Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Ill-Fitting Tributes

Two new tribute LPs offer the typical hodgepodge while pointing up the genius of the original artists

By Bill Friskics-Warren

JULY 26, 1999:  It might seem a stretch to say so, but Gram Parsons, the man widely touted as the father of country-rock, was the consummate Hegelian. Granted, he was no philosopher, at least not in the academic sense, and his affective approach to music would have had no use for Hegel's assiduous logic. Nevertheless, much as the 19th-century metaphysician did, Parsons saw life's contradictions as part of a larger, transcendental whole.

He embraced the backwater piety he was weaned on and the rationalistic theology he gleaned while at Harvard. He spoke of an admixture of country, soul, and rock 'n' roll he dubbed "Cosmic American Music." He dreamed of a fraternity of hippies and hillbillies and bore witness to that vision by having marijuana leaves stitched across his sequined Nudie jacket. However incongruous, even quixotic, such syntheses might have seemed--and at the time, they indeed seemed weird--Parsons not only believed they made sense, he knew that the tension that existed within them gave them their power.

Parsons proved as much with many of the pathos-drenched sides he recorded with the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and on his own before drink and drugs stopped his heart 26 years ago at age 26. Steeped in the moral and spiritual displacement he knew and saw around him, Parsons' lyrics offered a tonic for the facile optimism of the '60s counterculture. Conversely, these draughts of hillbilly existentialism, spiked as they were with a soulful, stoner groove and rendered in his fractured, magnolia-sweet drawl, conveyed a sense of peril that made the Outlaw country of the day sound tame by comparison.

Oddly enough, the tension that animated Parsons' music was largely absent from the country-rock movement he unwittingly sired. In the hands of such Hollywood spawn as the Eagles and Poco, Parsons watched his haphazard yet visionary synthesis collapse into a mere hybrid--a hummable, highly stylized knockoff that he dismissed as a "plastic dry-fuck." Had Parsons lived to hear it, he doubtless would have appreciated the fervor of Jason & the Scorchers, the Silos, and the Jayhawks, as well as that of Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam, and Steve Earle. But judging by Return of the Grievous Angel, the second Parsons tribute album to appear in the last six years, the intangible quality that gave his music such resonance remains elusive to his acolytes even today.

Masterminded by Parsons protg Emmylou Harris, Return of the Grievous Angel features many of the usual alt-country and alt-rock suspects performing songs recorded and, with one exception, written by Parsons. Harris, for example, duets with the Pretenders, Beck, and Sheryl Crow, by turns, on "She," "Sin City," and "Juanita." The playing is committed throughout, even if the disc's four Glyn Johns-produced tracks hew a little too closely to the sterile L.A. professionalism of his work with the Eagles.

The album also offers a decent overview of Parsons' career. The one glaring omission is the lack of any material from his first bona fide group, the International Submarine Band. Surely such Parsons originals as "Luxury Liner" and "Blue Eyes" from the ISB's Safe at Home belong here before "Sleepless Nights," an Everly Brothers track that Parsons didn't have a hand in writing. Elvis Costello offers an affecting enough reading of the song, but the tribute might have been served better had he taken another crack at Parsons' wrenching "How Much I've Lied," an overwrought cover of which Costello included on his 1982 country detour, Almost Blue.

Not surprisingly, the artists who tend to fare best on Return are those who have some feel for Parsons' music--such as Chrissie Hynde, whose snarling resentment heightens the class consciousness inherent in "She." Or Raul Malo, who invests The Mavericks' vaguely techno remake of "Hot Burrito #1" with enough Jimmy Webb-styled melodrama to skewer the "someone left the cake out in the rain" self-pity of Parsons' original. Even Wilco, guys who usually just wanna have fun, put a knowing spin on the cautionary "One Hundred Years From Now," turning it into a Byrd-flipping romp. Chris Hillman, Parsons' two-time bandmate (who teams up with Steve Earle here for a woozy update of "High Fashion Queen"), said in a recent interview that Wilco's track sounds like the Burritos live circa The Gilded Palace of Sin.

Lucinda Williams and Whiskeytown don't add anything to their tracks, but it hardly matters: These native Southerners sound as though they've been singing Parsons' songs all their lives. This affinity doubtless enables Williams, with help from David Crosby on harmony vocals, to overcome her band's wooden playing on the title cut. It also gives Whiskeytown enfant terrible Ryan Adams the chance, on his willowy rendition of "A Song for You," to justify the clack about his being Parsons' heir. Better, though, is Ozark-born cousin Crow, who imbues the Burritos' dissolute "Juanita" with a suitably trashy air.

This facility is conspicuously absent from much of the rest of the disc. Beck, for example, sashays through the apocalyptic "Sin City" as if it were a jaunty variant of "The Tennessee Waltz." Adding insult to injury, his clumsy phrasing brings to mind a carpetbagger whose tongue still trips over the phrase "Y'all." But at least the garbage-pail kid goes down trying. On their trance-like, never-ending rendering of "Ooh Las Vegas," the Cowboy Junkies sound utterly detached, and Evan Dando's feigned insouciance on "$1,000 Wedding" merely comes off as coy. Gillian Welch's glacial, Daniel Lanois-inspired reading of "Hickory Wind" is worse: Smitten by the beauty of her own voice, Welch seems impervious to the longing in what is perhaps Parsons' greatest lyric.

