JULY 19, 2017
“BRASS BUTTONS” (WRITER: GRAM PARSONS)
ARTIST: GRAM PARSONS
RELEASED 1974 ON GRIEVOUS ANGEL LP
Ingram Connor III, known in show business as Gram Parsons, grew up in Georgia and began fusing rock and roll with traditional country, folk, and bluegrass in the early 1960s. Following a stint in the International Submarine Band, he joined the Byrds in 1967, but his stint in the group was brief.
Parsons then formed The Flying Burrito Brothers, whose 1969 debut album The Gilded Palace of Sin embraced the country-rock focus taking hold in Los Angeles and also set the tone for its future growth. Again, however, Parsons found the group dynamic stultifying and soon chose to go solo.
He was a good guitar player and a better singer, capable of channeling his southern roots and mixing them with whatever other things were on his mind. His vision combined a series of previously unmixable elements: traditional songs, the Rolling Stones, R&B, the occult, Hollywood showbiz, and copious amounts of intoxicants.
Parsons recorded two albums, GP and Grievous Angel, before passing away on September 19, 1973 near the Joshua Tree Monument in southern California. Always an adventurer in consciousness alteration, he passed away from an overdose of morphine and alcohol that reportedly would have been enough to kill three people.
A quickly-forming and quickly-exploding fireball, Parsons wrote and sang passionate, lyrical, and often humorous songs that betrayed untreatable wounds and, at times, an almost boundless self-loathing…then struggled to stay sober enough to record them.
Grievous Angel, recorded in an alcohol haze and lacking a lot of new material, was released four months following his death. Despite its flaws it is a worthy epitaph, an often spectacular fulfillment of his mission—mixing rock and country, hoping to entertain people who liked one but were suspicious of the other.
“Brass Buttons,” the one song on Grievous Angel that did not feature his singing partner Emmylou Harris, dated from the 1960s and is said to be about his mother. It’s a sort of blues, but arranged and played almost like a lounge ballad, mixing a weeping steel guitar, James Burton’s electric guitar picking, and a most un-country electric piano. His vocals are fragile and beautiful, like a leaf days away from becoming mulch.