My Favorite Album: Jim Lauderdale On Gram Parsons' Grievous Angel
Jim Lauderdale was in Erskine High School in South Carolina working at a college radio station when someone there told him about a record called Grievous Angel. “You have to hear this,” he told Lauderdale. “It’s amazing.”
And it was. Forty years later, Lauderdale recalls how it “blew” his mind, comparing it to the other great musical moments in his life when he heard artists like Muddy Waters, Otis Redding, Ralph Stanley and George Jones and the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Lauderdale shares all of this with Jeremy Dylan, host of the podcast “My Favorite Album.” Each episode features a different songwriter or musician discussing their favorite album of all time - their history with it, the making of the album, individual songs and the album’s influence on their own music. Dylan is a filmmaker, journalist and photographer from Sydney, Australia, who directed the the feature music documentary Jim Lauderdale: The King of Broken Hearts.
Lauderdale’s interest in bluegrass and country music had been fostered as early as the third grade by his uncle, a Shakespearean scholar who forced the family to watch the hillbilly variety show Hee Haw, which featured Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.
Like the rest of us, Lauderdale first heard Grievous Angel after Parsons had passed away. When he was alive, Parsons said he was making “cosmic American music,” not country music. “I can understand what he was saying,” said Lauderdale, who was aware Parsons was a cool, hip guy, “but it’s a country record with a lot of different elements.”
The core band is built around Elvis Presley’s Takin’ Care of Business (TCB) ensemble featuring guitarist James Burton, drummer Ronnie Tutt and pianist Glen Hardin along with bassist Emory Gordy and pedal steel guitarist Al Perkins.
Back in the early 1970’s Emmylou Harris was a singer in the Washington, D.C. area who met the onetime member of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. Dylan picks up on something Lauderdale says in describing the album as “Gram Parsons With Emmylou Harris.” The comment is a telling reference point to Harris being an integral part of the harmony that has yielded over one thousand collaborations by some estimates. Lauderdale and Dylan also discuss the unique harmony of Burton’s lead guitar and Perkins’ pedal steel which was a foundation for many to follow.
Parsons’ work may have also spawned the genre of country rock, a term Parsons hated but the two agree he invented before dying before he turned 27. The music of Grievous Angel draws from traditional country songs such as the Louvin Brothers’ “Cash On The Barrelhead” and Tom T. Hall’s romp “I Can’t Dance.”. The album also includes a classic Parsons-Harris duet of the 1950’s “Love Hurts” which had already been covered by the Everly Brothers and would be remade enormously popular again a year later by Nazareth.
“Hickory Wind,” which initially appeared on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of The Rodeo, is a song that appeals to Lauderdale because he’s from from South Carolina. “'Hickory Wind' is my favorite but god, they're all great," he says. "I just think it’s a beautiful song. I have been playing it ever since I heard it.”
Grievous Angel is not without its own idiosyncracies. Consider the “Medley Live From Northern Quebec” of “Cash On The Barrelhead” and “Hickory Wind.” Neither were recorded live nor were they done in Quebec. The applause of a supposed live audience was added in the studio. During the taping of “Hickory Wind” that was attended by Johnny Guitar Watson and Steve Miller, a glass accidentally fell off a table and it was decided to keep it in the final mix.
Grievous Angel had a profound effect on Lauderdale. Under the full moon of Cap Rock in the desert of Joshua Tree, a place Parsons frequented and died in September 1973, Lauderdale finished a song inspired by a comment Parsons had made. Lauderdale had been reading a biography written by Sid Griffin who described Parsons being at a party and seeing George Jones on television, saying. “That’s the king of broken hearts.” It became Lauderdale’s most popular song covered by George Strait. Several years ago it also became the title of the documentary Dylan made about Lauderdale.
"I just got this shock wave and started writing it,” Lauderdale recalls of the inspiration, “I went out to Cap Rock and finished it. It was a beautiful night.”
Lauderdale grew up on rock, having experienced seeing a pivotal life event seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Parsons’ association with guitarist Keith Richards and his cover of “Wild Horses” helped draw Lauderdale to the Rolling Stones. Years later when Lauderdale was part of a Gram Parsons tribute in Santa Barbara, he went up to Keith Richards during rehearsals and asked him if he could sing harmony on “Wild Horses.” Lauderdale came in on the second verse. The performance is documented on the DVD Return To Sin City.
For Lauderdale, when you meet someone who likes Gram Parsons, you immediately share a bond.
“It's like being a freemason,” Dylan suggests.
“Yes,” Lauderdale agrees, “a Grammason.”
Parsons’ influence on Lauderdale continues to this day. “Between Your Heart and Mine” on the album Patchwork was inspired by Parsons and co-written with lyricist Robert Hunter. For “Honey Songs,” he brought back the Grievous Angel band of James Burton, Ronnie Tutt, Glen Hardin and Al Perkins with Emmylou Harris. He got Gary Tallent from The E Street Band to take the place of Emory Gordy. As he spoke Lauderdale was thinking about the unreleased material he still had in the can with the Grievous Angel ensemble.
“I knew I could never duplicate Grievous Angel,” Lauderdale admitted, “but it set a bar to aspire to.”
Dylan calls Gram the Hank Williams Sr. of a different generation and Lauderdale doesn’t disagree.
“In the short time he was here, what he laid out was just right."
“It still sounds fresh,” Lauderdale adds. “It’s a perfect record in every way.”