If you were trying to explain to someone the difference between mainstream country and alternative country, one way to start might be to posit that alternative country artists are much more likely to be influenced by Gram Parsons. It’s no mere coincidence that more than half the artists who have been featured on the cover of No Depression through our first four years of existence contributed to at least one of this decade’s two Parsons tribute records.
The first, Rhino’s 1993 Conmemorativo compilation, had all the best intentions and a mostly commendable lineup of participants, but ultimately fell short of what it could have been, suffering from a lack of focus and too many subpar performances. Return Of The Grievous Angel, due out July 13 on Almo, is a considerably clearer representation of Parsons’ musical legacy, though still a bit short of a classic undertaking.
This record’s successes likely are due in large part to Emmylou Harris’ presence as co-executive producer (along with Almo honcho Paul Kremen). To attempt such a Parsons-themed project without Harris’ involvement would be akin to doing a Townes Van Zandt retrospective without consulting Guy Clark. In addition to her overseeing role, Harris also gets into the trenches here, contributing vocals on three of the album’s 13 tracks.
All three of the artists she sings with — the Pretenders, Beck and Sheryl Crow — come from the rock side of the spectrum. Whether that’s a coincidence or by design is uncertain, but one thing becomes clear in repeated listens to Return Of The Grievous Angel: The album’s strengths often result from artists reaching beyond their generally accorded boundaries. Fittingly, given Parsons’ legacy as a bold cross-pollinator of musical genres, the overall spirit here is in taking chances artistically, rolling the dice in hopes of creating a cover that sheds new light on the original.
The tracks by the three artists Harris accompanied are, somewhat surprisingly, among the record’s less successful. The Pretenders’ balladesque “She” (which opens the album), Beck’s honky-tonkin’ “Sin City”, and Crow’s country-weeper “Juanita” all take the singers out of their usual elements, but the results are perhaps a little too reverential, as if they were tentative about taking too many liberties with Parsons’ material.
Elvis Costello found an easy way out of that box by selecting “Sleepless Nights”, the one track on the disc that wasn’t written or co-written by Parsons. The Boudleaux & Felice Bryant classic was a definitive staple of Parsons’ repertoire, however, and Costello’s Gram-inspired reading here demonstrates why. His subtle piano and graceful vocal bring out the pure and simple beauty in a song that Parsons was so instinctively able to reach.
Best of all among the rockers who turned to acoustic avenues for the project is the duo of Evan Dando & Juliana Hatfield, who tackle perhaps the most difficult number in Parsons’ catalog, “$1,000 Wedding”. Gram’s original recording is so distinctively impeccable that it would be nigh impossible to re-create, so Dando & Hatfield don’t try. They strip it down to a bare-bones acoustic arrangement, but also alter the rhythm to a more rapid tempo. The heart of the song remains in the singing, with Dando’s sweetly soulful voice carrying the heartbreak and Hatfield dressing up the drama in all the right places.
A couple other duo performances are less revelatory. Chris Hillman & Steve Earle’s recording of “High Fashion Queen” is respectable enough, but Hillman, who co-wrote the song, was perhaps a little too close to the material; it might have been more interesting to hear him tackle a tune from the Parsons canon that he hadn’t had a hand in creating. And Lucinda Williams & David Crosby’s “Return Of The Grievous Angel” is less than the sum of its parts, largely because they opted not to reach for the stratosphere on the song’s final line. When Gram & Emmylou sang “Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down” on the original version, they unleashed emotions the likes of which are rarely heard in popular song; perhaps Williams & Crosby’s conservative approach was simply a wise concession that some epiphanies are best left untouched.
Elsewhere, the contribution by a semi-mainstream country group outdoes those submitted by two bands that rise from more of a rock/alt.country place. “Hot Burrito #1″ becomes a glimmering pop gem in the hands of the Mavericks, gliding effortlessly along the high register of Raul Malo’s elegant croon. By comparison, Wilco’s down-and-dirty rave-up on “100 Years From Now” and Whiskeytown’s low-key, understated “A Song For You” are worthy additions but not standouts.
Perhaps the best of the lot, and certainly the most surprising, is the Cowboy Junkies’ complete reinvention of “Ooh Las Vegas”. The Canadian ensemble’s trademark deliberate, melancholy acoustic approach would have been well-suited to any number of Parsons tunes, but instead, they opted for multilayered, effects-laden, upbeat mood piece that brings to mind the Cocteau Twins. Jarring? Yes. But brilliantly so.
Less obviously daring, but with similarly positive results, is Gillian Welch’s version of “Hickory Wind”, the album’s penultimate track. On the surface, it’s a fairly straightforward acoustic presentation, but lurking in the shadows are gentle organ atmospherics that lend a Lanois-esque touch to the production (though Welch’s longtime partner David Rawlings produced the track). Adding further mysticism is Rawlings’ harmony singing, which is inaudible at the beginning but gradually, almost imperceptibly, builds to the point that it’s a full-fledged duet vocal by the song’s end.
The tribute’s final track, the Rolling Creekdippers’ take on “In My Hour Of Darkness”, epitomizes both the strengths and shortcomings on Return Of The Grievous Angel. The Creekdippers — a loose, revolving aggregation of musical compadres who in this case include husband-wife teams Buddy & Julie Miller and Victoria Williams & Mark Olson, plus Jim Lauderdale — are the perfect artist matched with the perfect song to close out this project. All it takes to confirm that is Olson’s lead vocal on the first verse, which sounds for all the world like Parsons reincarnated.
The track was recorded in Nashville at Dogtown, the Millers’ in-home studio. Produced by Buddy and Julie, it’s a perfectly upstanding take, possessing the sparkling clarity typical of all the records Buddy has produced for himself and others at Dogtown over the past few years.
Yet one can’t help but feel the spirit of Joshua Tree calling out to this song. Olson and Williams make their records at home, too — smack in the middle of the desert community where Parsons left this mortal coil a quarter-century ago. Whereas Miller is a master at cutting clean, uncluttered studio gems, the Creekdipper modus operandi is to just sit around the living room and play live, letting the tape roll and capturing whatever may happen at that very moment.
Such a place — both geographically and spiritually — may have been the most appropriate note on which to conclude this album. Granted, it would have been a riskier proposition; a session at Joshua Tree might have yielded a hopelessly haphazard and mangled recording. But in the spirit of Parsons’ greatest moments of inspiration, it would have been worth taking that chance.