April 13, 2024

Love hurts, and so, if you’re a Gram Parsons fan, does the idea that the world has had to do without him for 50 years, as of September of this year. Imagining how his style might have changed over the subsequent half-century is never-ending, as is conjecturing how he might have simply have brought the world closer to his own fearless hybrid of country and rock, with more years to grow his audience after what amounted to a mere five-year heyday.

But it’s as if he never went away, listening to the new album “Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels: The Last Roundup, Live From the Bijou Cafe in Philadelphia, 3/16/73,” released on vinyl this weekend exclusively for Record Store Day’s annual Black Friday event. Part of the immediacy is the constant presence of Emmylou Harris through the entire double-LP, as a harmony or duet partner; if she’s still so vibrant and still such a part of our lives, how can Parsons be 50 years gone? And part of it is the vitality of the recording itself, which did require some tender loving care from an expert engineer to sound as uncompromised as it does, but doesn’t much portray its age in either the quality or the sensibilities that have well outlived the man who still stands as the spiritual center of a movement.

The live album is a rare product bearing the label imprint of Amoeba Music, better known as the retail mini-chain in California that has succeeded Tower Records as the mascot and mecca of music in its physical form. Dave Prinz, who co-founded the first store in Berkeley in 1990, is a Parsons fanatic who previously issued a live album from the Flying Burrito Brothers with the singer-songwriter at the helm, and has hopes of doing more with his hero’s lost tapes. In the case of the current release, “lost” really does apply — Prinz acquired the tape of the ’73 Philly show 15 years ago, then misplaced it in Amoeba’s vast Hollywood store before it turned up in a move during the pandemic.

Also intimately involved in the release is Parsons’ daughter, Polly Parsons, who was 6 when her father died, and has had quite a journey of coming to terms with his legacy, including the celebratory sides as well as his well-known troubles. Her own legacy includes the establishment of a treatment center, the Hickory Wind Ranch, named after a song her father wrote during his tenure in the Byrds.

Earlier this month, Parsons and Prinz took part in a panel at the Grammy Museum, moderated by Variety’s Chris Willman — followed by a superb set by one of today’s leading roots-based artists, Sierra Ferrell, that included three Gram songs as well as several of her own. An edited and condensed version of that conversation follows.

Polly Parsons, David Prinz, and Sierra Ferrell attend Celebrating Gram Parsons, Amoeba Music, and RSD Black Friday at the Grammy Museum on November 15, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for the Recording Academy)
Getty Images for The Recording A

And for anyone who sees the words “Record Store Day” and fears the Parsons release might be too exclusive to even hunt down, rest assured that copies remain at at least some stores, having been pressed in a healthy quantity of 7,500… though its availability is not necessarily something you want to take for granted for long.

Let’s talk about what happened with this tape. The steel guitar player, Neil Flanz, thought that it was a particularly good show, and he asked for the soundboard tape afterward. Is there an obvious reason why, out of all the shows on that 1973 tour, the steel player said, “I want the one from Philadelphia”?

Prinz: Well, the tour kind of started out kind of rough. They weren’t rehearsing much, and they hadn’t really found their groove yet, but by mid-tour they had. This was a special show because most of the places they played, they’d do two or three sets a night, but this was a one-set night. There’s a ton of songs —there’s 19 songs on the record — and it’s really two full sets in one. And they just sang so beautifully together. This was sourced from the vocal mics, and you can really hear Gram and Emmy better than on anything that I’ve ever heard. When it came to me, I heard that (vocal collaboration) more than anything.

It certainly had a lot of issues. We worked with one of the best archival sound guys in the world, Gary Hobish, who was really magical. What he did to make this tape sound as good as it sounds now is just miraculous. It’s a miracle that this was saved, out of all the shows of the. And I’m just so happy everybody’s gonna get to hear it. It means so much to me, to get this out into the world.

Parsons: Dave and I have been fortunate enough to be little surf rugrats together for a while now. And when Dave gets excited, it’s kind of contagious. He’s like, “No, you don’t get it, you don’t get it, you don’t get it. This is reeeally special.” OK, well, tell me more! So he sent me some stuff and I was absolutely blown away.

Is the claim that this is the first “new” Gram album since the ‘90s?

