In 1969, The Flying Burrito Brothers welcomed listeners into their Gilded Palace of Sin. The album, released on Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ A&M label, heralded a new style of music – one which co-founder Gram Parsons would famously dub “Cosmic American Music.” Indeed, the sounds emanating from this Palace were, at the same time, surprisingly traditional and completely radical. For the Burritos melded the harmonies of the Everlys or the Louvins with the gutbucket soul of the deep south, the instrumentation of classic Nashville, and the experimentation of psychedelia. The sound created on The Gilded Palace of Sin would come to be known as country-rock, and influence a generation of performers, perhaps most notably the Eagles but also bands from Poco to Wilco. Intervention Records has recently given the deluxe audiophile treatment to this landmark cult-classic album, with a new 180-gram vinyl pressing. (A hybrid stereo SACD edition will follow later this year, as well.) Intervention’s reissue is both faithful to the sound of the original LP while actually improving on it.
That this was no ordinary country record, or rock record, was evident from the very first track. “Christine’s Tune” was written and sung by Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, both late of The Byrds. (Parsons had also been a member of The International Submarine Band, itself a progenitor of the country rock genre.) The band was rounded out by Chris Ethridge on bass and “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow on steel guitar, while the drum seat was occupied by a number of musicians including “Fast” Eddie Hoh. “Christine’s Tune” has a classic country-and-western storyline about a woman who’s a “devil in disguise,” but underneath the harmonies and Parsons’ acoustic style was Hillman’s psychedelic electric guitar on the verge of a freakout, and Kleinow’s offbeat steel playing – both captivating and disconcerting. (Bernie Leadon, who served in the group as of its second album and went on to join the Eagles, noted that Kleinow usually played an eight-string Fender cable pull steel tuned to B6 instead of the expected C6. He played in a jazz style that others might typically have used an E9 tuning for, and utilized a fuzzbox and played his instrument through a rotating Leslie speaker, to add unusual effects.) Kleinow’s presence was a reprieve for the steel guitar, an instrument that had been largely eschewed by Nashville in the wake of the lush, pop-oriented Nashville Sound.
Parsons and Hillman’s cautionary tale of “Sin City” was another classic country lament (“This old earthquake’s gonna leave me in the poorhouse/It seems like this whole town’s insane…”) but with striking religious imagery, as well. Parsons and Hillman weren’t pulling any punches in bringing the rootsy country sound they loved – one which had been largely pushed to the side in the countrypolitan era – and fusing it to a youthful rock-and-roll sensibility.
A number of the Parsons/Hillman originals were very much of their time. “My Uncle” juxtaposed a jaunty bluegrass melody with the narrator’s story of “heading for the nearest foreign border” to evade the draft, very much a specter lingering over young men in 1969. “Wheels,” too, was transporting – a typical country song in its longing and plea to “come on wheels, take this boy away,” but also with a spiritual streak and likely drug references, as well. Chris Etheridge’s barroom piano lends another happily unexpected grace note to the track. Hillman recites the spoken-word “Hippie Boy” which ends the album on a note of sadness and tragedy. (It was a direct reflection on the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots.)
Ethridge teamed with Parsons to write two of the album’s standout tracks, “Hot Burrito No. 1” and “Hot Burrito No. 2.” Elvis Costello retitled the former “I’m Your Toy,” reasoning that the original title was dignified enough for this beautiful ballad which underscores the influence of southern soul writers like Dan Penn on the Burritos. Both “No. 1” and the more driving “No. 2” feature quavering, tender leads from Parsons, joined on “No. 2” by Hillman and Ethridge on background vocals. Barry Goldberg stepped in to co-write “Do You Know How It Feels” with Parsons, grafting a melancholy, classic country lyric to catchy melody ripe for a saloon sing-along.
The Gilded Palace of Sin‘s two covers were significant reminders of the R&B and soul underpinning, too. Both were written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman: “Do Right Woman” and “Dark End of the Street.” Though the songs undoubtedly belong to Aretha Franklin and James Carr, respectively, Hillman, Parsons and the Burritos traced a direct line from Memphis to Nashville – via Los Angeles, where the album was recorded. (Note that “Dark End” is credited on the album to Penn’s most frequent writing partner, Spooner Oldham. This is not an error on Intervention’s part, but rather is just faithful to the original LP sleeve.)
Parsons only lasted for one more album with the Burritos, while Gilded Palace turned out to be Chris Ethridge’s debut and swansong with the band. By the time of the band’s fourth album, released in 1972, Chris Hillman was The Last of the Red Hot Burritos. Since then, various iterations of the band have formed and re-formed, and one such splinter group called The Burrito Brothers still tours today. Gram Parsons died in 1973, having furthered his musical mission with a pair of solo records featuring Emmylou Harris – the second of which was released after his untimely death. The Gilded Palace of Sin is still the most cohesive record of Parsons’ career, on which he crystallized his ambitions and talents into a singular piece of art. Though few originally bought the record, its reputation quickly grew among artists and collectors alike, and its influence from pop to alt-country can hardly be understated.
Intervention’s splendidly detailed remaster of The Gilded Palace of Sin maintains the almost woozy, psychedelic ambiance of the album produced by the band, Larry Marks, and Henry Lewy, while bringing vivid detail and clarity to the stinging guitars, tight harmonies, and especially Chris Ethridge’s bass which anchors the LP with resonance. Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio has remastered (100% AAA analog, notes the label) from a 1/2″ safety copy of the original stereo master tapes as housed in the Universal vaults. This RTI pressing, on heavyweight vinyl, lives up to its promise of being “dead quiet” and makes a powerful case for the warmth of its analog sound. The LP, boasting period A&M labels, is housed in a protective sleeve within a sturdy Stoughton-printed “tip-on” jacket, replicating the original artwork.
A visit to the influential Gilded Palace of Sin has rarely been as pleasurable as on this latest top-notch release from Intervention Records – a hot Burrito, indeed!