The story of the Flying Burrito Brothers, probably best known as the bridge between the Byrds and Gram Parsons’ solo career, is brief and oft-told. Any biography of Parsons—and there have been many, most notably by Ben Fong-Torres, Sid Griffin, and David Meyer—will delve into the relevant period of the Burritos’ history. But, as Parsons’ tenure with the pioneering country-rock outfit was abbreviated, those books have told only half the story.
John Einarson’s new biography of the Burrito Brothers, written with co-founder and longest-serving original member Chris Hillman, attempts to redress the oversight of the post-Parsons band by following their story to its conclusion. But that’s not its only goal. Hillman says in the introduction, “Certainly Gram’s mystique has overshadowed me. I know that. He overshadows all of us in the Burritos, even if we’ve gone on to bigger careers since, like Bernie [Leadon] in the Eagles. I don’t want to dwell on it. It just is what it is.” And yet Hillman also calls Parsons “the Paris Hilton of rock ‘n’ roll,” and all but dismisses the entirety of his output: his vocals on the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo “aren’t that good.”
The only Burritos-era Parsons songs worthy of high praise are “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2”, and of his solo albums Hillman says: “Some of it makes my skin crawl. It’s just bad country music.” The song “$1000 Wedding”, which is usually held up as an example of Parsons at his very best, comes in for particularly harsh criticism from Hillman on several occasions. Einarson even adds: “It’s not one of his finest hours, and the decision to take it out of contention for the second Burritos album, despite a scarcity of material, was a wise one.” I suspect you’d be hard pressed to find many Parsons or Burrito Brothers fans who agree with that point of view.
It’s true that the Cult of Parsons has grown considerably over the last decade or so, with CD reissues, books, documentaries, and the mildly amusing comedy Grand Theft Parsons appearing to capitalize on his commercial viability. And that must get frustrating for someone like Chris Hillman, who worked hard for years with absolute professionalism, didn’t die at 26, and will probably never get the attention he deserves. He says he doesn’t “want to dwell on it,” but come on. Hot Burritos is the obvious result of Hillman (via Einarson) dwelling on it for 300 pages, winding up with a pathetic-sounding plea for induction into the rock and country halls of fame.
And what a long 300 pages it is at times. It’s obvious that Einarson talked to everyone he could, and this range of voices gives the book a thoroughness that will probably make it the definitive version of the Burrito Brothers’ story. On the downside, it’s also an occasionally sloppy and often redundant book. Aside from any number of careless typos, simple editing would’ve caught references to “Seals and Croft” and “John Prince” (alleged author of “There’s a Needle in Daddy’s Arm Where All the Money Goes”, better known as “Sam Stone”), and repeated references to the post-Burritos trio of “Souther, Hillman and Furay” are irritating if you know that that group was actually called “The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band.” Einarson could have thrown a [sic] in there every once in awhile if he didn’t want to correct a quote. But he doesn’t, and the result is that the book just seems like it needed an editor.
Perhaps more frustrating are the redundancies, because they probably tack 50 unnecessary pages onto the book: the multiple references to the latter-day Burritos as “a dead horse,” the brief biography of Buffalo Springfield on page 276 long after we first heard about them (according to the index it’s the book’s ninth reference to that group), the tired use of the “too rock for country, too country for rock” cliche, all the mentions of how the Eagles took what the Burritos and others started and used it to make money, and more. And sometimes this stuff happens only paragraphs apart. It seems like Einarson was more eager to include multiple perspectives, no matter how much they overlapped, than he was to craft a flowing narrative.
Hot Burritos does go further than any other book out there in terms of its coverage of the post-Parsons Burrito Brothers—the last third of the book takes place after Parsons was sacked—but it’s questionable whether there’s much of an audience for the final chapters. Einarson and Hillman can try all they want to make the case for the third and fourth Burrito Brothers albums, and criticize the “roughness” of The Gilded Palace of Sin, but there aren’t many listeners who are going to agree. Selling the majority of readers on the idea that Parsons was the weak link in the original band is going to be practically impossible, especially when Parsons fans are the folks most likely to pick up Hot Burritos in the first place. If they have access to the music itself, they’re likely to hear soullessness in the latter-day albums where Hillman hears consummate professionalism, and a whole lot of heart in the Parsons records (particularly Gilded Palace) where Hillman hears missed opportunities and flaws, particularly those of Gram Parsons.
It’s all a matter of perspective, and although Hillman’s is long overdue, it also comes across too often as a mean-spirited attempt to knock Parsons off his pedestal. I suspect it won’t work in the long run.