Tag Archives: Gram Parsons

Holiday harmonies, part 1: Silent Night – Modern Folk Quartet

Hi there. Merry Christmas. I hope you’re having a great festive period. I’m going to look at some harmony groups over the next week or so, starting today with something appopriate to the season.

Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds. New Edition. Modern Folk Quartet. Bands that are just perhaps more famous for giving a start to the people that passed through them on their way to bigger things than they are for their own accomplishments.

The first three you probably know about, as those groups were all successful in their own right.* Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay (later of Poco) and Jim Messina were all members of the Buffalo Springfield. David Crosby, Gene Clark, Gram Parsons were Byrds veterans. Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, Bell Biv Devoe and Ralph Tresvant between them comprise around 50% of the noteworthy new jack swing artists.

The Modern Folk Quartet, though, were not hugely successful in the US or Britain, though they retained a big following in Japan. Its members, though, are all noteworthy for their accomplishments away from the band. Cyrus Faryar went on to make solo records and played on Fred Neil’s magisterial Fred Neil and Sessions albums. Jerry Yester worked as a producer with the Association, the Turtles, Tim Buckley and Tom Waits, also moonlighting as a member of the Lovin’ Spoonful after Zal Yanovsky left. Chip Douglas joined the Turtles on bass, and produced hits for the Monkees, including Pleasant Valley Sunday and Daydream Believer. Henry Diltz became one of the finest photographers in all of rock ‘n’ roll.

The members’ individual achievements, then, are hugely impressive, so much so that they overshadow those of their band. But the Modern Folk Quartet (who became the Modern Folk Quintet when drummer Ediie Hoh joined) deserve to be remembered as one of the great harmony groups.

They sung complex, jazzy four-part, and they have what so few harmony groups can honestly claim: a really excellent voice on the bottom. Cyrus Faryar, whom I’ve written about on this blog before (at a time when I wasn’t familiar with the MFQ), had a gorgeous baritone, deep, rich and agile. He was a lead singer in his own right. They all were.

Singing together, they blended the earnest folk harmonising of the Brothers Four (same instrumental line-up of acoustic guitars, double bass and 5-string banjo, too) with a jazzy sensibility seemingly learned from the Four Freshman, the same vocal group that had a profound influence on the young Brian Wilson.

The Modern Folk Quartet made two albums in its initial early-1960s run, the first slightly heavier on trad. arr., the second leaning more towards contemporary writers including John Stewart, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. They remained very popular in Japan, though, and reformed several times to tour and release records over there. In 1990 they cut an album of Christmas carols, MFQ Christmas. Their vocal arrangements are imaginative and beautifully performed. My favourite is the brief reading of Silent Night that closes the record. The magic happens at the bottom (unmistakably Faryar)  and on the top (Diltz, I think). It’s just gorgeous.

MFQThe Modern Folk Quartet: l-r Jerry Yester, Henry Diltz, Cyrus Faryar, Chip Douglas

*Very successful really, but when was the last time you heard anyone talking about “Neil Young from Buffalo Springfield”?

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Boulder to Birmingham – Emmylou Harris

Boulder to Birmingham is Emmylou Harris’s shattered – and shattering – response to the death of Gram Parsons, from her solo debut Pieces of the Sky (she had put out a pre-Parsons folk record, Gliding Bird, that had sunk without trace, and so Sky is usually considered her debut proper). Pieces of the Sky features many of the same musicians who had played on Parsons’ GP and Grievous Angel, which I have written about before here. In that post I made a few grouses about the work of the backing band – Elvis Presley’s TCB Band – on those albums. Some of those same guys are present here too (James Burton, Glen D. Hardin, Ron Tutt), along with such quality players from the world of country rock as Bernie Leadon, Ben Keith, Billy Payne and Byron Berline. But Harris and producer Brian Ahern pulled much greater performances from the supporting cast than had been evident on Gram’s records, though. With Emmylou leading them, the band do far more than just take care of business. This isn’t showbiz. Instead, there’s a real emotional wallop on this record that I don’t find on the majority of Parsons’ solo material (but do find on the first Burritos record, just in case it seems like I’m being a Gram hater. Parsons was a frequently inspired songwriter, but I think his best recorded work was done with Chris Hillman, not James Burton, regardless of who was the better guitar player).