Prinz: There hasn’t been anything new of Gram and the Angels since ‘83. And this is the first real live performance that’s ever been put out. What was put out in ’83 is a live radio show. I listened to it many times, and it’s pretty great. But this is even better. Because it captures Gram in his element in the club at night. That other show was at 10:30 in the morning, and you know how musicians are at 10:30 in the morning, right? With this, he was totally there that night. He was funny, he was charming, he was in great voice, and him and Emmy were killing it together.

Was having the cornet player there that night in Philly unusual?

Prinz: Yeah, that was Peter Ecklund; I forgot to put him on the album credits — my bad. If we do a reprint I’ll put him on. He was a really cool cornet player who was friends with Emmy, and he would come up and do some songs with the band. When I saw Gram in New York, he showed up too. It’s a full band plus a cornet player, so you’re getting your money’s worth there.

What happens after this tape is taken into possession by the steel player? Gram died later that year, and the band was no more. A lot of times we worry that with cassettes, they don’t hold up over time, and we can probably assume this wasn’t stored in a climate-controlled vault or something.

Prinz: I don’t know how it survived. Neil Flanz had it for about 35 years, and then, he found out we were looking for Gram material, and he knows my partner, Joe (Goldmark), who’s also a steel player. Neil says, “I hear you guys are putting out some Gram?” [The Amoeba imprint had put out a live Flying Burrito Brothers live album in 2007.] “ I have this great tape that you guys need to hear.” … It had distortion, it had dropouts, it had underlying static, stuff that’s not easy to get out. But it had a good base, because you could hear the voices. And all I care about is hearing the voices; we can deal with the rest. We bought it from Neil, and it wasn’t so much that he needed the money; he wanted people to hear it, too. So he passed a few years ago [in 2021], and I’m really sorry that he never got to be here with us, talking about it.

And after you acquired it…

Prinz: I lost it. [Laughter.] I’ve got a lot of shit… I have a Robert Johnson 78 I can’t find. I know it’s in my house somewhere! In any case, at Amoeba, we were in that big 50,000 square-feet building in Hollywood — it’s not that hard to lose stuff in there — and it got buried in my office behind a bunch of stuff. I didn’t know where it was, and we found the box that said “GP archives” on it. I said “This is what needs to come out first from this box. If I’m going to do any one Gram project, I want this out.” And then I called Polly in. That’s been years ago,… I’ve been working on remastering this for quite a while. We remastered it once with (a different engineer) and then I gave that to Gary, and Gary said, “Let’s start over. I’ll make this sound alive. Just let me at it.” You know, he was a magician — this guy worked at Fantasy back in the ‘60s, did Creedence albums, and hundreds and hundreds of albums. I think this is some of his best work, if not his best work. So Neil had it for 35 years, and we had it for about 15. So 50 years later, on the 50-year anniversary almost of the show and Gram’s 77th birthday, here it is.

You’d never know there were any issues with the tape. One question, though — there’s a slow fadeout at the end of song 9, about six minutes into the tune. Is that when someone flipped the cassette over?

No, we faded that out because it was long, and there was no more Gram singing, it was just the steel. And maybe that’s why Neil saved the tape, because he was holding out the steel (soloing) so long! And the cornet. We had to fade it out somewhere, or it would have gone on forever. You wouldn’t even be here, you’d still be listening. [Laughter.]

Emmylou fans also are going to flip out over this — she’s so loud and clear. And there’s a quality to her voice at this phase in her career; it’s a little different. We think of her as having this pristine, crystalline voice, and she’s a little bit rougher.

Parsons: You can feel that there’s even more of an innocence… Emmy’s voice is so angelic, but you can feel a youth in this performance that is really tangible, and I think that that’s incredibly charming.

And she knows this is coming out, obviously, and is approving.

Prinz: Oh yeah, Emmylou is down. She’s been really sweet throughout the whole process and really cool with everything. And she talks about how it was the most amazing time of her life, the first time she ever went out with a band. I just heard her on the Dwight Yoakam radio show talking about how special that was for her.

What are some highlights for you?

Prinz: “Drugstore Truck Drivin’ Man” (a Byrds sog), to me that’s the best cut on the album. And the version of “Love Hurts” – let Polly talk about that.

