Old music: Gram Parsons – A Song for You

The country-rock pioneer proved songwriting could be uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time

"The song is absolutely hopeless, beyond despair. It's the saddest song I've ever heard." That was Rolling Stone magazine's description of A Song for You in March 1973, reviewing the album on which it featured, GP. They meant it as a compliment.

Sadly, the studio version of A Song for You has been removed from YouTube, but this live clip from March 1973 – though not of great sound quality – shows how, for all Parsons' famous problems, he could deliver as heartbreaking a performance on stage as in the studio.

Like many great songs it's impossible to unpick from its backstory. Parsons was just 26 but already a pioneer in fusing country music to rock, first with the International Submarine Band, then the Byrds, then the Flying Burrito Brothers. He was also just six months away from dying, the result of a drug overdose.

Even without the gift of morbid retrospect, the doomed trajectory of a man vividly summed up by the same review as "a south Georgia boy with a Harvard education, a big inheritance, and a tendency to melancholy" suffuses the song. Parsons' voice always had a beyond-his-years sadness, a quality popularly attributed to a childhood marked by parental suicide and alcoholism. By the time he recorded this, the hard living added an extra heartbreaking timbre, his voice almost cracking on the higher notes. It's all beautifully balanced by the perfect, almost glacially pure harmonies of Emmylou Harris, then a little-known singer on the folk circuit.

If your only exposure to country-tinged music has been the hideously bland modern Nashville "hat acts" I'd urge you to listen to A Song for You a few times. I'm not a country fan, and when I first heard GP it took me several plays to get past an instinctive aversion to the swooping fiddles and other genre staples.

It's a wonder that a song so mournful – an almost pathetically maudlin central couplet goes: "Some of my friends don't know who they belong to/ And some can't get a single thing to work inside" – can be so uplifting and joyous.


Peter Walker

The GuardianTramp

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