There was a time, many decades ago, when "country rock" seemed an impossible combination. The notion of the long-haired, drug-addled hippies voluntarily sharing any cultural bond with a bunch of reactionary rednecks ... well, you might as well expect Thelonious Monk to team up with Buck Owens. Laughable, really. Country was the very thing rock music was fighting against, man. And vice versa.
Which is part of the reason why Gram Parsons, one of the pioneers of the improbable thing now called country rock, had such trouble coming up with a shorthand for the kind of pedal-steel-powered, soul-sprinkled, country-fried rock 'n' roll he and his Flying Burrito Brothers were laying on the masses. Parsons, who was also briefly a member of the Byrds, tried variations on "Cosmic American Music" before giving up on neologisms entirely. "We play a form of love music," Parsons said finally in a 1969 interview. "We play music of the spirit, or goose-bump music."
In the years since his death and gasoline-fueled cremation in Joshua Tree, Parsons has gained an increasingly devoted following. It's misplaced adulation, if you ask me -- Gram Parsons wrote about two great songs in his entire career; most of his output was well-intentioned but limp R&B ballads decked out in boots and dusty rhinestones. But there's no denying the fact that Parsons' music ended up opening a window onto some of the bright spots of '90s music. Uncle Tupelo, Joe Henry, Whiskeytown, Scud Mountain Boys -- they all owe a debt of gratitude to Parsons and his band of genre-forging freaks.
Those thank-you notes flutter out over the Bay Area every year in the form of the Gram Parsons tribute concert Sleepless Nights. Organized by Eric Shea from Mover, this year's event will benefit the Sweet Relief musicians' medical fund. Northern Lights CA is driving up from Los Angeles, and Billy Midnight and the Chlorine Cowboys are trucking in from San Diego. The rest are local boys, including the Court and Spark, Shea's Mover, Joe Buck, and Dura Delinquent.
And then there's Dave Gleason's Wasted Days, who are also local and also appearing at the Sleepless Nights tribute and who are sort of an embarrassment for me because they play constantly at the Ivy Room and I've been down there to see them approximately zero times.
For those of you as sorry-ass dumb as I have been, DGWD play a sort of soul holler, Laurel Canyon, long-sideburned, high-desert rock. It's got that "hey, we're all stoned and harmonious" Eagles vibe and plenty of good freewheeling Music from Big Pink-era Band roots tinklings. Gleason sounds kind of like a reedier, seedier Parsons, but with a little more fire in his belly and a lot more heartbreak on his mind.
Gleason writes the songs with bassist Michael Therieau and also plays lead guitar, coaxing notes of liquid loneliness from his Fender Telecaster. He plays with an awareness of space and pop melody that makes him kind of an anomaly in the Country Rock 101 school of hot licks. It's something the whole band shares -- this weird call to exploration that leadsthem to carve out little niches of the Mamas and the Papas within an old-fashioned Hank Williams-style drinking song (or counterpoint a pretty Velvet Underground-y harpsichord with the slash-and-yearn jangle of Gleason's lead).
And that strangeness is the thing that makes them so good, really. Far too many country rock bands launch their careers by nicking a few songs from the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo and gussying themselves up in the fashions copped from a Buffalo Springfield gatefold. Dave Gleason's Wasted Days is one of the few bands to step beyond mimicry and put the pieces together in a way that makes sense to their peculiar (and peculiarly musical) minds. Goose-bump music indeed.
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