Harris is a reliable singer and can breathe life into even the flimsiest material (God knows she’d have to do some of that in her time), but when paired with a song of substance, she’s devastating, the keening edge of her voice just cutting right through to the song’s emotional core. But in all her long career, she’s probably never topped this vocal, and as a writer, she’s never topped this song.

The aural integrity of the recording and the quality of the musicianship evident on this record don’t come cheap, though, and Pieces of the Sky was apparently the most expensive country record ever made at the time of its release. Fortunately it was a mainstream hit and began Harris’s successful Nashville career, which lasted until 1995, when, in her late forties and facing diminishing returns in the era of Shania Twain and Faith Hill, she released Wrecking Ball and began a second career that straddled the worlds of alternative rock and trad country.

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Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams – a relistening

Listening to Tres Chicas last week in order to put something together on them for this blog led to me to spend some time – for the first time in a long while – with Whiskeytown’s records, Whiskeytown being the band that Caitlin Cary is best known for, the band that introduced David Ryan Adams to the world. These are records I’m well familiar with, having listened to them extensively around a decade ago, when I first became interested in contemporary country-rock music.

I’d heard some country music growing up, on a couple of Music for Pleasure cassette compilations that my parents played on car journeys sometimes: Crystal Gayle, Billie Jo Spears, Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, Glen Campbell, Jean Shepherd, Linda Ronstadt, Bobbie Gentry, some Willie Nelson (anyone that they could get the rights to, which led to the same artists getting featured over and over). But, being young, I didn’t get the nuances, the difference between the artists, the voices, the arrangements. It didn’t seem odd to me that Crystal Gayle’s ballads entirely forsook fiddle and pedal steel (not that I’d have known what a pedal steel guitar was, let alone what countrypolitan was) in favour of string sections and harps. I couldn’t hear that Anne Murray’s voice was different to all the other singers’ because she was Canadian. And so I grew up with a specific, context-free idea of what country was. Country music encompassed everything from Blanket on the Ground to Talking in Your Sleep, Hello Walls to When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman, and all of this was country, because the cassette sleeves said it was.

I didn’t know then that country was also Hank Williams, George Jones, Patsy Cline and Slim Whitman. I didn’t know that, say, the Eagles had made a species of country music – I’d heard them, but they weren’t on these cassettes, so evidently they weren’t country. A child’s mind is wonderfully literal.

So when I started looking into contemporary country music I didn’t want to hear the modern equivalent of that old stuff I heard when I was a kid (which probably would have meant Trisha Yearwood or something similarly polished and Nashville) – I was interested in hearing the music that was being spoken of as the carrying on the legacy of Hank Williams, or of the Outlaw artists from the seventies. Music that was rough, gritty, rootsy, melancholy, beautiful but not necessarily pretty. Music that reeked of beer and cigarettes and desperation. A college student’s mind is touchingly romantic.

Whiskeytown were considered one of the foremost examplars of this new old-school country music, so I had to hear them. What I realised soon enough is that Ryan Adams wasn’t the pure-bred country musician I thought he was. He was a former punk rocker who formed Whiskeytown five minutes after being introduced to the records of Gram Parsons and George Jones by Skillet Gilmore, who gave Adams a job in the Raleigh, NC, bar he ran and became the first drummer of Adams’ new country band.

Adams was a consummate student of music, a writer with an extraordinary gift for mimicry. This was already obvious by the time Whiskeytown released Strangers Almanac in 1998, where Adams’ debts to the Rolling Stones and Paul Westerberg began to be revealed as clearly as his Parsons love, and over the course of Pneumonia (the band’s final album, retaining only Adams and Cary from the first record) and his first two solo albums (Heartbreaker and Gold), Adams wrote songs that cribbed from Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Elton John, Alex Chilton, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen. No wonder Uncut loved him.

Many of these songs, to be sure, were great: Adams has a lot of talent, a very keen ear and the sense to surround himself with musicians who can help him get to where he wants to go (a cast list that has included Ethan Johns, Bucky Baxter, Mike Daly, Jennifer Condos, Cyndi Cashdollar, David Rawlings and Catherine Popper). But when I fell out of love with Adams and his work, I fell out hard, as he simply hadn’t given me what I was looking for, and at the same time that I was listening to him I was becoming more intimately acquainted with the work of Dylan, Young, Van and Chilton, to say nothing of Gram Parsons and Hank Williams.

