December 15, 2011
This collection was promised in the 1990s, and finally showed up in 2011. And the wait was worth it, for this two-CD set not only revisits Gram Parsons' early recording career with the Shilos -- music that ought to be much better known -- but expands on some previously little-known corners of his life, and then proceeds to tie up some loose ends on the rest of his career, almost up to the end. The first CD, labeled "The Early Years, Vol. 1 and 2," encompasses all of Parsons' 1963-1965 folk-style sides with the Shilos, some of the finest music ever to come out of the folk revival, embracing gospel, blues, topical songwriting, etc. and all sung with a passion that is still affecting 50 years later. Those 10 songs are followed by eight solo Gram Parsons sides recorded by Dick Weissman of the Journeymen -- he was a serious but inexperienced troubadour, and clearly had something to learn about the recording medium as a performance vehicle, but the voice is there, along with seven previously unheard original compositions; the latter are mostly generic, but Parsons as a singer and performer gives them much more than passing interest, and "That Kind of Lovin'" points toward some aspects of the sound he would later be shooting for with the International Submarine Band, etc. The CD is rounded out with three sides featuring Parsons' short-lived rock band the Like, which showcase a huge leap forward for him as a singer and performer -- they could fit on any good folk-rock compilation, and place him circa 1965 coming up surprisingly close on the heels of the Byrds. There are also three country-style tracks recorded by Parsons and actor Brandon De Wilde (Shane, In Harm's Way), that are brushing right up against the country-rock sound with which Parsons would burst forth on the L.A. music scene a year or so later -- "Do Right Woman" and the first version of "Hickory Wind" are priceless additions to his output, despite the limitations of De Wilde's vocalizing.
Disc Two, titled "Big Mouth Blues," is comprised of a 72-minute interview conducted at A&M Records in which the artist ranges freely across his whole career. It starts off slowly as Parsons, clearly showing the psychic wear-and-tear of several years in the fast lane, is reluctant to look too far into his answers, but as he relaxes and opens up one gathers in a wealth of information and personal perspective, as well as the sense of a man on a downward spiral. There's also a separate DVD offering grainy (but good sounding) live performances of four songs by the Fallen Angels, plus a booklet, previously unseen pictures of Parsons at Harvard, posters, and a vinyl picture disc of The Early Years, and all of it packaged in a gorgeous box that makes this the rival to Bear Family Records' output for sheer opulence.
Bruce Eder, Rovi