I was listening to a CD of Gram Parsons cover songs by a band out of California called Laughing Gravy and while they ain’t as pretty as Gram to look at, they sound mighty fine. Dave Zirbel is an absolute knock out on the steel. The CD opens with a rave up of an early Parson’s song he recorded with the International Submarine Band, Blue Eyes.
Gram’s first serious foray into that dubious world of country rock was with the International Submarine Band. Fortunately, for all of us, Gram was always more interested in the country side of things than the rock. Blue Eyes hits on a theme that would be seen again and again in Gram’s writing. Home. A solidly country theme and one that, as the world changed and expanded and people felt lost or disenfranchised and cut off from their roots would reverberate with an undeniable truth. Alt.country bands would pick this up and make it the staple theme of their albums and their biggest argument for their claim to Hank’s throne. Not that anyone was listening, mind you.
What Gram did as good as anyone, was invoke those images of home that are so simple most of us sitting down to write would discard them immediately as trite.
Where I’ve got chores to keep me busy, a clock to keep my time
A pretty girl to love me, with the same last name as mine
And when the flowers wilt, a big old quilt to keep us warm
I’ve got the sun to see my blue eyes and tonight you’re in my arms
Reading country lyrics like this is at best awkward, but hearing the rhythms and the melody sweep past in a quick two-step is as natural as squeezing your girl, and listening to the tune does actually make me want to do all those domestic chores on my honey-do list.
Many of Gram’s songs would revisit this theme. Hickory Wind, a song about finding solace in childhood memories from adulthood loneliness. His cover of the Harlan Howard / Tompall Glasser tune The Streets of Baltimore, where a young man loses his girl to the bright lights and heads back to the farm. While neither Juanita nor Sin City yearn specifically for home you can’t help but think of these as postmodern updates of Detroit City. Especially when I hear Juanita, with its startling imagery of a rented room. Again, Gram’s simplicity pays off, he barely says anything about it except it’s cold and dirty; pills and wine fill the spaces, and the most telling description of the place is in the way the singer’s feeling about himself: ashamed.
No wonder the cold and dirty ’90s picked up on these ideas and made them their own. There were plenty of dingy motel rooms and warm bodies to hold onto in the night, only to be let go of quickly at dawn. There was plenty of wanting an angel to appear in those dirty towns to help bring us back into the domesticity we yearned for. No wonder the Hat Acts exploded under Sir Garth’s tutelage when a whole generation wanted to aww shucks it or at least pretend they once did. Gram, a beautiful cross between the raggedness of Cobain and the homeliness of Garth could have been huge. He was born just a little too early.