Parsons: The version of “Love Hurts” on this album is really special because the phrasing seems to be a bit different. There seems to be a real fun change in the harmony that Dad did, where you can tell he’s just kind of taking it in a different direction, and the clarity and the sweetness of the harmony is really beautiful. But there’s this moment in “Love Hurts” on this double LP where the mic spikes and dad’s mic drops out. I think about how vulnerable that moment must have been so early in Emmylou’s career, to have to keep going without Gram’s vocal carrying or being with her. She steps into that moment and just brings it, and it’s so intimate and so beautiful that it’s a pretty epic moment. … It totally makes me cry.

A lot of us love live albums because we feel like we’re in the room if it’s really successful, but we’re kind of jealous that we’re not in the room, too — it can be almost a mixed feeling, because we want to be literally transported. “Why wasn’t I there in 1973?” This sounds like a very intimate room, when Gram introduces Emmylou for the first time, it sounds like about five people applauding. If he were around today, his legend is such that he’d fill an arena. Do you think he was in a good place as far as really enjoying those club audiences without ever quite getting that massive acclaim we all think he should have gotten?

Prinz: Well, when I listen to this… I saw Gram three times, and it was packed every time. With this show, he was doing four nights at the Bijou Cafe in Philly, and maybe it was raining that night or something, I don’t know, but there might have been like 50 people in the audience at most. But they were pretty into it, and he just seems happy. He seemed all there, having a great time and having fun with the band, and he seemed to be in a really great place this night. You know, I saw him a couple times when he wasn’t quite all there, but this night he was, and that’s why Neil saved it. This was a night when it all kind of gelled for this band and for Gram, and it just was an amazing conflagration of beauty, talent and energy. I think he was fine with playing in front of the audience he was playing for.

There’s an exhibit still on at the Country Music Hall of Fame called “The Western Edge,” and Gram is kind of the spiritual center of that. Where do you think the appreciation of who and what he was in 1973? Country-rock was a thing at that point, with the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, whereas it had been more of a shock to the system in the ‘60s when he was first bringing it in. Even in ’73, though, a lot of people surely were thinking, “Who is this guy who looks like he’s from the counterculture, but is covering Merle Haggard?”

Prinz: Well, when “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (his album with the Byrds) had come out in ’68, the first fans were a little surprised. But some people really loved it, and a lot of people didn’t. The Burritos (his group after leaving the Byrds) were outliers. They didn’t really care about commerciality. They just wanted to do what they wanted to do. That’s who Gram was. “Gilded Palace of Sin” is a great album that holds up 55 years later. They were never a commercial success. But I just think we’re only here because this guy was special, and he moves us. It was amazing, and I’m so sorry that we didn’t get to hear more. But maybe one day we will. Because I might be finding a lost album.

Parsons: Half the room knows exactly what he’s talking about. The other half of the room knows exactly what he’s talking about. [There is a legendary unreleased solo album by Parsons, produced by Terry Melcher, that has been a holy grail for fans. In another recent interview, Prinz said he heard the tape is in a vault in England.] Some of the songs (on that) would be “Family Bible,” “White Line Fever,” “She Thinks I Still Care”… there’s some amazing stuff if we can find it. I want that so bad, all right?

But there’s not much left of Gram’s, and the saddest part of everything is that he burned bright and fast, but his legacy is stronger than ever, I feel. And I’m really hoping that this album hits some of the younger kids, and that the younger generation gets to hear why we all think he’s so special. Maybe this is for Gram fans who already know him, and maybe for Gram fans to be.

At Celebrating Gram Parsons, Amoeba Music, and RSD Black Friday at the Grammy Museum on November 15, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for the Recording Academy)
Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Polly, when you hear this album, do you experience it a little bit detached from it, hearing it like a fan, or do you think in terms of, “Oh, what was Dad really sort of personalizing it?

