Tribute albums may have exhausted their usefulness. Once, they may have been a way for big names to introduce their fans to their more obscure influences. But now they simply afford the opportunity for a host of lesser talents to try to leech off some of the admiration granted to established artists by performing inferior and utterly superfluent versions of their songs. The air of calculating cynicism inherent to the whole tribute album concept tends to obscure any sincere homage being paid. Burrito Deluxe’s Georgia Peach, a bad faith exercise in exploiting the name recognition of Gram Parsons, is especially guilty in this respect. What is packaged like a tribute to Parsons, who more or less invented country rock in the late ‘60s in his work with the Sweetheart-era Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, is in fact an undistinguished contemporary country album, all the work of a single band, which merely uses a few Flying Burrito Brothers covers to lure in unsuspecting listeners. The presence of original Burrito Brothers slide player Sneaky Pete Kleinow seems a purely token gesture designed as further bait, as his signature sound is conspicuously absent from large portions of this disc.
Instead, the record is dominated by Nashville session men Tommy Spurlock and Carlton Moody, who masterminded the project and co-wrote many of the dreadful originals that make up the bulk of this collection. These originals have absolutely nothing to do with the sound or spirit of Parsons’s music and in fact seem to provide substantial evidence that his influence left no mark on the course of mainstream country. Songs like “Bluest Brown Eyes”, “She’s Still the Queen”, and “Call It Love” are far from the country rock hybrid Parsons pioneered; they sound precisely like the slick, formulaic love songs you’d typically hear on current country radio. It’s certainly hard to connect Parsons, a visionary free spirit who spent his musical career disassembling the boundaries between genres, to the sound Burrito Deluxe makes in his name, that of a bourgeois, Republican America committed to preserving traditional social boundaries of all sorts. It’s harder still to relate him to the abysmal string of clichés and platitudes in “G.P.”, a song which whitewashes Parsons into the kind of generic American hero who embodies Heartland-friendly values of hard-working Christian country living. While his love for Jesus, and his eventual receptive welcome by the heavenly host is discussed, no mention is made of his rampant heroin addiction, or his decidedly unheroic death by overdose in a motel room in Yucca Valley.
Parsons’s most distinctive musical trait may have been his rich, expressive voice, which often injected an aching pathos into the sometimes sub-standard material he chose to work with. His unparalleled tone and phrasing, which flowed as naturally as a lazy stream, suggested depths of feelings the lyrics barely hinted at. Burrito Deluxe’s chief vocalists don’t approach such sensitivity—they derive from the Kenny Rogers/Travis Tritt school of bland enunciation and smooth baritone crooning. On two songs, we are introduced to 22-year-old Willie Watson, whose attempts to imitate Parsons fall somewhat short. Compared to the other voices we hear on Georgia Peach, Watson’s voice has tremendous character, but by setting himself up to be compared with one of country’s most inimitable singers, he destines himself for failure. Where Parsons made “Hickory Wind” aching and wistful, Watson makes it seem a bit maudlin. Gillian Welch allegedly sings backup on this track, but she’s buried so low in the mix that her contribution is hard to catch. You certainly won’t be reminded of the definitive sound of Emmylou Harris’s harmonies on Parsons’s solo albums. The Band’s Garth Hudson also contributes some organ to the track, but you would never know this unless you read the liner notes. “Hickory Wind”, like all the versions here of material Parsons originally recorded, seems a misguided attempt to convince us that Parsons somehow led the way to the sound we now hear on country radio. But it’s unfair to blame him for that-he has enough to answer for paving the way for Poco and the Eagles.
Listening to Georgia Peach seems no way to pay tribute to the memory of Gram Parsons memory. If you feel the need to celebrate his memory, you will be far better served listening to some of his actual work: say, for instance, Grevious Angel, which is probably the finest music he ever recorded. But if you still feel the need to have other bands participate your remembrance him, look into The Return of the Grievous Angel, a more conventional tribute album whose sound wouldn’t actually embarrass the man it honors.
// Notes from the Road
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