Parsons never performed with the Stones, although The Flying Burrito Brothers shared the same stage with them at the infamous Altamont Concert in California.

A concert poster for the Dec. 6, 1969 event shows the Stones' "Special Guests" for the concert.

Named in order on the poster are the Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and The Flying Burrito Brothers.

The concert lineup is followed by what could have been considered as an ominous warning: "Security by Hells Angels."

While the other bands are still considered rock music legends by many, The Flying Burrito Brothers are far less known by the general music fans of today.

They were likely included on the bill because of Parson's friendship with Mick Jagger and especially Keith Richards.

Parsons' first rock band with a major record release had an unfortunate name for a group with country music leanings — The International Submarine Band. It included the first version of what became one of Parsons' most well-known songs, "Luxury Liner."

Sometime after Parsons left the International Submarine Band, then Byrds-bassist Chris Hillman convinced McGuinn that Parsons should become a member of The Byrds, who had fired David Crosby and lost Gene Clark, who had been the band's main songwriter on the early albums.

At the time, McGuinn had a concept for a double album that would go through the entire history of American music, from folk and bluegrass, to blues, rock 'n' roll and then electronic music.

Somehow Parsons convinced McGuinn to drop that concept and record a straight-ahead country music album instead.

Once they agreed to the concept, The Byrds were all-in, going to Nashville to record their 1968 country music album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo."

They weren't exactly welcomed by all ,booed by country music fans for having long hair when they performed on the stage of the original Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium.

I've always considered "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" to be a masterpiece of an album. The Byrds didn't try to rock up country music, instead aiming for a traditional country music sound.

"Sweetheart of the Rodeo" introduced me to one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, "You Ain't Going Nowhere," featuring those exquisite Byrds' harmonies and one of my favorite steel guitar turns ever by Nashville session ace Lloyd Green.

It also included a song by Oklahoma's own Woody Guthrie, "Pretty Boy Floyd," about the Depression-era outlaw, with a turn on fiddle and banjo by John Hartford and a mandolin solo courtesy of Hillman.

While most of the songs were covers, including Merle Haggard's "Life in Prison" and "The Christian Life" by The Louvin Brothers, Parsons turned in the best original song on the album.

Titled "Hickory Wind" and written by Parsons and Bob Buchanan, the song evokes the spirit of timeless country music — something at which Parsons would continue to excel.

It also led to more trouble during The Byrds' Grand Ole Opry performance, when Parsons opted to perform it at the last minute, instead of the previously agreed-on Haggard song, "Sing Me Back Home."

Not long afterwards, The Byrds were on a tour on England, where Parsons became friends with Jagger and Richards. When the rest of The Byrds prepared to embark on a tour of South Africa, Parsons told them he wasn't going, citing his opposition to the apartheid policies then in place by the South African government.

Some versions indicate the real reason was that Parsons was having lots more fun hanging out with Jagger and Richards than he figured he would have in South Africa.

Some sources say Parsons schooled the Stones in county music, but I've heard Richards say in an interview he had been a country music fan ever since he'd been a kid growing up in Britain.

More likely, Parsons and Richards bonded over their mutual love of hard core country, spending hours playing records and holding jam sessions.

That's likely the source of the oft-told story that Parsons wrote the Stones song, "Wild Horses," or that he at least played a major role in writing it and they never gave him credit.

However, that theory's been dispelled by Parsons himself, who can be seen in a video snippet saying how much he liked the song when the Stones played the track for him after they'd recorded it in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

I remember when I first ran across Parson's second solo album, "Grievous Angel." I bought it unheard, I'd been so impressed by his work as a Byrd on "Sweetheart of the Rodeo."

As soon as I heard the first song, "Return of the Grievous Angel," I knew it would be a special album. It opened with a steel guitar lick, before Parsons came in on the first verse, soon joined in harmony by one of the most amazing female voices I'd ever heard.

I checked out the back of the album to see who she was. Some girl named Emmylou Harris. Thanks Gram, for introducing Emmylou to the world.

They also did an amazing duet on the standard "Love Hurts" — still the best version of the song as far as I'm concerned.

"Grievous Angel" also includes a one-two punch of what I consider two of the saddest songs ever — "Brass Buttons" and "$1000 Wedding," along with a scorching "Hearts on Fire" duet between Parsons and Harris.

Unfortunately, Parsons never got to enjoy the success of the "Grievous Angel" album. He succumbed to a drug overdose at a motel at Joshua Tree National Park in 1973.

A bizarre incident followed in which a friend absconded with his body, coffin and all, at an airport and attempted to cremate Parson's body at Joshua Tree, due to a pact they had previously made with each other.

That should not overshadow the music Parsons made during his lifetime, though.

As for the song, "Wild Horses," The Flying Burrito Brothers recorded their own version and many of the band's fans say they prefer that version to the original by the Rolling Stones. (I'm sure the Stones' fans have a different opinion).

Listening to the Burrito's track this week, I felt surprised to hear a rollicking piano come rolling in near the song's end. Although I knew Parsons played piano, something sounded familiar about the style.

I checked the credits and I should have known — piano by Leon Russell.