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Keeping out the Lord's burning rain....
on 23 March 2014
I first heard this album - on the first CD reissue from Edsel -in 1988. I had recently been introduced to The Byrds by an older friend (thanks, BG!) and to my surprise, I found I absolutely loved the country-rock album they made ('Sweetheart of the Rodeo'). At the same time, I read the first edition of Rogan's biog of the Byrds (then entitled 'Timeless Flight'), so I had a good source of information on The Byrds and consequently the founding members of the Burritos, Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons. I thought I was behind the times, then a year or two later, the alt-country thing really took off, and Parsons, who had previously been a critics' darling and no more, was suddenly one of the sacred cows of popular music.
Some history for the uninitiated: Gram Parsons had started his career in a band called The Shilos, then cut an album with a group called The International Submarine Band (of which he was lead singer). The ISB album 'Safe at Home' is a must-buy if you find you like this first Burritos record. Parsons auditioned for the Byrds as a pianist, as at the time, Jim/Roger McGuinn of The Byrds had the idea the group would record an album that encapsulated the history of popular music, from hillbilly stuff, through jazz, rock and electronica. David Crosby and Michael Clarke had gone, leaving The Byrds down to McGuinn and Chris Hillman. Hillman played bass for The Byrds and suddenly flowered as a songwriter on their fourth album ('Younger Than Yesterday'), writing 4 songs and collaborating with McGuinn on a fifth. Prior to The Byrds, Hillman had played and recorded bluegrass albums as a teenager with the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and The Hillmen as mandolinist. So while McGuinn and Crosby were folkies, Hillman and Gene Clark were the true country musicians in the Byrds.
Once Gram was on board, he wasted no time in reawakening Hillman's love of country and McGuinn (a folkie) became sold on merging rock and country for 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo'. The album and attendant gigs were suddenly filled with Parsons' vocals and sidemen he favoured - Jaydee Manness, Pete Kleinow, Doug Dillard...and so on. After 6 months, Gram left the Byrds and very soon after Hillman joined him.
Four songs were cut by Hillman and Parsons with Clarence White (who had guested on The Byrds' 'Younger' and later joined the band) and Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram). White and Gene P had been in Nashville West, a country pop band. Gene also later joined The Byrds. These songs have never been released. Signing to A & M and teaming up with session bassist Chris Etheridge and pedal steel maestro Sneaky Pete Kleinow, the Flying Burrito Brothers were born -though a loose conglomeration of country-pop musicians (including at least one member of Grams ISB was involved) had been playing under this name on and off for years.
The result was a masterpiece. Hillman handled guitars, mandolin and shared lead vocals with Parsons, who also played guitars and keyboards. Kleinow gave the band their signature sound, a noise that defines the group and put them ahead of everyone by bringing a psychedelic rock feel to that most country of instruments, the pedal steel, by feeding it at times through a succession of electric guitar distortion units. It is this that makes The Flying Burrito Brothers sound like a rock group - listen to The Byrds' 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' and it simply feels like a beaty country record by comparison. Kleinow adds the acid weirdness, the perfect tonal compliment to the songs of draft dodging, womanising and corporate-america baiting included within this album. Bassist Chris Etheridge acted like a catalyst, co-writing two songs with Parsons (the famous 'Hot Burrito' dyptich) and, like Hillman was in the early Byrds, a shadowy figure that the critics have pretty much ignored. One consequence of Etheridge leaving the band when the first album was out and promoted was that its follow-up sucked. History repeated itself when Etheridge returned for 'Flying Again' (the band's fourth studio album) and quit before the fifth ('Airborne'), which was also a disappointment compared to its illustrious successor. Etheridge's catalysing presence is, for me, every bit as important as the presence of Parsons, Hillman and Kleinow in the band making their best records.
