It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
The first two albums Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman made together as leaders of the Flying Burrito Brothers the band continued after Parsons' departure following 1970's Burrito Deluxe--basically set the template for a couple of major strains of what became known as Americana. That's a term Parsons might have liked, since it folds in the same outlying edges folk, country, rock, soul that he was hoping to contain within his own term, "cosmic American music." When Hillman took greater charge on Deluxe, the music shifted decisively away from country and toward folk cf. the group-harmony, acoustic-driven "Farther Along." It's a good album; whereas the Burritos' 1969 debut, The Gilded Palace of Sin, remains unsettling. "Sin City" has the cast of a Pentecostal hymn a harsh one: "On the 31st floor/A gold-plated door/Can't keep out the Lord's burning rain." Parsons sings this vision of hellfire the Louvin Brothers replacing drink with scag like a kid who can't decide whether he wants a front row seat or to run. It's followed hard by a cover of Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman" that might jar if Parsons didn't sing it like a preacher as well, particularly when he presses down on the bridge: "As long as we're together, baby/You'd better show some respect for me." "Wheels" turns that old rock standby, the car song, into an existential meditation "We're not afraid to ride, we're not afraid to die . . . So come on, wheels, take this boy away" means anything as you want it to. Some of Gilded Palace remains welded to its time and place, particularly when Sneaky Pete Kleinow feeds his steel guitar through a fuzz pedal on "Wheels" and "Hot Burrito #2," or when Parsons finishes up with a recitation called "Hippie Boy." But those are more distinguishing marks than disfiguring ones on an album that makes its own world every time it's played and altered the one we live in for good.
THE BAKERSFIELD SOUND
Thanks partly to the Beatles, who covered his "Act Naturally" (sung by Ringo, the group's biggest fan), Buck Owens was, along with Johnny Cash, the biggest '60s country star with a substantial rock following. The pioneer of the "Bakersfield sound" (after his hometown in California), Owens was canny all around: pithy songwriter, instantly believable singer (he pitched woo with zero bull), and achiever of a studio polish that felt more like unvarnished but immaculately planed wood. Gram Parsons paid close, close attention. Owens made one great single after another for more than a decade, gloriously unadorned tales of loving your mom ("Dust on Mother's Bible"), loving your girl ("I've Got You on My Mind Again," which ends with a stunning sing-along), raising hell (the immortal "I've Got a Tiger By the Tail"), trying to do the right thing (a great cover of Chuck Berry's "Memphis," nodding to that rock-country line), and whooping it up ("Sam's Place," where "there's always a party"). The Buck Owens Story Volume 2: 1964-1968 is as surefire an anthology as either country music or the hallowed mid-'60s has ever coughed up.
THE SOUL QUEEN
Even in an era when rock, country and soul artists covered one another's material pretty regularly, and even with two years removed from its appearance on Aretha Franklin's Atlantic Records debut, it was pretty ballsy of Gram Parsons to tackle Dan Penn and Chips Moman's "Do Right Woman - Do Right Man" on the first Flying Burrito Brothers album. The two versions are instructive to hear back-to-back. Aretha insinuates, darts, and dips, just like the sneaky, ghostly rhythm; she internalizes the words, makes them conversational. Not Gram he seizes the lyric, declaims them forthrightly, every word enunciated like he was doing radio, just like the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other rhythm, kissed by Sneaky Pete Kleinow's mournful steel guitar. The shock isn't how different it is than Franklin's version the shock is that it takes such an opposite tack and still comes out ahead of the original. Lesson: "soul" is a slippery thing.
THE DRUG BUDDY
"He had better coke than the Mafia, did Gram," Keith Richards writes approvingly of his old running buddy in his memoir, Life. "It's not too often you can lie around on a bed with a guy having cold turkey in tandem and still get along." After quitting the Byrds on the eve of a South African tour after Richards explained what apartheid was (Parsons: "Oh, just like Mississippi? Well, fuck that"), Parsons would opt to tour with the Rolling Stones, insteador rather, hang out with Keith while he toured. Let It Bleed is the first Stones album to bear Parsons' mark, albeit lightly on "Country Honk," a throwaway hoedown version of the No. 1 single "Honky Tonk Women." Later, on Burrito Deluxe, Parsons would cover "Wild Horses" a year before the Stones' version, on Sticky Fingers, appeared.
THE HARMONY SINGER
Emmylou Harris was Gram Parsons' vocal partner on the two solo albums he finished before dying in 1974 at age 27, and her sweet restraint meshed gorgeously with his unguarded soul. On her own, Harris can be frustratingly vague, something that only became more pronounced over the years ("Michelangelo," ugh). But these 12 LP-era songs, collected in 1978, summarize her nicely. Here, she traverses the great country songbook Don Gibson, Louvin Brothers, Dolly Parton, Carter Family as well as R&B (Delbert McClinton's "Two More Bottles of Wine," which she rollicks up) and rock (Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell," ditto), and while her vision is blurrier than her old collaborator's (or even future ones like Parton and Linda Ronstadt, with whom Harris recorded a pair of successful Trio albums), if you love beautiful singing, you simply must hear what she does with "Making Believe." Not to mention "Boulder to Birmingham," her soaring eulogy to Parsons.
Gram Parsons' cultivation of the rich terrain connecting country, folk, rock, and soul paid immediate dividends, albeit for others Parsons may not have liked the Eagles much, but millions of others did. Closer to Gram's own ideas, but filtered, crucially, through the cleansing sieve of punk, were Uncle Tupelo. Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Mike Heidorn came from working-class Belleville, Illinois, right next to St. Louis, and their three albums, neatly condensed on 89-93: An Anthology, are suffused with tales of going nowhere fast with bottle in hand. It's the classic country archetype with the polish rubbed away; even Parsons' own hard-luck tales had more bounce than these cuts, which sometimes verge on dirges. But Uncle Tupelo nailed a particular kind of Midwestern sullenness beautifully, and offered glimpses of a world beyond it, particularly on 1993's Anodyne, the source of some of the loosest material here, much of it Tweedy's. The scrappy "The Long Cut," the sardonic "New Madrid" ("All my daydreams, disasters/She's the one I think I love/Rivers burn, then run backwards/For her, that's enough"), and the storming "We've Been Had" not to mention the additional members the band had taken on point straight at the more overtly experimental work Tweedy would later do with Wilco. Farrar's more stolid tone shown off best here on "Whiskey Bottle," from 1990's No Depression, the album the magazine named itself after would find a new home in Son Volt.