Such flaws would hardly be as egregious if these tracks were the only introduction to Parsons' music available. But given the ubiquity of his myth, and the existence of definitive covers by Dwight Yoakam, the Mekons, and others, the inclusion of singers who can't summon Parsons' pathos seems gratuitous. For that matter, with all of Parsons' unsurpassed original recordings still in print, the existence of yet another tribute album seems superfluous as well.

Well, almost. If one track here tips the scales in the disc's favor, it's the Rolling Creekdippers' album-closing benediction, "In My Hour of Darkness." Parsons' own recording of the song was a moving hymn, in part a eulogy for former Byrd Clarence White. But here, when Jim Lauderdale, Mark Olson, and Buddy Miller harmonize on the lines, "The music he had in him/So very few possess," the words take on new meaning. Serving as an elegy for the writer himself, they testify to the prescience of Parsons' transcendental vision.

More than enough "Oar"

It's been interesting to watch as Oar, the 1969 album recorded in Nashville by former Moby Grape guitarist Alexander "Skip" Spence, receives an unprecedented amount of attention 30 years after its release. It's a remarkable LP, a visionary collection that refuses to fit comfortably into any one genre. As folk music, it's as iconoclastic as anything Bob Dylan ever recorded; as rock music, it's much further out than the mainstream countercultural fodder that was emanating from the Woodstock generation's speakers. No wonder that some of today's more adventurous alt-country acts would seize on it as a kind of holy relic.

That the album is generating so much interest in 1999 says something about its timelessness. Much as it might be a product of the '60s, just like the music of Brazil's Tropicalia movement, it's a document that manages both to define and transcend its moment.

Oar's resurgence can be chalked up in part to the efforts of producer Bill Bentley, who has compiled More Oar, a tribute album to Spence and his lone masterpiece. To his credit, Bentley admits in the liner notes that the last thing record consumers need is another tribute album ("especially when most of them suck"). Even so, More Oar suffers from the very same things that compromise most every such collection. Not only is the material uneven, but for all the featured artists' earnestness, few of them do justice to Spence's original vision.

To be fair, More Oar is plenty better than a lot of tribute albums: The sampling of performers is broad but not all over the map, and this particular volume benefits from the fact that it replicates the actual sequence of Spence's original LP, along with the five bonus tracks that resurfaced on Sony's 1991 reissue of the album. As with all such exercises, the question comes down to whether you like the artists and what they do with the material in question.

In this regard, More Oar is definitely a mixed bag. Lowlights include Jay Farrar's "Weighted Down" and Robyn Hitchcock's "Broken Heart"--but I'll admit that's only because I've tired of both these singers, each of whom connects with his material only in the most predictable way. Hitchcock's contribution is especially disappointing, if only because "Broken Heart" is one of Spence's most commanding tunes, and the singer renders it utterly flat in his reedy voice.

On the other hand, Tom Waits' "Books of Moses" reaffirms his status as an ace interpreter of songs. He demonstrates a clear understanding of Spence's original, yet he makes the tune completely his own. Likewise, Alejandro Escovedo plumbs the longing in Spence's "Diana," cranking up the volume a notch and bringing out the carnal urges that linger under the surface of so many of Oar's compositions.

Then there are the many tracks that occupy some kind of middle ground--they're hardly execrable, but they don't really elaborate on Spence's uniqueness. (Granted, that's a tough thing to do--these songs were so artfully realized in their original conception.) As a result, the last five tracks on More Oar are the most interesting, if only because the original versions (dug out of Sony's vaults years after the album's original release), were recorded by Spence as rough sketches, pulsing with pounding drums, elastic bass, and no guitar whatsoever. The last five artists on More Oar are given the chance to flesh them out into fully developed songs.

Yet even this freedom yields mixed results. Engine 54 turn in the album's worst cut with a useless reggae version of "It's the Best Thing for You." But they're preceded by New Zealander Alastair Galbraith, who, perhaps better than anyone else on this LP, captures the haunting, otherworldly vibe that courses through Oar. Meanwhile, Beck, the artist whose own music seems most in line with Spence's willful iconoclasm, turns in a version of "Halo of Gold" that sounds just like--well, Beck. As a recording, it's arguably the freshest, most inventive thing on the album, but it doesn't really speak to Spence's own peculiar genius.

However, it's clear from Beck's mishmash of folk and other styles that he owes some debt to Spence. Indeed, there's no doubting that each of these artists has a genuine desire to give Spence's music the recognition and respect it deserves. And if this collection succeeds in doing that, it's done a great thing indeed. But the fact is--and this holds true for pretty much every damn tribute album released over the last 10 years--nothing beats the original.

Fortunately, for the fourth time in this record's long and curious history, Oar is once again available to record buyers. Sundazed Records has restored the album's original mix (which was altered on Sony's previous reissue) and has dug up another sampling of unreleased tracks in the process. If you want to hear what all the fuss is about, start here.

--Jonathan Marx

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