..and what an album 'Gilded Palace' is. Starting with a sublime, evocative, decadent title that matches its stunning cover design: the four key members of the band dressed in rhinestone jackets and trousers by Nudie, THE outfitter of choice for country stars. The difference this time was that the symbols of rebellion and psychedelia were woven and threaded into the suits - marijuana leaves, peyote buttons, sunbursts and peacocks sat alongside roses...and even, bizarrely, pterosaurs and tyrannosaurs. Hillman and Parsons, dyed-in-the-wool authentic country musicians since boyhood, were also stoned rockers and knew that they way to upset everyone's expectations was to merge the outrageous with the conservative and reveal to uptight rednecks and PC hippies that old-time music was great, relevant and an essential part of rock culture: this was white man's soul music, euro-american blues.
Although some criticise the production of the album -which I can understand - it still sounds like nothing else and no other country-tinged record has ever come close to it. The third, eponymous FBB album is similar, but lacks the wayward genius of Parsons and the catalysing tendency of Ethridge (it features Rick Roberts and Bernie Leadon, good lads but a bit square by comparison) and 'Flying Again' is warmer and lacks the crystaline satin sheen of 'Gilded Palace'. Truly, the title is fitting, the dripping strings of guitars, steel and mandolin, the space in the music, the soulful piano and organ of GP. Hillman sings in one speaker, Parsons in the other.
Opening with the uptempo 'Christine's Tune', we are treated (pun intended) to that devilish pedal steel burning with electronics, a ragged cough - charmingly typical of Parsons' imperfect-perfect vocal waywardness at the end. 'Sin City' is magnificent, a critique of corporate environment-neglecting technocrat USA that suggests the country is better than the wicked urbanity of California. The words and vocals are peeless, the chromium layers of guitar strings swooping and cascading unlike any others in the annals of country rock. Truly, we are hearing genius here. I'll emphasis now that bar 3 numbers (2 crediting Etheridge), Hillman is co-writer and co-singer with Parsons and is every bit as important - the myth of Parsons as father of the alt-country movmemebt is overstated by critics, as anyone who knows Hillman's work can vouch - just listen to 'Running' by The Deserty Rose Band, for example, as just one illustration of Hillman's authentic coutnry rock genius.
Two Dann pen ballads follow, sung majestically by Parsons in particular, the cheating number 'Dark end of the Street' featuring a marvellous crescendo perfomance by Gram...this is magisterial stuff. I've heard that David Crosby sings uncredited harmony on these tracks and I must say I feel this may be correct. Again, the mesh of piano and guitar/steel strings on these cuts is magical.
"My Uncle" is a marvellous, topical draft-dodging 'I'm going to Canada for the duration' song, uptempo, lovely mandolin, great fun. It's the kind of thing the New Riders of the Purple Sage made a career of (good for them!) "Wheels" gives us more of Kleinow's buzzing acidhead pedal steel (I saw Chris Hillman play this in concert once - amazing!) and is a fan favourite as a result. "Juanita" invokes a mexican prostitute (this is more Sergio Leone than John Ford's west).
The two celebrated 'Hot Burritos' come next. Bkth are fabulous love songs, the first one the lovelorn ballad, the second one an unusual, original, more soulful number - full kudos to Etheridge for his collaboration with GP on these epics. 'Do You Know How It Feels?' is a re-recording of a track that first appeared on the ISB album (so Hillman doesn't get a writingc redit), but I prefer this version, since the Burritos are world-class musicians. The album closes with Chris Hillman's spoken gospel-organ 'Hippie Boy' - class!
Every minute of the album is just glorious: plangent music in fascinating tone colours, inspired lyrics and melodies, characterful vocals that could only be Parsons and Hillman (Gram has an instantly recognisable voice that could be no-one else) and a sense that a new hybrid genre of music has been born. Compare 'Gilded Palace' to 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo', 'Uncle Charlie and his Dog Teddy' by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the eponymous debut by New Riders of the Purple Sage and 'The Fantastic Expedition' by Dillard and Clakr (all seminal, brilliant country-rock albums) and The Flying Burrito Brothers effort stands head and shoulders above them all.
One of the greatest albums of all time, 'Gilded Palace of Sin' is iconoclastic, charming and breathlessly exciting and moving. If you enjoy it, try the other records I cite in the paragraph above, skip its successor ('Burrito Deluxe', which is massively disappointing) then try 'Flying Burrito Brothers' and 'Flying Again'. And remember, it wasn't just all about Gram...