Reviews

Gram ParsonsGram Parsons
Album: The Early Years Volumes 1 & 2
Label: Retroworld
Tracks: 23
Website: http://www.gramparsons.com/

Gram Parsons is rightly regarded as one of the founders of Country-Rock, although he did not like that term, preferring to call it "Cosmic American Music".

In the short period between 1967 and his tragically early death [at the age of 26] in 1973, Gram recorded six seminal albums which form the cornerstone of "Country Rock". Those albums are, of course, "Safe At Home"[ International Submarine Band]; "Sweetheart of the Rodeo"[The Byrds]; "The Gilded Palace of Sin" and "Burrito Deluxe"[The Flying Burrito Brothers] and "GP" and "Grievous Angel" [Parsons solo].

What is less well-known is that before the "purple patch" mentioned above, Gram had a distinct career as a folk singer between 1962 and 1965. Indeed, he did not become interested in country music until he went to study at Harvard University in 1966.

Parsons' first professional involvement in music was with folk band The Shilos who formed in 1962 in Greenville, South Carolina, in the wake of the success of folk groups like The Kingston Trio, The Highwaymen and The Journeymen. The Shilos were a quartet, with Gram as their lead vocalist. The other members were Paul Surratt, Joe Kelly and George Wrigley III. The Shilos played hootenannies, coffee houses and high schools but also made several trips to the hub of the folk scene, Greenwich Village. The Shilos never had a recording contract but they did record some demo tracks at the radio station of Bob Jones University in March 1965 and it is these tracks that make up Volume 1 of The Early Years.

Considering that these demo tracks were recorded in mono, using only two microphones, the quality is surprisingly good. Gram takes lead vocals on eight out of the nine tracks and it is immediately apparent that he was a strong singer. Gram was also emerging as the principal songwriter of the group and of his early compositions,

"Zah's Blues" is particularly noteworthy. It was written by Gram for folk singer Zahariah Ryan in 1964 in Greenwich Village and shows a reflective, poetic side to Gram's writing that stands out amongst the more prosaic folk material that The Shilos were performing. Of particular interest to Byrds fans will be The Shilos' take on "Bells of Rhymney", which was arranged in a Laundromat as the band were not allowed to practice in their motel room. It is interesting to note the vast difference in styles between The Shilos' straight folk version and The Byrds' thrilling folk-rock interpretation of this song, which were recorded in the same month!

Whilst The Shilos played folk music with a straight bat, they were an impressively powerful vocal group, as demonstrated on Gram's arrangement of the old spiritual "Oh, Didn't They Crucify My Lord".

From The Shilos era comes a rough demo recording of Gram's "Surfinanny "which he wrote on the spot for an advert for an event at Cypress Gardens in "the Florida sun".

Moving on from The Shilos, we have Volume 2 of The Early Years which begins with eight solo tracks by Gram which were recorded by Dick Weissman of The Journeymen in his apartment in New York City on a home tape recorder. These tracks were later re-recorded in a professional studio but, unfortunately, the tapes have been lost. As you might expect, given the circumstances, the quality of these demo recordings is not the best but they do provide solid evidence of Gram's development as a folk singer and songwriter of considerable talent.

However, the remaining five tracks of Volume 2 are a revelation as they represent a quantum leap forward in Gram's metamorphosis from Crooning Folk Singer to Country Rock Pioneer. At Harvard University, in late 1965, Gram formed an electric band called Gram Parsons and The Like who were light years ahead of the polite folk of The Shilos. There are two excellent tracks here by GP and The Like, "Just Can't Take It Any More" and "November Nights", both penned by Parsons which clearly show the influence of the Byrds folk-rock style. Great stuff and a clear pointer to where Parsons' future lay [he would, of course, join The Byrds in 1968].

Even more of a revelation is the following track. Gram and The Like moved from Harvard to New York City to become the backing band of former child actor Brandon deWilde. Here we have a track, Buck Owens' classic "Together Again", recorded by Brandon with Gram and The Like which shows just how much Gram was influenced by Brandon's vocal style. In fact, when I first heard it, I mistakenly thought that Gram was singing lead, when it is actually Brandon.

There are two further gems on this excellent compilation. These are two tracks recorded by Gram and Brandon in LA when Gram was making his mark with the International Submarine Band, before joining The Byrds. The tracks are the Dan Penn/Chips Moman classic "Do Right Woman" [later recorded by Parsons with The Flying Burrito Brothers] and Gram's autobiographical "Hickory Wind"[which he recorded with The Byrds on "Sweetheart of the Rodeo"].The final five tracks of Volume 2 clearly show the roots of Gram's vision of "Cosmic American Music" and are pure gold for Gram's many fans [myself included].

Congratulations to Floating World Records /Retroworld for making these important and revelatory historical recordings available on one disc. Good job done!

Peter Cowley