Parsons: This was a really special experience for me because I got to listen to it not only as a daughter, but I got to listen to it with his granddaughter, who is a huge music fan, and just turned 18 three days ago. She enjoys hearing him talk so much. And I remember the first time that I heard Dad talk on video, and it was a very personal experience, to your point. It’s a personal experience because you can hear resonance of yourself in the voice. So there’s layers to it. But I also really enjoy just how joyful he sounded and how happy he is. He’s just so incredibly present, so in his element, in his body, with the people that he loves, doing what he was so incredibly passionate about. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything more representative of what I think he was really trying to embody, all in one evening, the way that this project has brought that forward.

Is there any quality that most appeals to you about the different sides of him that we hear over the course of the set?

Parsons: I think that, on a deeper level, I’ve always really appreciated how much Gram was able to tap into the gentleman nature of the South and how he delivers his music. The other thing I find fascinating about especially some of the songwriting that he did was how it branches the spiritual with almost the metaphysical, in the messages that are in his lyrics that are much deeper than a 19- or a 25-year-old man’s. I think that sometimes we don’t discuss that as much as we could… with his songwriting, in general — just the depth that he was able to go at such a young age.

You mentioned your newly 18-year-old daughter. I assume she had a very different experience of learning about music growing up than you did, because in your household, you’ve said, he wasn’t really talked about after he died, and you had to listen under the bed if you wanted to hear his music. I assume your daughter didn’t have to go hide under the bed?

No, actually, my daughter is quite the audiophile, and so she kind of tells me what’s what. She had a very different experience than I did around Gram’s music. And it’s really an incredibly cathartic joy to watch how she’s able to progress through everything from who she is to the books she reads about Gram, and the music she listens to, and the cross-referencing, and the family trees. She’s in it, and it’s kind of really joyful to live it through her.

Next time we do one of these, my daughter looks just like my father, and I can’t wait for you guys to meet her. … My daughter’s a Scorpio, so she’s very much like, “I’ll get there when I get there.” And so I think what I did is I planted the albums in the right area, in the vicinity of the record player for her, and then waited…

In the progression of how you related to your dad and his music through the years, it sounds like you really loved the music early on. But as far as dealing with the whole family, his personality, his legacy, maybe that didn’t come until you were in your thirties. And trying to understand him led to some of the work you’ve done in the last couple decades. You started the Hickory Wind Ranch, outside of Austin, for people dealing with substance abuse. Can you talk about that work?

Parsons: Hickory Wind Ranch was a way for me to process and integrate not only my own battle with my bloodline and addiction in my teens, but it was a way to really work on some healing that I had to do around my father. When I became a new mother, I became acutely aware that there was still some unfinished business. And for me personally, I really wanted to break the cycle that I had grown up in, and be really present for Harper Lee. And I knew that there was something missing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. So I started looking for opportunities to be of service in Austin, Texas to musicians that were struggling with addiction.

And what I found was really lacking. It wasn’t a healthy atmosphere at all. By this time, I’d had quite a few years sober, and I had started over again. I decided, well, if it doesn’t exist, we might as well go ahead and make it, because it needs to happen. This is a music city. There needs to be these type of opportunities for musicians. And I started the Hickory Wind Ranch, which was the first holistic sober living environment in Austin for musicians and artists. And through that experience, I got to come to terms, if you will (with issues involving her father). I got to work first-hand with 26-year-old musicians with children, and walk in the trenches of addiction and who they were, not only as young men, but as young fathers that didn’t necessarily feel equipped or ready to be fathers at all, and still had to be on the road.

Quite rapidly, I got a full-blown education in how lovely and amazing these young men were. And many of ‘em are thriving with huge families and great careers now. And so I think we all kind of walked each other home, in some sense. It definitely was a fascinating road to take, to deal with that type of work and integrate that kind of feeling.

The holistic element is interesting, because you’re dealing with creative people and you innately knew that are artistic types need something that integrates the creative part of their life.

Parsons: For myself, and for many of the people that I know that are highly sensitive, that are artists, that are musicians, that run on a bit of a different line, I know they don’t do well in treatment center-type atmospheres, and we lose a lot of them. Because it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. We’ve come light years from where we were regarding addiction and healing and treatment. And one of the things that I noticed was that if you could meet a person where they were, whether it was through holistic modalities like breath work or integrate art therapy or sound therapy, if you could integrate yoga and nutrition and a much more holistic, less clinical approach to this, what you got was more of an open mind that wasn’t feeling so boxed in. And once the mind is open, you can start to regroup those neural pathways with different habits and different solutions.

