Release Date: Mar 18, 2016
Record label: Numero
Genre(s): Country, Pop/Rock, Country-Rock
Gram Parsons called his blend of country, rock, and soul "Cosmic American Music," a phrase that captured his hippie ethos: it was American music but it was mystic, an unnamable, unmistakable connective vibe that held together these 50 states. Parsons may have stitched cannabis leaves on his Nudie Suit, but his own music rarely drifted into the slipstream. The same can't be said for the 19 hippies, truckers, kickers, and cowboy angels showcased on Numero's 2016 compilation Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music.
Many bad things have been done in Gram Parsons’ name – not least by Parsons himself, a man who ultimately extinguished his talents before they’d had time enough to fully ignite. But while some will claim that the grievous angel made a damn nuisance of himself by, say, steamrolling The Byrds into Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (not least head Byrd Roger McGuinn, who had many of Parsons’ contributions cut from the album’s final mix), many forgave him his transgressions in his search for Cosmic American Music. Parsons’ evangelism may have been exhausting, but it was also entirely fitting behaviour from a man seeking to express himself through a new type of white gospel music.
It’s one of the great ironies of 20th-century pop that the man who almost singlehandedly invented country rock hated country rock. The artists who sprang up in the wake of the pioneering albums Gram Parsons made with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers were, he protested in 1972, “a plastic dry-fuck”. He apparently reserved a particular loathing for the Eagles, whose music had “too much sugar in it”, but generally regarded the genre that became the dominant style of American rock in the 70s with the kind of horror evinced by Victor Frankenstein when gazing upon the Adam of his labours.
Cosmic American Music 1968-1970 is the fifth in Numero Group’s Wayfaring Strangers series, which has previously featured similar, oddly effective compilations of one-off releases by wanna-be Led Zeppelins, Joni Mitchells, and John Faheys. This batch of never-weres and coulda-beens follow the spirit of Gram Parsons and the country rock artists sprung from the Laurel Canyon scene of the early 70s. Pete Doggett rightfully called country rock “the dominant American rock style of the 1970s” in Are You Ready For the Country, his exhaustive history of the form.
Given the increasingly indulgent nature of psychedelic music at its 1960s LSD peak, a few rock artists began to pull back from the edge. Bob Dylan, the Band, the Byrds, and the Grateful Dead all unplugged and looked to their roots for a more rustic, homegrown sound. This sometimes resulted in a turn toward country music, though it wasn’t the conservative fare of Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” or George Jones’s abject “The Poor Chinee.” Call it “cosmic country,” where the swell of a pedal steel suggests a dilation of spacetime rather than the heart swooning on a barroom floor, its practitioners sporting the shaggy locks of Gram Parsons instead of the pompadoured Conway Twitty.