For me, it’s not a damning criticism of Adams to say that he works essentially by emulation. Certainly not at this point, where I’m basically over the idea of authenticity and originality as having much bearing on the quality of art. However, the amount that Adams owes to his influences is often so clear as to become distracting, particularly on Gold, where practically every song is a love letter to one artist specifically. On a couple, Adams even sang the song in an imitation of the inspirator’s voice, to make the debt entirely clear for those who weren’t paying attention at the back. While one had to applaud the scholarship, it became a little wearing.

While his work in the decade since Gold has been uneven, it is surprising how far his critical esteem has dropped, and the degree to which he has receded from the indie consciousness. His 2011 album Ashes & Fire passed me by entirely (its single Lucky Now was essentially Daddy was a Bankrobber played slowly on acoustic guitar, and was pretty dispiriting to sit through) and generated none of the hype and anticipation that a Ryan Adams record would have done six or seven years before (love them or hate them, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Love is Hell got him a lot of press coverage).

And when I saw a video of (and was blown away by) Mandy Moore singing a live-in-the-studio version of Merrimack River, I couldn’t help but think about how long it had been since her husband (Ryan Adams) had written a song half as good, or indeed sang anything with that much emotional commitment.

There’s lots of excellent songs in Adams’ discography and he may yet end up as an Elton John figure – someone who made no faultless albums but who drifted in and out of songwriting form over several decades and cut enough great songs for an excellent double-CD best-of. There are certainly worse fates for a recording artist. Nevertheless it must be somewhat galling for him that he’s now so out of favour critically that when Laura Marling rewrote New York New York (from Gold) as Sophia, with Ethan Johns in the producer’s chair, no one who praised that song thought to mention how big a debt it owed to Johns’ first big-name client.

If you’ve never listened to the man’s work and want to give him a fair hearing, I can recommend Heartbreaker and Pneumonia without hesitation, and give qualified thumbs ups to Strangers Almanac and Gold too. And I do genuinely hope he puts out something to rival them one day.

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Whiskeytown, circa Pneumonia

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Ryan Adams, in a park

Gramming – The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Gram Parsons

There are sound reasons why the Eagles are a favourite punching bag for a certain type of music fan. But watching the first two hours of a three-hour (!) documentary film about them last night, I started imagining an alternate reality in which they’d put off making Desperado for a year and instead looked up their old hero Gram Parsons, backing him up they way they’d backed Linda Ronstadt.

Of course, that version of the Eagles contained a former Burrito Brother in Bernie Leadon, the guy who put the most country into the Eagles’ early sound, which may or may not have made that series of happenings more likely. But it’s interesting to imagine what music Parsons might have made with a slick country-rock band. For he never really worked with such an outfit: the Burrito Brothers were anything but slick on their debut album, and dispensing with their roster of little-known session drummers for full-time Michael Clarke for Burrito Deluxe didn’t exactly help them to tighten up. The TCB band on GP and Grievous Angel, meanwhile, well they sure were slick and they sure were country, but rock was quite beyond them.

Which was the point when Parsons hired them, but I’m afraid I’ve never found their work on those two Parsons records completely satisfying. I’m too seldom surprised by anything they do. In contrast, I’m constantly surprised by the Burritos. They throw every idea they have into their arrangements. They lurch through their songs, with spirit and feel prized more highly than precision. Mistakes are made and left in (my favourite is the little cough on Parsons’ (?) vocal in the left channel during the third chorus when he blows the high note (‘she’s telling dirty lies’) and the audible grin with which he sings the rest of the song.

This may sound like corny indie fetishising of the lo-tech and amateurish, but I assure you it goes deeper than that (that’s not really my style nowadays anyhow – I’m a Steely Dan fan). For all that Parsons wanted to make pure country music in 1973, he was a more interesting musician to my mind when he was mixing country up with other forms of music. The R&B influences (present in the song choices, sure, but also in the performances) on Gilded Palace, the Dylanisms, the psychedelic pedal steel guitar (played through Leslie speakers and fuzzboxes) – you add it all up and you get that thing Parsons called ‘Cosmic American Music’. On GP and Grievous Angel you get country music, with slightly chintzy Vegas trimmings, and somehow the band just don’t sound as invested in the songs as they do on Emmylou Harris’s early records, on which their playing is superb: tasteful, but empathetic and soulful too.

