"People talk a lot about Gram Parsons, and they write a lot about Gram Parsons, but you never hear Gram Parsons on the radio." So said Parsons' old singing partner Emmylou Harris not long after the singer-songwriter's death in 1973 from a drug overdose. It was a comment laced with bitterness, tinged with sadness, and loaded with truth: Gram Parsons was a man for whom fame and recognition would never come--not in his lifetime, not after--though the remains of his music are still being picked over to this very day.
In the late '60s and early '70s, Parsons was the creator of rock and roll's "Frankenstein Monster," as Elvis Costello once wrote--"country-rock," that bastard amalgam now so over-used and ill-defined. It has come to mean everything from the Rolling Stones to Jason and the Scorchers, the Flying Burrito Brothers to the Jayhawks, Bob Dylan to the Replacements--rock artists all, men enamored of the honky-tonk just because it was another good place in which to drink.
But Parsons--a member of the Byrds for Sweethearts of the Rodeo, a founding Burrito Brother, a catalyst behind the Stones' Beggar's Banquet and Exile on Main Street, the man who "discovered" Emmylou Harris--was, at heart, nothing but a good ol' country boy. He was a Georgia peach who proved rotten at his core. He truly loved country and knew nothing but, finally shied away from rock, lived hard to die young and leave a beautiful memory. And more than anyone, Parsons hated the term country-rock, once referring to it as a "plastic dry-fuck."
What ultimately separates those bands labeled "country-rock" from those that are actually country bands playing rock (say, for instance, Dallas' own Liberty Valance) is a third folk element--something a bit more fragile, eloquent, poetic, evocative than the term country-rock might imply. While Jason and the Scorchers might well fit the definition, sounding at times like the Ramones fronted by George Jones, bands like the Jayhawks and Wilco most certainly do not.
"There's not a good term for it, and the term 'country-rock' unfortunately gives weight to certain bands, and it ends up being Poco and Charlie Daniels and the Eagles," says Gary Louris, singer-songwriter-guitarist for the Jayhawks. "It's usually pretty bad. It's probably more accurate to call it rock-country than country-rock when you look at the song structures. Most song structures for us are folk-oriented or straight rock-oriented with country embellishments and sounds and feel, I guess. When people say, 'Are you guys a country band?' I say, 'Well, we're as country as the Stones were country in the early '70s or the Band was country or Dylan was country.'
"I'll dabble in country music, but it's not straight country--country for purists. People who make some of the weirdest country music may be the biggest fans of old country."
Since the Jayhawks' debut in 1985, sharing Minneapolis club bills with the likes of the Replacements and Soul Asylum, they have been saddled with the Gram Parsons references like few other bands since Parsons' death. And the similarities are obvious: Louris and singing-songwriting partner Mark Olsen are the modern-day Parsons and Emmylou Harris, their voices intertwined so closely, so perfectly, so beautifully they become one entity. And like the Burrito Brothers, especially on the majestic 1969 album Gilded Palace of Sin, the Jayhawks write bleary-eyed songs that are at once rousing and hazy, fatalistic and wearily hopeful.
"People follow the Gram Parsons thing and the Flying Burrito Brothers comparisons because it's snowballed from press kits and bios and things like that, things people have heard," Louris says, dismissing the comparisons. "Although I do think we're too close to it sometimes, so we don't notice we do sound like them because of the vocals.
"I like the Replacements comparison because they were an influence on us. Though it's not so obvious, they were with us more than Gram Parsons on a day-to-day basis. I think of the Replacements every time I get up [to Minneapolis] just because it makes me want to say 'fuck you' to everybody. If I make a mistake, big deal. I can just sit back and have a good time and not worry about being this perfect band."
If there is a true comparison to make between Parsons and Olsen-Louris, it's that the Jayhawks aren't merely "country-rock," but are more like folk--fragile and sweet where country is tough and bitter, lush and poetic where rock is harsh and blunt.
The new Tonight the Green Grass is a synthesis of the albums that preceded it--a rich, bright, vibrant painting where 1986's The Jayhawks, 1989's Blue Earth, and 1992's Hollywood Town Hall were more like half-developed Polaroids. Tonight runs the gamut from bleak, dark country-folk ("See Him on the Street") to the more hopeful, brighter folky-pop of "Miss Williams' Guitar" and "Ten Little Kids" to a previously unheard dark rock side on such songs as "I'd Run Away" and "Two Hearts."
And yet, the Jayhawks make something not easily contained within easy definitions, creating sounds lesser musicians do not even hear in their heads much less commit to tape. The Jayhawks create a brand of rock and roll as dependent upon the piano as upon the electric guitar, a breed that draws its strength from string sections and sweet harmonies and quieter moments that only make the louder ones that much more startling.
A song like "Two Hearts" (in which Olsen and Louris are finally reduced to chanting a desperate chorus of "I-yi-yi-I'm lonely") or "Nothing Left to Borrow" are almost orchestrated, their simple melodies fleshed out until they become emotion. By the time both songs end, it's like they've given up--too sad to go on, too tired to make it any further. ("Nothing Left" merely ends with the repeated chorus, "Couldn't you stick around?")
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But then, from nowhere, the album ends with the rocker "Ten Little Kids"--a song that's so simple where the others are like dense short stories, one that gallops where the others lope.
"I've liked a lot of music," Louris says. "I've gone through a lot of phases, whether it's art-rock or just rock or power-pop or whatever. I listen to a lot of different stuff, but I think folk music tends to have a little more of a grounding that's hard to describe other than it's soulful and it goes a little deeper; it's a little less trivial. Of course, you're talking about the good folk music.
"Bad folk music is like bad country music--two of the worst kinds of music. Bad country and bad folk are worse than bad rock, I think. But the best folk and the best country are the greatest music there is. You really have to search it out."
The Jayhawks open for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers April 22 at the Starplex Amphitheatre.