Monday, February 23, 2009

Song of the Week: Gram Parsons - A Song For You

"Jesus built a ship to sing a song to." At least that's the way Gram Parsons sees life. It's one of those curious lines from a song that just sticks out to me as being so quizzically beautiful that it makes me smile with wonderment every time I hear it.

This week's installment of Song of the Week is filled with those type of lines. The song is A Song For You from Gram Parsons' first solo album, GP, released in January of 1973. In my humble opinion, the song is the standout on the more than solid album. 

Gram Parsons, like all good musicians who died far too young, has become a bit of a legend. The stories of his multi-million dollar upbringing, his exploits, his death at the tender age of 26 and his bizarre burial have been overstated too many times and I won't bother to repeat them here. If you want to read about that, just go to our friend, señor wiki. What's important here is that Parsons had a major influence on the evolution of music. You need not look any farther than Wilco, Calexico, Whiskeytown or the Jayhawks to see his direct influence. Long story short, Gram Parsons is often credited with creating "country rock" through his groundbreaking work in the International Submarine Band, his stint in The Byrds, his formation of the band The Flying Burrito Brothers with fellow Byrds Alumnus, Chris Hillman, and, of course, Parsons' two solo albums. In fact, he probably gets too much credit, but I digress.

Let's get back to our Song of the Week, A Song for You. The song is simple as could be. This does not succeed because of the stellar musicianship -- which includes James Burton of Elvis Presley fame, Emmylou Harris and Barry Tashian of the Remains fame -- but because of the sincerity of Gram Parsons himself. Parsons was gifted with a sweet voice and the ability to paint a different color on your front door with his lyrics. I always get a sense that his songs are deeply personal but shared with a larger audience as a tool to articulate what he can't say to the real intended recipient: "I loved you everyday, and now I'm leaving. And I can see the sorrow in your eyes. I hope you know a lot more than you are believing, just so the Sun don't hurt you when you cry."

I'm going to cut it off here, and just ask you to stop and really listen to all the lyrics in this song. Pay particular note to how and when Emmylou Harris harmonizes with Parsons, bringing importance to some lines more than others, and how Parsons' voice wavers under the strain of his words.


  1. This is the song that really got me into the solo Gram (after loving Sweetheart of the Rodeo and the first Burrito Bros album). He really perfected that pained, vulnerable vocal quality here. I always thought the first verse seemed out of place, like it was from a different song (or abstract poem), and it does nothing to prepare us for the second verse, which is so direct and heartbreaking. I do think his best songs were the ones he wrote with Hillman on The Gilded Palace of Sin, but this performance is really moving.

  2. I think Hillman is the real unsung hero of the formation of Country Rock. He didn't do it all by himself, by any means, but he was never shy about bringing people together such as Clarence White, Bernie Leadon and Gram.

    And by the way, I love the first verse.

  3. This song is rich, both lyrically, as you've noted, and musically. I was noticing the line "Some of my friends don't know who they belong to, Some can't get a single thing to work inside." It follows the line that starts out the blog post and is equally enigmatic, at once imbued with meaning yet nonsensical. Parson's delivery lets the meaningful side carry the day and the song is full of this stuff.

    The melody seems indebted to a certain Dylan song. Anyone? I also notice qualities in the delivery that remind me of Lou Reed as well as Jerry Garcia.

    And Barry Tashian? I'd love to know what led to that connection!

    1. I recently read the book Hickory Wind, a bio of Parsons. At one point Parsons - after dropping out of Harvard - was living in Brooklyn and jamming with guys that would become the International Submarine Band. Barry Tashian came around from time to time as he knew some of the other musicians. When Parsons was in need of some musicians who had a more professional approach than he, himself had, he called on Tashian to help him out.

  4. I don't know what the Dylan song would be. To point, however, the structure of the song is not at all unique and thus could sound like any number of other songs. Essentially four major chords.

    Barry Tashian: I was stunned to see his name on this. For those who don't know, Tashian fronted a Boston area group called the Remains which released one major label record and even opened for the Beatles on their last tour. They were a very creative group who never quite hit it like they should have. I know that a few of their singles were recorded in Nashville and I had heard that Tashian settled there as a studio musician/folky in the years following.

    On a side note, about 4 years ago I saw the Jayhawks in DC and was digging on their opening act, Josh Rouse. I picked up his album, Nashville, and looked at the musicians on the liner notes. Barry Tashian's son is all over the performers and song writers credits.

  5. Let 'er stream baby.

  6. Gram Parsons seems to be one of those artists who is simultaneously crushed and buoyed by the mythical/legendary circumstances of his life and death. Though he may or may not be singularly credited/blamed for creating country-rock as we know it, I think it is indisputable that he exerted an enormous and continuing influence on roots-oriented rock 'n' roll. And though I personally don't regard him with the reverence that many folks do, I do think he penned and performed some real gems in his brief career. Morgan's SOTW pick, "Song For You", is definitely one of those gems. Parsons' plaintive and slightly hesitant vocals (which to my ears are a liability) are perfected suited to the lyrics and mood of this tune. The arrangement is beautifully understated, and of course, Emmylou sounds fabulous.

  7. When I first heard this song, I thought that it was somehow unfinished. I did not know that this was off the album that was released while he was alive, so I understand what you say GeeBee, about the vocal performance almost being a liability, but I only though that about this song in particular - Gram's vocals sound almost underproduced or more "live" than they should for a studio album.

    I must confess though that this song made me cry and cry and cry. I have never known anything like it. Admittedly, my second son had recently been born (within the last two weeks or so), and I was therefore perhaps a little more highly strung than usual, but seriously folks, I wept like a baby. Particularly that line about his friends not knowing who they belonged to. I am a songwriter, and I am also from a fairly privileged background (Gram was heir to a fortune I believe), and this song seemed to express something that I feel extremely personally. It's difficult to put into words. I had to listen to it over and over again until it didn't make me cry anymore. Strange.

    I found a quote from Emmylou about how Gram seemed to have the power to "turn a light on inside somebody" or words to that effect, and many musicians who have followed him have attested to this. I can also attest to this. this was the song that did it. It happened about three weeks after you lot had this blog conversation.

    Great song.

  8. John,

    A splendid response. I'm glad you came by and enjoyed and shared your thoughts and story. You brought a smile to my face and made me listen to this song yet again (that's a good thing).

    I hope we get to have your company around here again.


  9. This is a wonderful song, but everyone has skirted around the debate about the definitive lyrics in v1 ... "Rolls the meadows and it rolls the nails" are the printed lyrics, but it sounds more like ...rolls the mares or meres. Has anybody got any reason to know why 'nails' ? Or indeed if mares or meres would be nearer the truth?

  10. Many of the lyrics are enigmatic here. Jesus built a ship to sing a song to??? Still thinking about that one. Regarding your question, I hear meadows. I read it as the trembling land, a metaphor for his own body, rolls the world that it encompasses including meadows, and even loosens the nails of fences and barns.

    Thanks for stopping by!