Cosmic American Music and the Transcendent Brotherhood of Man

Cosmic American Music and the Transcendent Brotherhood of Man

Regardless of what you’re into, 2016 has been one of the most incredible years for music in some time. What’s more, it’s been a tremendous year for us here at TIDAL. As a means of celebrating the past year, we’re taking time in these last two weeks of 2016 to highlight the written pieces we’re most proud of, drawing from a variety of our columns, interviews and more!

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“You know man, in a lot of ways we’re an awful lot alike
Once you get down beneath the skin
Like two books with different covers but the same words inside
We’re both brothers of the wind
Now we both love our freedom and we’ll answer to no man
And you’ve heard it said to thine own self be true
We’re just a couple of free spirits drifting across the land
Doing exactly what we want to do.”

– Chris LeDoux, The Cowboy and The Hippie

There are few things in this little, old world as moving as being unified with strangers under the ethereal banner of song. Whether it’s Sunday morning services at a place worship, an anthemic stadium show among silhouetted masses or a spontaneous car ride singalong with friends, there’s something transcendent about the joining together of voices that stirs the soul.

On New Year’s Day, 1953, Hank Williams died of heart failure en route to a sold out performance in Canton, Ohio. The popular country pioneer, responsible for 35 Country & Western Top 10 hits, was but 29 years old. Upon breaking the tragic news to the packed and unsuspecting concert hall, performers and patrons alike emotionally erupted to sing “I Saw The Light,” a popular spiritual Williams was famous for penning, in union. Later, at his Nashville funeral, over 25,000 mourners did the same, deriving both grief and catharsis from the power of shared song.

Recalling the heartfelt and heavy 1953 posthumous LP, Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter, Bob Dylan writes in Chronicles: Volume One: “I just about wore [it] out. That’s the one where he sings and recites parables, like the Beatitudes. I could listen to the Luke the Drifter record all day and drift away myself, become totally convinced in the goodness of man.”

As with Dylan’s own work, the enduring magic of Hank Williams’ music is sourced in his ability to effuse the often flawed, vulnerable but ultimately redeeming nature of humanity. Although the specific intent of his music sometimes are hard to pin down, the sentiments his music evokes prove earnest and universal, eclipsing genre, geography, class and time. Who among us cannot relate to such emotions as love, loss, loneliness, anger, ecstasy and good old-fashioned, heart-dripping sorrow?

“You can call it rock and roll – or you can call it country music. I just don’t like the label country-rock,” said Gram Parsons, solo singer-songwriter and member of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. “I was brought up in the south and I never knew the difference between Negro gospel music and country music. How can you define something like that? I say it’s just music.” Born in Winter Haven, Florida in 1946, Parsons would come to coin what he called “Cosmic American Music” during his short but influential career, which is somewhat two-dimensionally recognized for first blending country music with rock and roll. 

After dropping out of Harvard in 1966 and relocating to Los Angeles in 1967, Gram Parsons founded and fronted The International Submarine Band. Influenced by the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, Buddy Holly and The Louvin Brothers, the group made their full-length debut with the critically-acclaimed and modestly success album Safe at Home in 1968. But it was later that year, after meeting bassist Chris Hillman by chance in a bank line, that Parsons was asked to join the already world famous band The Byrds, setting him on his defining path.

At first meant to merely serve as a backing jazz pianist, Parsons quickly took on the role of guitarist, singer and songwriter, persuading The Byrds to completely redefine their sound. Recorded in 1968 between Nashville and Los Angeles, Sweetheart of the Rodeo marks the first mainstream “country rock” record by a major act, bringing Parsons to the attention of the general public. Primarily consisting of covers, the near-seamless album’s only two originals, “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years From Now,” were penned by Parsons, who also sang lead on a handful of tracks.

Gram Parsons

Parsons soon after quit The Byrds while in London, midway through their international tour, to hang around with the Rolling Stones, striking up a tremendous and lasting friendship with Keith Richards, who admired the charismatic California country boy and shared his penchant for drink, drugs and down home rock and roll. Parsons would then continue crafting his Cosmic American Music with two Flying Burrito Brothers records, most notably 1969’s The Gilded Palace of Sin.

For the album art, the band donned elaborate and immediately iconic custom-made nudie suits embroidered with flowers, animals and drug paraphernalia made by the same man who tailored Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. Musically, Parsons sought to modernize the “Bakersfield sound” established by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.

Parsons then recorded two solo records, made with his lover and protégé Emmylou Harris, before tragically dying of a morphine overdose in 1973 just outside of Joshua Tree National Park. He was only 26 years old and passed just before the release of his masterful and aptly-titled Grievous Angel, which closes with “In My Hour Of Darkness,” a hauntingly prescient spiritual-come-eulogy more than a little reminiscent of “I Saw The Light.” “He could touch a chord in people,” Keith Richards said of Parsons in 2006. ”We call it ‘high and lonesome’—it’s a certain melancholy. It’s a beautiful pain. He had that to the max.”

“Another young man safely, strummed his silver stringed guitar
And he played to people everywhere some say he was a star
But he was just a country boy, his simple songs confess
And the music he had in him so very few possess
In my hour of darkness, in my time of need
Oh Lord, grant me vision oh, Lord grant me speed”

– Gram Parsons, In My Hour Of Darkness

Strictly from a sonic standpoint, Cosmic American Music synthesizes blues, country, gospel, rock and soul. In spirit, and in essence, it’s less about a sound and more concerned with a unified feeling. Drawing from the mythos of a pastoral utopia and emphasizing cowboy concepts like wanderlust and individuality, its ultimate goal is far more high-minded, emphasizing togetherness above all else.

