FIRST OF ALL, the entire city of Nashville and its overproduced, unjustly popular mullet-wearing country music hacks can kiss my ass. Real music fans have always known that actual country music has very little in common with what's come out of Nashville for at least the last two decades. Look no further than the full-page ad taken out by Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash in Billboard magazine for evidence of the dissent in the ranks over the direction that "country" has taken. Country once was the people's music; now "country" is slick crap that wouldn't even be fit to torture Branch Davidians.
This reassertion of Gram Parson's place in the history of country music (or simply music) is therefore so welcome and refreshing. In some respects Parson's legacy is criminally neglected, but this record is evidence that his spirit is alive and well. All the assembled talent here, from Beck to Steve Earle, from Elvis Costello to the Mavericks, seems to be trying like hell to have the standout track, as through Gram himself lit a fire under their collective asses. Which would be fitting, of course, because the most memorable piece of Parsons lore involves his biker roadie buddies hijacking his corpse from the funeral procession and repairing to the Mojave, where, fittingly enough, Gram was cremated near Joshua Tree, California. So the fire burns, and the godlike talents of Parsons linger, in spite of his tragic early departure (at the age of 26) from a drug overdose.
What really stands out here is the artists' affection for their subject. I suspect that modern alt-country practitioners have a relationship with Gram similar to indie-rockers' relationship with the Velvet Underground. The tone of the record is joyful, in spite of some of the melancholy subject matter. Even the premier tear jerker, Gillian Welch's interpretation of "Hickory Wind," has a redemptive glory that, since Parson's passing, is all too rare in music. And Wilco's take on "100 Years From Now" will force even the most rhythmically challenged to rawk. There is a fair amount of sonic alchemy here (i.e., a coupla goddamn drum machines), but it works on this record. No one goes out on a limb only to have it break, which is quite surprising on a tribute album.
The standout is Whiskeytown doing "A Song For You," in some ways the most faithful to the original, which is really a song for Parson's partner Emmylou Harris, not you, gentle listener. But why not pretend? Harris, by the way, is heavily featured on this record, having been asked by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss to put it together. Why isn't this a four-star record? Because it's not a Gram Parsons record. Would that there were more of those.