I guess I value Gilded Palace more because of it’s staggering/swaggering joie de vivre. It’s full of spirit and the excitement of experimentation, which makes his later work feel a little ossified by comparison. There’s great songs on those two solo records. No one with ears that work could deny Gram and Emmylou harmonising on Love Hurts, I totally understand why people get so excited by $1000 Wedding, and Streets of Baltimore is a great song, well sung. But if I was going to recommend one record to fully convey the Gram Parsons experience to someone who’d never heard him, I’d unhesitatingly point that person in the direction of The Gilded Palace of Sin by the Flying Burrito Brothers.

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Flying Burrito Brothers, 1968

Softly Through the Darkness – Cyrus Faryar

So maybe you’re a fan of folky, acoustic guitar/piano-playing singer-songwriters, but you’re already familiar with the top-division names: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Paul Simon, Carole King, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Van Morrison and so on. You know them all, and you’ve formed your opinions as to their worth. And maybe you’re well up on your cult songwriters too: Tim Buckley, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro, Tim Hardin, Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Gram Parsons, Janis Ian – you’ve heard them all, you’ve judged them all. Maybe you’re down with the likes of Fred Neil, Judee Sill and Evie Sands too, and you don’t do the more mainstream likes of John Denver, Don McLean and Dan Fogelberg.

Where can you go? Who to listen to for more of that good stuff?

This is going to be one of this blog’s recurring themes, actually. Because if you’re asking yourself that question, you’d be where I am, fifteen years or so after first beginning to work back through the big names of sixties and seventies singer-songwriterdom. I’m not putting myself forward as any kind of expert in these matters, by the way. I’m just stumbling around in the dark and sharing some of what I blunder into.

A year or so back, shortly before my hospitalisation and diagnosis, I came across mentions of Cyrus Faryar’s solo records on the internet. Not being a Modern Folk Quartet fan, Iranian-American Faryar was previously known to me as a Fred Neil sideman, a dude who played guitar on Fred Neil and Sessions and whose other work was therefore automatically of interest to me. So I downloaded a couple of tracks, one off each of his two records, Cyrus and Islands, to see what Cyrus did on his own.

He didn’t actually move very far from that sound: his is a more pop-minded and carefully arranged take on Neil’s 12-string folk-jazzery, but the similarities are clear. Faryar has a strong, light baritone, not as deep and rich as Neil’s, perhaps more agile and more adaptable, but without as much of that unmistakable charisma. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought so if I hadn’t heard Neil first, but when Faryar hits that low note on the word ‘depart’, it’s impossible not to think of Neil and the many occasions he pulled off the same trick. It’s a good trick, though: if I had the kind of voice to pull it off, I’d do it too.

Perhaps it’s unfair to keep working the Fred Neil angle here (maybe there are elements to Faryar’s music that he inherited from the MFQ, but having only heard their Phil Spector record, I can’t claim familiarity with their real sound – to me, I’m afraid, Henry Diltz is a photographer and Jerry Yester is Tim Buckley’s producer) – but perhaps if he hadn’t slipped into semi-retirement after Sessions, Neil might have taken his music down a similar road to this: drums, (that is, slightly bigger rock drums than those present on Fred Neil), tabla (Colin Walcott?), double bass, organ, strings, woodwinds, choirs – it’s a great sound.

Softly Through the Darkness is a really fine song, too. It is a slow-burner; it begins the album Cyrus (1971), and it feels like it was specifically written to start a record, taking four minutes to unwind and slowly build to its full arrangement, resolving on a wordless chorus of massed voices. Unfortunately on the album it’s immediately undercut by a pretty terrible version of Randy Newman’s I Think He’s Hiding, taken too fast, stomping inelegantly over the tempo and feel changes of the original and with a vocal conveying none of the subtle mockery of Newman’s performance. I understand why a singer might have wanted to take on a song like this, but someone should have nixed it early in the session and suggested he do I Think It’s Going to Rain Today instead.

So Cyrus (the album) isn’t a classic; there’s a couple too many missteps. But there’s four or five strong songs on it (follow-up Islands, produced by John Simon, has a mighty-good version of Neil classic The Dolphins, too) with Darkness being the pick of them, and anyone interested in Fred Neil or this kind of music should check the Faryar’s solo work out – Fred Neil original recordings are, after all, in distressingly short supply.

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The back cover of Cyrus