GAB Archive/Redferns

12 Gram Parsons Songs That Set the Cosmic Country Blueprint

Gram Parsons songs need no introduction to fans of either country or rock. His few months in 1968 as a member of The Byrds were enough to make him a Los Angeles country-rock icon and an alt-country forerunner. Yet the short-lived run that brought us Sweetheart of the Rodeo and the songs "One Hundred Years From Now" and "Hickory Wind" barely scratches the surface of his influence on countrified rock 'n' roll. Had the legendary singer, guitarist and songwriter not passed away in 1973 at the young age of 26, he'd be an Americana elder statesperson alongside Byrds bassist Chris Hillman and guitarist Roger McGuinn.

With that high praise in mind, here's 12 of Parson's best songs with the Flying Burrito Brothers (1969-1970) and as a solo artist and frequent duet parter of Fallen Angels band member Emmylou Harris. Cover songs are avoided, although he and Harris cut one of the finest versions of Country Music Hall of Famers Felice and Boudleaux Bryant's "Love Hurts," and he introduced Bobby Bare's 1966 hit "Streets of Baltimore" and George Jones' "That's All It Took" to rock audiences. More famously, his potential authorship of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses"—first sung by Parsons on Burrito Deluxe—will always be a point of debate for classic rock fans.

12. "Sleepless Nights"

The twangy rendition of the Bryant songwriting team's "Sleepless Nights" by Parsons and Harris. Its among several great versions, beginning with the Everly Brothers original and continuing through the catalogs of The Judds and Patty Loveless.

11. "Dark End of the Street"

The Flying Burrito Brothers recorded a soul classic, penned by legends Chips Moman and Dan Penn and popularized by James Carr, in its own musical voice without watering down or ignoring its original intent.

10. "Ooh Las Vegas"

Posthumous 1974 solo album The Grievous Angel flavors Parsons' best work with early Harris vocal magic. This one's a rollicking number that's sonically and thematically similar to Nikki Lane's own Sin City celebration, "Jackpot."

9. "$1000 Wedding"

The softer side of California country-rock, arguably invented by Hillman and taken to the mainstream mountaintop by the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, never sounded sweeter or more surreal.

8. "In My Hour of Darkness"

Despite its dreary title, this one sounds more like a peppy blend of honky-tonk tradition and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's sunshiny version of rocking country music. For something as rewarding, keep the record spinning for the next track on GP, "Kiss the Children."

7. "The New Soft Shoe"

Steel guitar accompaniment drags the "cosmic American music" perfected by the Flying Burrito Brothers back to the barrooms in one of the best collaborations between Parsons and Harris.

6. "A Song For You"


There's something indescribably surreal about Parson's nearly five-minute love ballad. The closest thing to it is the twangier material written and performed by his pal Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones.

5. "She"

Whether you're listening to the Monkees, Green Day or Gram Parsons, you can't go wrong with the very different-sounding songs sharing this title. In Parson's case, a simple pronoun unravels into a rich, textured story inspired by the Florida native's Southern upbringing.

4. "Brass Buttons"

This holdover from Parsons' time as a Harvard-area folk singer got converted to yet another great example of early country-rock. Its lyrics, said to be about Parson's mother, show an attention to detail and storytelling depth that'd soon be mastered by John Prine.

3. "Hot Burrito #1"

This cut off The Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace of Sin best melds John Lennon's experimental bent with the songwriting of Parsons' honky-tonk heroes. It's a co-write with Chris Ethridge, a band mate since the latter days of The International Submarine Band.

2. "Hickory Wind"

Although it's most associated with The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, Parsons' second-greatest masterpiece remained in his repertoire and even made it onto Grievous Angel as part of a medley with the Louvin Brothers' "Cash on the Barrelhead."

1. "Return of the Grievous Angel"

Parsons' signature song has it all: gorgeous two-part harmonies with Harris, a story about a restless rambler and a healthy dose of surrealism. Merle Haggard and Elvis Presley band leader James Burton's fantastic guitar work, future Eagle Bernie Leadon's acoustic accompaniment and Byron Berline's golden hour as a fiddler accentuate the musical and lyrical high point of Parson's shortened (and seminal) career.

This story first ran on Nov. 5, 2018.

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