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Classic Album Reviews: Gram Parsons | Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels: Anthology + Emmylou Harris | Anthology: The Warner / Reprise Years

Two anthologies deilver the finest moments from the alt-country stars' careers.

This came out in 2001 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):


Country-and-western couples have usually been married: Johnny and June, Tammy and George, even Faith and Clint. But there’s one classic pairing that never tied the knot — Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.

On the surface, they couldn’t have been a more unlikely duo. He was a Southern trust-fund baby. She was an Army brat raised in New England. He had an Ivy League education. She was a cheerleader. He loved booze and drugs. She was a cheerleader. He was a rock star, jetsetting around with The Byrds and The Rolling Stones. She was a single mom working as a waitress and struggling as a folksinger.

But when Parsons and Harris met, theirs was a match made in heaven — a pairing of musical soulmates whose two voices meshed seamlessly and beautifully into a distinct entity greater than the sum of its parts. Their pairing was tragically brief, but bright and brilliant. And it’s touchingly chronicled in this pair of essential new anthologies from reissue label Rhino.

The two-CD Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels tells Parsons’ side of the story. A tragic figure if there ever was, this free spirit of the ’60s made just six studio albums — one with The International Submarine Band, one with The Byrds, two with The Flying Burrito Bros. and two solo discs — before fatally overdosing in 1973. But in the space of that amazing six-year run, his blend of country music and hippie soul — which he dubbed “Cosmic American Music” — effected changes to roots music that echo to this day. No Parsons, no Eagles. No Eagles, no California rock. Simple as that. The evidence of Parsons’ gift is everywhere on this 46-song set, which contains some of country-rock’s finest moments: His timeless songs like Hickory Wind, Sin City, and Hot Burritos #1 and #2; his inspired covers of everything from Merle Haggard (I Must Be Somebody Else You’ve Known) to Aretha Franklin and The Bee Gees (Do Right Woman and To Love Somebody, like you’ve never heard them) to Mick and Keith (Wild Horses, a song they wrote in homage to Parsons and gave to him a year before they recorded it). And, of course, his breathtaking duets with Harris — melancholy laments and heartbreak odes like Love Hurts (yes, that Love Hurts) that will shiver your spine and moisten your eyes. For the record, the set has one ultra-rarity: The only unreleased Parsons cut known to exist, a demo of Knee Deep in the Blues. But really, every cut here is a treasure.

The double-disc Harris set Anthology: The Warner / Reprise Years isn’t far behind. It begins where Parsons’ saga ends, with Emmylou venturing out on her own to continue his work, pouring her mourning into heartbreakingly beautiful tracks like Boulder to Birmingham (“I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham / If I thought I could see your face”). Soon, though, Harris succeeded not only is keeping Parsons’ message alive, but in spreading it farther than he ever did, thanks to a decades-long string of country chart-toppers: Together Again, Two More Bottles of Wine, Beneath Still Waters, (Lost His Love) On Our Last Date and To Know Him Is To Love Him. She didn’t write many of them, but boy, she knew how to pick ’em. And with her flawless soprano and musical adventurousness — a trait she learned from Gram — she knew how to sing ’em. She still does; many call 2000’s Red Dirt Girl (sadly, not represented here) her best album yet.

Throughout her long and varied career, though, Parsons has remained a constant touchstone to which she returns. Sometimes with others — she organized a tribute CD a couple of years back. Sometimes on her own — 1984’s Ballad of Sally Rose chronicled their musical relationship in songs like White Line and lyrics like: “You showed me the way but now you’re gone … Victim of this road you led me on … Now I am the only survivor … I’ll be the keeper of the flame.”

No, they never married. But with a bond that timeless and unbreakable, who needs to bother with marriage?