We were making sure that all the houses had lots and lots of instruments and pianos, and crazy nights just for music and writing and creating. I think this was a little bit of a shock to the system (to in-patients) that they weren’t expecting, and it opened and softened the whole process. Then you go in with a solution, and then you rewire, and all kinds of amazing things can happen. And it’s really an incredible thing to see somebody heal from heroin addiction and go back to their family and their children and start over.

You’ve devoted so much of your life’s work to that. How much of your life is also still involved with promoting your dad’s work and making sure that it’s out there for people? You’re not always in the face of people, the way some heirs to a legacy are. Do you feel like that’s part of your life’s mission as well? Or do you feel like it takes care of itself?

Parsons: I think Gram will always take care of himself. And, you know, Gram is a huge, huge spirit. My hope and my charge has always been — except for the 18 years that I took off to properly raise my kid! — to bring Gram into a new generation… like Sierra Ferrell. Sierra is somebody that I love, and it was really important for me to have her here. It’s such a beautiful thing to see Gram span so many generations of fans, and Gram continues to turn me on to new music. With Sierra, or Charley (Crockett), or Kacey (Musgaves), so many young artists are affected — even more so now, I think. If you look around our culture and our country today, I don’t know about you guys, but I see Gram in so much, from his style to his fashion to his attitude to his flair to his irreverence to his open-mindedness. I feel like we’re just catching up. We’re just getting to the point where we are as open-minded as Gram was 50 years ago. And the generation that’s coming up now, these kids get it. Sierra, her generation gets it. We’re starting to get something pretty magical, and one of the forefathers of the magic that we’re walking into, and that we’re feeling all around us, whether we’re able to verbalize it or not, is Gram Parsons, who is a huge vibe that is very much a leader of all things good, and all things cool, and all things joyful, and I say, bring it. So, as much as I can do, from this day and always, to perpetuate that into the next generation and the future, I’m going to do it.

Exene, from the band X, asked a question from the audience.

Exene: It’s really nice to be here and thank you so much for doing this, and for the recording, and thank you for the work you’re doing with addiction, that’s really amazing to hear you tell that story. I am wondering if any photos were taken that night (at the Bijou in 1973) or if there’s any art of that night, and what else will be coming with the pamphlet? …

Prinz: Indeed they were. I was looking for a gatefold picture, and my partner Joe said “I know somebody who has pictures from this show. He has 46 of them.” I said, “Well, there’s gotta be one in there I can use.” You know what? There was one. You know, there aren’t any real good pictures of Gram and Emmy on stage out there. I’ve never seen one. And this is pretty beautiful, and it captures them. They’re so happy and joyful together. So when you see the album, there’s a great gatefold picture of Gram and Emmy at the Bijou. It exists, and we found it.

What about the cover photo with the two of them on the motorcycle? Wasn’t that earmarked be an album cover while he was still around?

Prinz: The motorcycle photo was supposed to be the cover of Gram’s second album, which later became “Grievous Angel.” But he passed, and then Gram’s wife, Gretchen, didn’t want that photo used, and I won’t get into why; it’s not really at issue. She just didn’t want that photo used, so it’s never been used. But it was Gram’s wish to have that photo as a record cover, and 50 years later, it is. The photographer said “I’d love for that to be the cover,” but she didn’t have a negative of it anymore. So we went on the search for a negative I was talking to my photo guy, and he says, “Why don’t you do it like the ‘Déjà vu’ album? Have the photo within the cover, so we don’t need the pixelation that you need for a whole cover.” Sam Hoffman from SF Light Source gave me that idea. And yeah, it’s a little grainy, but it kind of works because it sort of goes back in the mists of time.

Doesn’t anybody want to know what’s in the box? OK, I’ll tell you one thing that’s in the box, OK? It’s the last American performance of Gram with the Byrds… we have a soundboard. And, one day that’s going to come out.

With this album, will there be a CD at some point for people who want it?

Prinz: Eventually; we’ll have a CD out, probably next year. But right now we’re just focusing on the vinyl, hoping that everybody who wants it can get it.

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