Country on the Rocks
The Flying Burrito Brothers appeared on their first LP dressed in gaudy suits and standing in front of a shed. While this photo gives the impression of bad fashion today, the combination of hippies in a rural setting must have sent a different message to the record-buying public at the time. Buyers must have realized, at least on a subconscious level, that these guys were bringing something different to the table. They weren’t Merle Haggard and the Strangers, as country music buyers soon found out, but they weren’t the Grateful Dead either.
Today, of course, we just call it country-rock, and if we love the genre or run with the alternative country crowd, we talk about what a visionary Gram Parsons was. In certain cases, the term really meant little more than adding electric guitar or fuzzed-out steel to country songs. In the best cases, however, it represented a lovely hybrid of twangy Telecasters, highflying harmony, and the soothing sound of a pedal steel. At the top of their game, the Flying Burrito Brothers made country-rock with the best of them.
The Very Best of the Flying Burrito Brothers reissues the group’s first two albums (The Gilded Palace of Sin from 1969 and Burrito Deluxe from 1970) along with three odd songs. The title isn’t just hype—this is the very best of the Flying Burrito Brothers. For anyone whoever wondered why the alternative country crowd worships at the feet of these early country rockers, this anthology holds the key.
The band reached its zenith with The Gilded Palace of Sin. The album kicks off with the bouncy “Christine’s Tune (aka Devil in Disguise)”, a catchy tribute to a “wild” woman, injected with enough sexism to make Don Henley blush. The song rolls along at a nice clip as Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman sing jauntily:
“Her number always turns up in your pocket
Whenever you are looking for a dime
It’s all right to call her, but I’ll bet you
The moon is full and you’re just wasting time”.
Sure, you should stay away from her, but you won’t.
This group reaches a high watermark on pieces like “Sin City”, “Juanita”, and “Hot Burrito # 1”. Parsons and Hillman separate themselves from the Nashville crowd by crafting spacey lyrics filled with obscure phrases and unclear meanings, but it’s easy to forgive any lack of clarity because it all sounds so damn good. First of all, there are the lovely vocals by Hillman and Parsons. On “Sin City”, for instance, they both sing lead, with a voice coming from each speaker, harmonizing while still maintaining their separate identities. There’s also the nifty steel work of “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow, vacillating between psychedelic fuzz-tone on “Christine’s Tune” and straight Nashville on “My Uncle”. Some material doesn’t work quite as well, even on the first album, and this is most true of the straight country covers. The Flying Burrito Brothers’ versions of “Do Right Woman” and “Dark End of the Street” aren’t bad, but they’re somewhat pedestrian compared to their original material. And while both songs are no more or less ingratiating than other typical country fare, the conservative lyrics undermine the band’s hippy credentials.
Burrito Deluxe was something of a comedown after the group’s first album, but there are a number of good tracks. I’ve always found the rocking “Lazy Days” a lot of fun, and Parsons’ vocal on “Wild Horses” offers a kinder, gentler version of this classic (plus you can understand the lyrics). But Burrito Deluxe lacks the spontaneity of the earlier album.
Sin City: The Very Best of the Flying Burrito Brothers also gathers the single “The Train Song” and then fills out the collection with “Six Days on the Road” and “Close Up the Honky-Tonks”. For anyone who ever wanted to dig a little deeper into country-rock roots, this anthology is a good place to start. The collection will also serve as an important reminder that Hillman played as large of a role in this pioneering band as Parsons. But even if you’re not interested in country-rock and don’t give a damn about who played a role in its formation, Sin City, with its odd mixture of urban and rural elements, still makes an intoxicating musical cocktail 30 years after the fact.