Fallen Angel: A Gram Parsons List

Peter Carlson
7 min readJan 16, 2021


10 Favorites from his short career

Gram Parsons’ recording career lasted about 7 years, punctuated with starts and stops. Alcoholism, drug abuse, contractual conflict, arguments with band members, and a certain lack of motivation (perhaps because he had a trust fund) all undermined the quality and productivity of his recording career. His final album was released four months after his death at age 26.

It’s amazing he was able to accomplish anything meaningful, but he did. Following is my list of the Top 10 Gram songs, taken from his entire recording career.

1. Return of the Grievous Angel (from album Grievous Angel)

Parsons’ final album begins with this song. Opening with a burst of pedal steel guitar, the instrumentation of “Return of the Grievous Angel” is perhaps the most faithful to the country genre of any song recorded by Parsons. Taking lyrics by poet Tom Brown, Parsons wrote a simple set of chord changes for the verses, chorus and bridge that slightly bend traditional country songcraft without breaking it.

The vocals by Parsons and Emmylou Harris are well supported by pedal steel, fiddle, piano, and a typically efficient guitar solo by James Burton.

Emmylou Harris shows her mastery of harmony singing on this track. She varies from relatively close harmony to high swooping notes cresting far above Parsons’ voice. Many of the notes she sings represent unusual harmony intervals that would not be expected in typical country songs. Her upward harmony shift at the end of the final chorus elevates and resolves the song magnificently.

For his part, Parsons sings the whole song sounding as though he is smiling, with a knowing wink on his face. The vocal interplay on this song shows what the world lost when Parsons died of a lethal drug and alcohol combination in September 1973.

2. $1,000 Wedding (from album Grievous Angel)

This recording is one of the best examples of how Parsons could use the natural breaks in his voice to emotional benefit.

Written during the time of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and unsuccessfully recorded by them, this piano based song showcases Parsons ability to write a country weeper without resorting to the lyrical bromides often found in country music at that time. Not many other country weepers proclaim that “the fiercest beasts could all be put to sleep the same silly way”.

In similar fashion, while the instrumentation is true to country tradition, Gram’s chord sequences don’t fit the normal country template seeming to meander slightly, rather than proceeding by rote.

Emmylou Harris doesn’t appear until the bridge of the song, nearly two minutes in, but when she joins the mix , the intensity of the song is kicked up a level. As on “Return of the Grievous Angel”, Emmylou makes some unusual harmony choices which serve almost as much as counterpoint than harmony. The rest of the song is all Gram, hurting, and making you hurt.

3. In My Hour of Darkness (from album Grievous Angel)

This sad reflection on lost friends opens with a beautiful piano melody line by Glen D. Hardin, and moves to a chorus before the verses begin. The instrumental mix sounds quite similar to “Return of the Grievous Angel”, except that the lead melodic instrument is now dobro (supplied by former Burrito Brother Bernie Leadon), instead of guitar.

The song features three verses, each describing a different friend of Gram’s; all of them now departed. While some questions remain about the subject of verses one and three, it’s worth noting that verse two is widely agreed to reference Clarence White, former Byrds guitarist and close friend of Gram who was killed by a drunk driver just two months before.

Emmylou’s harmonies are more conventional on this song. They are augmented by her new friend, Linda Ronstadt.

The song is strongly poignant on its own, but its emotional weight is compounded by the fact that Gram’s rumination on death was written so shortly before his own passing. Appropriately, it was sequenced as the long song on Gram’s last album.

4. Wheels (from Flying Burrito Brothers Album The Gilded Palace of Sin)

The first Flying Burrito Brothers featured six songs co-written by band leaders Parsons and Chris Hillman. Hillman, the former bassist for the Byrds, would form an effective harmony duo with Parsons, as exemplified on this song.

While nominally a song about their shared love of motorcycles, the song’s lyrics also incorporate a message of faith and acceptance.

“Wheels” provides an example of the Country-Rock hybrid which Parsons wanted to achieve. It sounds mostly like a country record, including pedal steel guitar, and lots of country piano licks, but also incorporates a fuzzed electric rhythm guitar high in the mix at the end of verse lines. This juxtaposition is jarring to some. To me, it sounds clever and perfect.

