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July 18, 1999|ROBERT HILBURN

VARIOUS ARTISTS

"Return of the Grievous Angel:

A Tribute to Gram Parsons"

ALMO Sounds

* * * *

Just seeing that such respected artists as Emmylou Harris, Beck, the Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow and the Mavericks participated in this tribute should be evidence enough that the late Gram Parsons was someone special.

But the value of this collection isn't merely that it may introduce you to Parsons, the country-rock pioneer who was one of the greatest talents to pass through the Los Angeles pop-rock scene--someone whose style has been echoed in the country-rock leanings of everyone from the Rolling Stones and the Eagles to scores of contemporary bands, including Wilco and Son Volt.

Most of these passionate versions of songs written by or associated with Parsons reflect so well the soulful innocence and longing of his music that they transcend the usual limitations of tributes. Co-produced with Paul Kremen by Harris, who shaped her own musical vision while touring and recording with Parsons in the '70s and went on to become the most imaginative female ever in country music, this isn't simply an affectionate tip of the hat to Parsons, but an extension of his legacy.

Chris Hillman (who co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers with Parsons) and country-rocker Steve Earle, for instance, nail the restless, honky-tonk spirit of "High Fashion Queen." Wilco shows such authority on its rowdy version of "One Hundred Years From This Day," a song Parsons wrote while briefly with the Byrds, that the track sounds like an outtake from "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." And Gillian Welch's caressing rendition of "Hickory Wind," one of Parson's signature songs, is so delicate and affecting that it's hard to imagine Welch not making it a fixture in her live shows.

Best of all is the dream teaming of Beck and Harris on "Sin City," the tale of innocence and temptation that Parsons and Hillman wrote during the Burrito days. The song, a blueprint for the Eagles' "Hotel California," largely defined Parsons' vision, which was drawn equally from the sentimental strains of such country heroes as Merle Haggard and the rock 'n' roll swagger of the Stones.

Parsons, a Harvard dropout, spent much of his life in a struggle with alcohol and drugs, and died in 1973 of a combination of morphine and alcohol in a motel room in Joshua Tree, Calif. He was 26.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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