“The Gilded Palace of Sin” by the Flying Burrito Brothers (1969)
No one should write anything about the late Gram Parsons without citing former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres’ definitive biography, “Hickory Wind.” And so:
“Gram, whose soulful but sometimes frail voice evoked a broken heart, and who wrote songs as if he had one, never had any luck with his recording career, with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers or on his own. But through his efforts – sometimes ragtag and botched; other times brilliant but too far ahead of their time – he became identified as a pioneer, perhaps the pioneer, of country-rock. Although he did champion the idea of hippies playing country music for a rock-and-roll audience, and of bringing longhairs and rednecks together without barroom brawls, he was never comfortable with the phrase.”
Perhaps some of the most successful acts that followed – the Eagles come immediately to mind – wouldn’t have achieved their heights without the seeds that were sown by the man who was born Cecil Ingraham Connor.
“The Gilded Palace of Sin” was Gram’s third album, with as many different groups, following “Safe at Home” by the International Submarine Band and “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” recorded during his short stint with the Byrds.
Gram resurrected the name Flying Burrito Brothers from a previous, unrecorded band and reunited with one if its members, bass player Chris Ethridge. When Chris Hillman also quite the Byrds, he, too joined the Burritos. Then came perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle: pedal-steel guitarist “Sneeky” Pete Kleinow, who had sat in during the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” sessions.
The pedal steel contributes mightily to the sound the band crafts on “The Gilded Palace of Sin,” the culmination of Gram’s “vision of country being performed by long-haired guys with a rock-and-roll consciousness,” to quote Fong-Torres. The ISB had hinted at the possibilities, while Roger McGuinn wasn’t quite ready to turn the Byrds completely over to the concept.
The Burritos, however, were glad to follow Gram, from posing in custom-made getups for the “Gilded Palace” album cover – Kleinow looks downright irritated to be donning such garb – to embracing Parsons’ songwriting efforts. He co-wrote nine of the 11 tunes, mostly with Hillman, and five of them stand among Gram’s most brilliantly crafted compositions.
Those include the first two songs on the album. “Christine’s Tune” – written about a “devil in disguise that actually was the late Christine Frka, a member of the groupie-group the GTOs – is indicative of how a woman can control a man’s soul; “Sin City,” referring to Los Angeles, is about how money can do the same. “Wheels” is an ode to riding motorcycles, a relevant anthem in the “Easy Rider era.
Showing Gram at the top of his game are two songs he wrote with Ethridge, which “they lazily titled ‘Hot Burrito #1’ and ‘Hot Burrito #2,'” in the words of Fong-Torres.
Gram’s plaintive voice comes ringing through loud and clear in the former, a plea to a girl who lost his virginity to him: “I’m the one who let you in/I was right beside you then.” (Elvis Costello covered the song as “I’m Your Toy” during his “Almost Blue” phase.) “Hot Burrito #2” is more assertive, telling the subject, “You’d better love me, Jesus Christ.”
Also included are countrified versions of a couple of ’60s soul standards, “Do Right Woman” and “The Dark End of the Street,” as well as some originals that are in keeping with the times, with the draft-dodging sentiments expressed in “My Uncle” and the spoken-word tale of woe in “Hippie Boy.”
Unfortunately, the listening public apparently wasn’t ready for country rock, as “The Gilded Palace of Sin” sold poorly. Gram pretty much bankrolled a supporting tour with his trust fund, and it turned out to be an epic party more than a showcase for the band’s talents.
In case you don’t know the Gram Parsons story, it ends tragically, with him overdosing in September 1973 at age 27. Actually, it doesn’t even end there: Friend Phil Kaufmann stole Gram’s casket and burned the body in Joshua Tree National Park, as part of a pact the two had made.
By that time, country rock was playing regularly on Top 40 radio … with a notable exception of music by the man who started it all.