Parsons’s best album, though, is also the one I find most difficult to listen to: his second solo effort, “Grievous Angel,” released posthumously in 1974, full of darkness but also Harris’s luminous backing vocals. Sometimes “Grievous Angel” just makes me angry, because his early death means we’ll never know if he could have written a hundred more songs as raggedly beautiful as “$1000 Wedding,” where he sounds flayed and old before his time, like a man in touch with oblivion.
“WHAT IF” IS a fool’s question, but to be a Gram Parsons fan is to be constantly made a fool, because it’s so tempting to ask. If he’d lived, would “Grievous Angel” have made him a star? Would he have created a long, rich discography or would he have quickly become a pale imitation of himself? Would he still be around, or would he have found another opportunity to die young?
To ask “what if,” though, is also a way to register dissatisfaction with, or wage a silent protest against, what is. Parsons was never shy in talking about music he disliked, and the watered-down, commercially palatable version of “country rock” (a term he hated) that was becoming popular in the 1970s made his skin crawl. (He had an unprintable, and hilarious, way of describing the Eagles’ music.) There’s an element of the poor little rich boy in Parsons’s story, of course. But it’s also true that plenty of his Boomer rock contemporaries made Snivley-level fortunes with decreasingly inspired takes on his own sound.
On the flip side, as the former Eagle and Burrito Brother Bernie Leadon once put it, “How can you compete with a dead guy? You just can’t.” Parsons’s hypothetical later albums are everything we want them to be, because they exist solely in the imagination. Perhaps his death has become such a cultural obsession because it purified him, making an imperfect artist — an imperfect man — pristine.
But there’s still plenty of mystery and magic in what he left behind. Parsons was initially supposed to sing lead on more “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” songs, but his vocals were replaced with McGuinn’s. Emmylou Harris once suggested they may have just been turned way down in the mix. “If you listen real close in the headset,” Harris said, “you can hear him, because his phrasing is so different from Roger McGuinn’s.” It was like, she said, “hearing a ghost.”
This is the kind of Gram Parsons ghost-hunting I can get behind: close listening. Straining for glimpses of him in the margins of Byrds songs or even in the backing vocals of the Stones’ “Exile on Main St.,” where some swear you can hear him. Surveying the last half-century of cosmic American music and seeing where the wind blew all those hickory seeds.