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Chris Hillman knew Gram Parsons perhaps better than anyone, or at least as well as anyone could know a wealthy young man dedicated to living fast, loving hard, dying young, and leaving a beautiful memory. It was Hillman who brought Parsons into the Byrds in 1968; and it was Hillman who walked away from the Byrds a while later to form the Flying Burrito Brothers with the man he believed to be his kindred spirit, someone with whom he shared a passion for ancient country reveries. Parsons and Hillman lived together in Los Angeles, wrote together, drank together, listened together -- and, yes, invented together, helping to create that bastard stew called "country rock," though Parsons himself always despised the term, wanting to vomit at its mere mention. "Country rock plastic dry-fuck," he once wrote in a letter to a friend. "Excuse the strong language."
Given all that, it's to be expected that Hillman recall his long-dead friend through the romantic's gauze-covered lens. That's what friends do, protect the memories of those no longer here to defend themselves. But Hillman refuses to do so: There are too many memories, too many bad ones and too many sad ones, to speak of Parsons only in the most glowing, golden terms. Fact is, Parsons put Hillman through hell. Gram disappointed Chris far too many times, showing up late for gigs or, too often, never at all. Worse, Gram wasted his talents, drank them up and shot them away until he was nothing more than a 26-year-old corpse set afire by friends atop the Joshua Tree monument in the California desert.
At the time of his death on September 19, 1973, Gram Parsons wasn't a commercial success. But fame and prestige matter little to those who turn dead men into tragic-hero myths. It's actually better that way, easier to turn a failed ghost into a legend, since he's not here to ruin it with success. That's why Parsons is the subject of his second tribute album in six years, Return of the Grievous Angel, featuring no less than Elvis Costello, Wilco, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle, the Cowboy Junkies, the Mavericks, and of course Parsons' soul mate, Emmylou Harris. And that's why Hillman -- no less a "pioneer" than his old friend, no less important no matter what the footnotes read -- gets to appear on the record as just one more special guest paying homage to the dead legend. This, despite the fact that Hillman cofounded the Flying Burrito Brothers with Parsons and cowrote several songs most associated with Parsons, among them "Sin City" and "Juanita."
"Death brings on icon status, doesn't it?" asks Hillman. "I'm not talking about Gram, but the most mediocre are elevated to a status that would never have been there had they remained alive, and it's OK. It's human nature. We have so many historic misquotes and completely rewritten things in history. I always felt that way about the Doors. We were around them, and they weren't that great; as a musician, I didn't get it. But when Jim Morrison died, they were living icons. But that happens. I get that all the time: 'Don't you feel bad you don't get the same respect as Gram?' Look, he's not alive. I am. I don't want to trade places with him."
The difference between Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman is the difference between Gram Parsons and most mortals: Parsons' story, from the moment of his birth, is the stuff of which William Faulkner's novels and Tennessee Williams' plays were made. It's rich in tragedy: Half his family, wealthy folk from Central Florida, went nuts, and only the family dog didn't die of alcoholism. It's loaded with celebrity names, especially those of the Rolling Stones. It's one cliché piled upon the next until Parsons' tale reads like a primer on how not to live one's life, unless you want to be famous and dead. You've heard the story a million times, even if you never knew the name attached to it.
The great irony of Parsons' legacy is that he left behind a handful of astonishing songs and many more that weren't quite as sublime as the breathless history books have led us to believe. He appears on only six official releases -- one record with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds' 1968 masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo, two Flying Burrito Brothers albums, and two of his own -- and a handful more made up of slapdash outtakes and other errata elevated to grand status by those who insist he's the link between Hank Williams and, oh, Dwight Yoakam or Jeff Tweedy. And for every "Sin City" or "Juanita" or "Hot Burrito #1," there are myriad raggedy, slipshod performances neither rich nor romantic, only sad. Listen, if you can, to the wrenching 1973 live disc he cut with the Fallen Angels shortly before his death; it sounds as though he's singing from the bottom of a grave.
"I guess I am struck and have been the last couple of years at just how rough it was and how off-the-cuff it was," says Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, whose somber and ethereal rendition of "Ooh Las Vegas" is Return of the Grievous Angel's emotional center. "Especially the solo records. They're all about emotion and capturing the spirit of the moment. You just don't hear that anymore on albums. That's why he was a big influence on us, because it's all emotion. You don't hear calculation."