[27 February 2007]
Aside from the fact that someone has yet macheted Carson Daly’s head like an overripe guava on national TV for the good of mankind, perhaps the biggest travesty in modern music is the flood of “tribute” albums currently glutting the record stores. For the most part these “tributes” are basically songs by a particular well-known artist covered by bands you never heard of, in the vain hope that rabid Springsteen and Zeppelin completists will be so impressed by the covers that they’ll go out and buy these unknown bands’ original product. Godspeed, fellas—nothing will impress me less than hearing “Misty Mountain Hop” covered one more time by (insert generic band name here) except maybe your attempt to pass off this cynical parasitism as some kind of “tribute”. The tribute album, at its most noble, works the opposite way: name artists, ones who actually sell albums, come together to show their love for the work of lesser-known or forgotten musical luminaries who inspired them. Teenaged U2 fans buy Red, Hot + Blue to hear Bono mumble his way through “Night and Day” and get turned on to the music of Cole Porter—that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Return of the Grievous Angel is a tribute album in the best sense, evoking the spirit of one of the most influential yet largely forgotten pop warriors of our time, Gram Parsons. Parsons is one of those people you stumble upon when you’re playing the “influences” game—only it’s startling to see just how many people can claim lineage from the output of his relatively short career. Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, Dwight Yoakam, the whole alt-country crowd, all of them draw from the welding of country music and rock that Parsons achieved while a member of the Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, as well as on the two solo albums he cut before his fatal overdose in 1973, at the age of 26. Keith Richards wrote “Wild Horses” for Parsons to use. Parsons discovered both Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. And on and on. “Twenty thousand roads I went down down down,” Parsons sang, “and they all led me straight back home to you.”
It’s Emmylou Harris who, as executive producer, is responsible for this album, the realization of an obsessive imperative she held onto for some 26 years, to keep Parsons’ music alive. She could not have assembled a better collection of songs or artists to aid in the recovery. In addition, she lends her considerable vocal talents to three of the tracks, dueting with Chrissie Hynde (“She”), Sheryl Crow (“Juanita”), and, of all people, Beck (“Sin City”—who knew Beck could pull off a straight gospel ballad so well?).
The album is a terrific mix of artists from across the pop spectrum, Parsons’ old cronies working with his disciples. Chris Hillman, an ex-Byrd who co-founded the Burritos and was Parsons’ main writing partner, trades vocals with Steve Earle on “High Fashion Queen”, while David Crosby backs Lucinda Williams on the title track—in my opinion the strongest track in an album full of strong tracks. Wilco weighs in with a steamroller version of “One Hundred Years from Now” and Whiskeytown’s cover of “A Song for You” is just beautiful. A pair of dark horses—Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield doing “Should’ve Been a Funeral” and Elvis Costello in full mournful-crooner drag on “Sleepless Nights”—acquit themselves wonderfully.
This is not to say that there aren’t weak spots here. The Mavericks’ straight version of “Hot Burrito #1” sounds like they used Glen Campbell’s phone to call it in, and the Cowboy Junkies’ slick, effects-heavy cover of “Ooh Las Vegas” is guaranteed to irk purists in the crowd, though Margo Timmins’ voice has never sounded better.
The album closes with a pair of heart-grabbers, Gillian Welch’s sonorous rendering of the song perhaps most associated with Parsons, “Hickory Wind”, and the Rolling Creekdippers’ take on the elegiac “In My Hour of Darkness”, with its second verse about a simple country boy who became a star—“And the music he had in him / So very few possess”—taking on the appropriate dimensions of reference (and reverence) for Parsons himself. But somehow these tracks, like the rest of the album, manages this kind of soul-stirring without becoming maudlin.
Return of the Grievous Angel should satisfy the most diehard of Parsons’ fans while introducing his music to legions of young alt-country fans, who’ve basically been listening to him all along, who’ll now know who to thank. That’s what a tribute does best.