5. Miller’s Cave (from International Submarine Band Album Safe at Home)

Parsons’ first album was not entirely successful, but this cut proved that he could credibly perform straight country music.

Miller’s Cave had been a hit for Bobby Bare in 1964. Bare’s version had been taken at a relatively slow, brooding pace. Parsons’ version opens with a newly invented acoustic guitar lick, and moves at an almost jovial pace. This tempo increase, and Parsons bright vocal contrast with the lyrics, and help disguise the not-so-happy ending which is coming up.

Excellent group harmonies and solid instrumental backup suggest that the International Submarine Band had promise for the future, but the accompanying album was delayed for release, and by the time it emerged, Parsons had already joined the Byrds.

6. Still Feeling Blue (from album GP)

“Still Feeling Blue” opens Gram’s solo career, cut one on side one of GP, and demonstrates how much fun he could create in a song about feeling blue. The song moves at breakneck pace, led by fiddle and dobro. Emmylou joins on vocals midway through the first verse, and immediately demonstrates the power of the Parsons/Harris vocal blend.

This hard country honky-tonker can almost be seen as a self-written update of Miller’s Cave-an uptemp, cheerful tale of things gone wrong.

7. How Much I’ve Lied (from album GP)

This beautiful deep cut is among the lesser known of Gram’s songs, although it was covered by Elvis Costello on his 1981 album of country covers, Blue.

Co-written with David Rifkin, “How Much I’ve Lied” seems to be a rare example of a confessional Parsons song.

Lacking the irony brought on by the fast tempo of “Still Feeling Blue”, “How Much I’ve Lied” is basically a straight country weeper. In a better world, it would have been adopted by country radio, and reached a larger audience.

8. Luxury Liner (from International Submarine Band Album Safe at Home)

“Miller’s Cave” showed that Gram could handle straight country. By contrast, “Luxury Liner”, a Parsons original, may be seen as the first example of Parsons blending country and rock to achieve his vision of Cosmic American Music.

Pedal steel supplies the country, while the driving beat borrows from rock. Excellent harmonies provide ear candy, and Parsons often creaky voice is steady. “Luxury Liner” points to the sound Parsons would seek somewhat later with the Flying Burrito Brothers, specifically, utilization of pedal steel guitar as an aggressive primary element, rather than a weepy source of background mood.

9. Hickory Wind (from Byrds album Sweetheart of the Rodeo)

One of only three Parsons lead vocals on the Byrds’ groundbreaking album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, “Hickory Wind” hits the hardest.

Perhaps Gram’s most famous song, “Hickory Wind” is also one of Gram’s simplest. Only three verses, with no chorus, its masterful and economic use of words conjures up feelings of The Big Lonely which can be appreciated by anyone who’s ever lived on their own, far from home.

Tranquil images of Gram’s youth contrast with adult realization that success doesn’t guarantee happiness.

The Byrds were assisted by studio pros John Hartford on fiddle, and Lloyd Green on pedal steel. The finished recording was not enough to save Parsons’ decaying relationship with the Byrds, but it is recognized as a classic, and Sweetheart of the Rodeo is cited by many as the birth of Country-Rock.

10. Hot Burrito #1 (from Flying Burrito Brothers Album The Gilded Palace of Sin)

Perhaps Gram’s best tear jerker of all, this ballad attempts to mix a pedal steel guitar with a soulful rhythm section, and succeeds effortlessly. Sneeky Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel is beautifully understated, working to reinforce Gram’s vocal. An extremely active bass part adds melodic undertones without making the backing excessively busy.

Singing is about more than hitting notes. Above all, it’s about conveying emotion. Gram’s cracking voice conveys heartbreak with obvious sincerity-not one note sounds forced.

Rest Easy, Grievous Angel.

Honorable Mention:

Streets of Baltimore (from album GP)

Christine’s Tune (from Flying Burrito Brothers Album The Gilded Palace of Sin)

Cody, Cody (from Flying Burrito Brothers Album Burrito Deluxe)

Juanita (from Flying Burrito Brothers Album The Gilded Palace of Sin)

Sin City (from Flying Burrito Brothers Album The Gilded Palace of Sin)



Peter Carlson

Engineer, amateur musician, amateur gardener, amateur cook