The myth of Gram Parsons as father of country rock (and thus mainstream country music of the mid-1980s and Americana today) stretches the truth so far that it obscures the contributions of myriad folks. These range from his partner, Chris Hillman, to The Downliners Sect, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Poco, Earl Scruggs, Linda Ronstadt and many more. Nonetheless, no one appeared on more seminal albums for the genre than Parsons, who appears on the International Submarine Band’s Safe at Home (1968), the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), the Flying Burrito Brothers’ astonishing debut The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969), as well as his two solo records, GP (1973) and the posthumous Grievous Angel, released in January 1974, four months after he had overdosed on morphine. Tellingly, not one of these albums charted higher than No. 77.
Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels, an outstanding two-CD compilation of Parsons’ material, draws richly from those sources as well as lesser releases and outtakes, including a previously unreleased ISB track. From the rocking “Oh Las Vegas” and “Luxury Liner,” to the haunting “Dark End of the Street” and the ethereal “Hot Burrito #2,” the compilers have included the essential Parsons recordings. Although the compilation features only three cuts from the live album with Emmylou Harris, I could only conjure up a couple of songs I truly missed.
The Parsons magic derives in no small part from the “live fast, love hard, die young, and leave a beautiful memory” aspect, but the musical substance drawn together here carries a great deal of weight. Unlike his contemporaries who came from either country (roughly the musicians on the second CD) or rock (those on the first), Parsons, as a singer and songwriter, never resolved the conflict within himself between country, R&B, and rock. But it’s exactly that conflict that led Parsons to create music that still sounds fresh, three decades later.