The world of Alternative Country has certain sacred anchors. These “anchors” are songs, people, and places that act as staples of identity for the fluid genre. Places like Bristol (the site of the famous 1927 Bristol Sessions) and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. People like Gram Parsons. And songs like “Sin City.”
Gram Parsons is particularly important to Alternative Country music. He was doing alt-country before there was such a thing. A member of the Byrds in the late 1960s and founder of the legendary band The Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons officiated the marriage between Rock ‘n Roll and Country music. Replacing David Crosby in the Byrds in 1968, Parsons helped steer them in an unmistakably folky direction. It was Parsons who masterminded the album Sweetheart of the Rodeo—the seminal folk rock album of the late sixties.
But it was in his own band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, where Parsons came into his own, doing an esoteric mix of psychedelic rock and pure country music. But Parsons didn’t have long to perfect his sound. He overdosed on heroin on September 19, 1973, at Joshua Tree in California, leaving behind just enough music to make him legendary, influential, and diverse.
Anybody who is making country music today knows Parsons. And the Alternative Country world is more indebted to him than just about anybody else. Part of it is certainly the myth surrounding him. It is a dark, sad advantage not being around long enough to make a bad record.
More so than being talented, Parsons was a true innovator. He took what he loved (old time country music) and where he was (1960s Rock ‘n Roll scene) and made something brand new. He didn’t invent the wheel—that was Dock Boggs, The Carter Family, Lead Belly, and Hank Williams—Gram Parsons just put it to good use.
Take the song “Sin City,” for example. The legendary second track off of The Flying Burrito Brother’s 1969 opus The Guilded Place of Sin has been covered by Dwight Yokam, Ryan Adams, and Uncle Tupelo—to name a few. Every couple of years a new cover of “Sin City” comes out of the woodwork somewhere in the Alt-Country world (recently, it was a great rendition by newcomer Ronnie Fauss). But why?
Why has Parsons, and “Sin City” in particular, survived and thrived? The answer is, I would contend—it’s timeless and timely.
Picture the United States in 1969—the climax of the counterculture. Society was rapidly changing and “prophets” like Lennon, Dylan, and Garcia were heralding in a new kingdom. This kingdom promised redemption and public repentance of the sins of consumerism, conservatism, and collectivism. The traditional language of “Sin City” blended perfectly with the secular post-millennial-esque personality of the 1960s.
This old earthquake’s gonna leave me in the poorhouse
It seems like this whole town’s insane
On the thirty-first floor your gold-plated door
Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain
It was an Old Testament-like anti-materialist prophecy. The language works because it connects the timeless to the timely. Parsons was so good at this that forty years after his death, his music still connects. The first part of the chorus gets at alienation—a disease common to man. Then comes the sin (or idol), money—the gold-plated door. And after the naming of the idol comes a looming judgment. Like the prophets of the Old Testament it calls for repentance.
“Sin City” is an interesting case study on how effectively biblical, or semi-biblical, imagery can create such an impactful and lasting aesthetic. In the case of Parsons, the biblical imagery he used in “Sin City” and throughout his career has long outlived the artist himself.
Roman 1:20 is true. And Gram Parsons is a great example of how true it is. Parsons figured out how to merge the old and new, sacred and saeculum (the current age). Parsons tapped into the aesthetics of the Creator to further the worship of creation.
Churches and Christians could stand to learn something from Parsons’s timeless timeliness. Parsons’s methods find their brilliance in simplicity. He did it through the use of the timeless—biblical imagery, traditional instrumentation—interacting with the timely (the cultural sins of the time). If anything could be learned from Parsons, forty years after his death, is that we cannot understand where we are without the past. And since the gospel is news, at once timeless and timely, we would do well to take heed from the creative direction of Gram Parsons and give people what we have to offer right where we have to offer it.