Parsons himself hoped Cosmic American Music would bring “longhairs and rednecks together without barroom brawls.” Here, religious invocations might be understood as a shortcut to spiritual unity through a shared belief in something bigger and more beautiful than the individual. As quoted above, countryman Chris LeDoux’s “The Cowboy and The Hippie” embodies this transcendent guiding sentiment, recognizing that, when it comes down to it, we have more in common than we have in differences.

The vulnerable and flawed Hank Williams, who similarly synthesized a mix of differing genres, serves as the foremost example of proto-Cosmic American. Like Williams, Parsons embodied the “earnest outlaw,” one who cares little for himself or the establishment but has great love and compassion for others. In the paradise of Cosmic American Music, where there’s “a good saloon in every single town” as Parsons and Emmylou sing sweetly on “Return of the Grievous Angel,” openness, authenticity and humanity are held at the highest premium and the phonies are quickly found out.

“He thought that bands like the Eagles were pretty much missing the point,” Emmylou Harris said of Parsons. With their campy, costumed Desperado cover and cocaine cowboy mentality, his disinclination to the divisive Californian kings is at least consistent.

“I’ve developed some sort of rep for starting what I think has turned out to be pretty much of a country rock dry fuck,” Parsons wrote in 1972. Though this frustration is understandable given the nuance of his aim and compositions, The Eagles were undeniably born out of reverence for Parsons’ image, and their success is a lasting testament to the huge scope of his influence. Similarly, major players like The Grateful Dead, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and Warren Zevon based much of their sound off of his Cosmic American blueprint and as countless others followed suit, “country rock” quickly became the predominant music of the 1970s.

Given such horrific events of the late 1960s – the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, the Zodiac Killer and the Manson Family – this major societal shift as reflected in the art of the era makes logical sense. As the dust settled on that tumultuous time, Parsons offered an attractive and unifying kind of music, drawing from all corners of American musical expression and with the aim of inspiring singalong style togetherness in the spirit of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

On their essential, recently-released compilation, Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music, trusted archival label The Numero Group expertly highlights some of this deescalating decade’s finest overlooked material. And although its mainstream dominance has long since subsided, a long, clear lineage of Cosmic American Music would continue on through the years, and occasionally even boil over, as it did around the turn of the new millennium with “alternative country” acts such as the Long Ryders, Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and Ryan Adams.

But in 2016 no artist bears this guiding torch as well as Sturgill Simpson. Like Parsons and Williams before him, Simpson has defied expectations and evaded corporate definitions with every step. “A lot of journalists, it feels like they want to lure me into being the poster boy, and talk shit about modern country, and I just don’t have anything to really offer there,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year in the tellingly titled story, “Is Sturgill Simpson Country Music’s Savior? Not If He Can Help It.”

Sturgill Simpson (Photo: Reto Sterchi)

In 2014, following his enjoyable albeit conventional debut, High Mountain Top (2013), Sturgill Simpson sent a shock-wave through the Nashville establishment with his Dave Cobb-produced sophomore effort, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, a critically and commercially acclaimed album that he jokingly refers to as his “hippie love record.” Unthinkably psychedelic for “country,” through oft-compared to the “outlaw country” of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, Metamodern Sounds is but another example what art can achieve when the unwritten expectations of genre are paid little mind. Further defying the popularly perceived practices of conventional country, the album touches on a broad spectrum of stimulating subjects ranging from Hindu cosmology to hard drugs.

And while Sturgill’s rich-as-bourbon voice and unrestrained penchant for twang certainly ask you to continue calling him “country,” his official Facebook page offers an aptly broader sprawl, listing “roots, “soul” and “country blues” as his genre.

With his brand new, universally-hailed third LP, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, Simpson further proves Cosmic American Music to be the only descriptor that’s broad yet ideologically unified enough to suit his expansive vision. Whereas it’s preposterous to imagine Dierks Bentley covering Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” just as it’s unlikely to expect a dark and introspective odyssey album from Jason Aldean, Simpson feels free to explore the entirety of the cosmos without justification, guided by his wanderlust fascination with the undefined; or as Son Volt’s Jay Farrar put it, “searching for a truer sound.” As was the case with Parsons, “country” simply isn’t big enough for the ambition of Sturgill Simpson, a man poised for crossover greatness, a modest country boy that the whole world could feasibly come to know and love.

With its elaborate horn flourishes, soulful breaks, deep, dark corners and soaring finish, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is one of the finest album of the year so far and one that demands to be heard from start to finish. It’s a beautiful, universal record that’s as timeless as it is ahead of its time.

Much like in the late 1960s, this moment in time is characterized by seemingly insurmountable divisiveness on seemingly all fronts. But in the face of this endless splintering stands Sturgill Simpson with his amorphous, metaphysical music built on togetherness and the commonality of the human experience. Though it’s hard to say whether Simpson marks the beginning of a yet another mammoth musical trend as Parsons once did, it’s easy to see that he’s making the kind of music that, at least ideologically, we need now more than ever: music that’s open, free and affirmative of the transcendent brotherhood of man.

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