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The Flying Burrito Brothers

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Starring one of America’s most revered singer/songwriters, GRAM PARSONS, The FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS were the coolest country-rock combo to take to the stage. The turn of the 70s had seen psychedelic music make way for prog-rock, but sticking to their laurels, these soft-shoe slickers maintained a lineage that could be traced back to HANK WILLIAMS, The LOUVIN BROTHERS and The DILLARDS. When the aforesaid solo-bound PARSONS took flight in spring 1970 (he’d previously flown the coop from The BYRDS), the FBB had lost their mentor, their meal-ticket, and the motivator, in one fell swoop. As it turned out, country music itself indubitably lost out with the premature passing of “G.P.” on September 19, 1973; he was nearly 27 years old.
Formed late 1968 in Los Angeles, California, BYRDS songsmiths Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman – who’d revolutionised classic country-rock a la “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” – turned jam sessions into a long-held vision of a “Cosmic American Music”. Roping in pedal steel maestro “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow (a former part-time Byrd), bassist/keyboardist Chris Etheridge (ex-INTERNATIONAL SUBMARINE BAND; alongside Gram), and a floating dispense of drummers by way of guest Jon Corneal, Popeye Phillips, Eddie Hoh and Sam Goldstein, this troupe of musical outlaws cut one of the all-time-great country-rock records in THE GILDED PALACE OF SIN (1969) {*9}.
Equal parts C&W, gospel and R&B, the poignant `Hot Burrito No.1’ and `Hot Burrito No.2’ (Gram’s fragile voice eternally on the point of cracking), and back-to-back versions of Chips Moman & Dan Penn staples, `Do Right Woman’ – DAVID CROSBY on harmonies – and `Dark End Of The Street’ were almost sublime. On more up-tempo numbers like `Christine’s Tune’ and `Sin City’ (imagine a steely EVERLY BROTHERS), the Burritos cut a swaggering country rug like no one else.
On stage and image-wise, the A&M-endorsed quartet were just as vivid; custom-made “Nudie Suits” and foxy hippy chicks, the order of the day. Clearly playing Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry (as The BYRDS had done previously), was out of the question, though Parsons was no doubt past caring about the head-in-the-sand opinion of the tight-knit country establishment.
Yet the “rock” hierarchy was equally blinkered in its diverse opinion at the time, and as a result the band made little impact outside their native L.A.; despite a support slot at The ROLLING STONES’ ill-fated Altamont gig. Messrs Jagger & Richards were big fans of the band; the latter especially; building up a close friendship with Gram. However, as the unorthodox pairing spent more and more time together, the singer’s interest in the Burritos began to wane.
Leading up to their sophomore set, BURRITO DELUXE (1970) {*7}, Etheridge was unhappy with minor-to-moderate sales figures, and exited forthwith. Bernie Leadon on vocals, guitar, dobro (ex-DILLARD & CLARK) was drafted in, whilst the vacant drum-stool had been filled by Michael Clarke (ex-DILLARD & CLARK); Hillman now switched to vocals, bass and mandolin.
The said album was certainly more upbeat than its predecessor, but despite such enduring Parsons and/or Hillman material such as `Cody, Cody’ and `Older Guys’ (with Leadon), the record lacked the focus and sense of purpose of its predecessor. The aforesaid ‘Stones connection had warranted an exclusive pre-“Sticky Fingers” cover of `Wild Horses’, but apart from a re-tread of DYLAN’s `If You Gotta Go’, anaemic covers of `Image Of Me’ (a hit for CONWAY TWITTY) and `Farther Along’, the LP failed to convince any country cousins from both sides of the big pond. In essence, Gram was only really half there; his mind possibly wavering to thoughts of subsequent solo stardom – therefore Hillman sacked him!
There was no doubting that The FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS was Gram’s (and Chris’s) baby, and when that baby failed to develop, creatively or otherwise; especially after its founding father’s departure, the whole project could’ve easily been thrown with the bathwater. As it turned out, the remaining four alumni roped in Rick Roberts – an as yet undiscovered singer/songwriter in his own right – in order to get back on track with THE FLYING BURRITO BROS (1971) {*6}. Although sales figures for Billboard’s 200 picked up a tad, their reliance of cover versions by way of MERLE HAGGARD’s `White Line Fever’, GENE CLARK’s `Tried So Hard’ and DYLAN’s `To Ramona’, verged on a group just going through the motions.
When Bernie Leadon left to later join the EAGLES, and Sneaky Pete preferred to work as a session player, the three remaining players corralled singer/guitarist Kenny Wertz (ex-DILLARD & CLARK) and Shiloh’s pedal-steel man, Al Perkins, for the contractual concert LP, LAST OF THE RED HOT BURRITOS {*6}; note that Country Gazette’s Roger Bush (bass) and Byron Berline (fiddle) featured as prominent guests. By the time of its release in May ’72, Hillman had lost faith with the whole shebang. He duly joined STEPHEN STILLS’ MANASSAS, taking with him Perkins.
The band were verging on a parody of their former selves; leaving a concerned Roberts, plus Wertz, Bush and Berline, to hastily piece a makeshift FBB to fulfill contractual obligations. The revised 7-piece had now added Don Beck (pedal steel/mandolin), Alan Munde (banjo/vocals) and Eric Dalton (drums), but with no contract Bumble Records in Britain (Ariola in Germany/EU) unfettered a double-set of newfangled tracks entitled LIVE IN AMSTERDAM (1973) {*4}.
With a FIREFALL-bound Rick Roberts a reluctant recipient of the group’s esteemed moniker; more so when PARSONS duly passed to the other side, original members “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow and Chris Etheridge took up the reins again by inking a deal with Columbia Records. They roped in like-minded singer/musicians Joel Scott Hill, Gib Guilbeau and Gene Parsons (ex-BYRDS) to turn out a respectable set of songs, FLYING AGAIN (1975) {*5}. The album went as far as No.138 in the charts (their highest peak ever), but when AIRBORNE (1976) {*3} failed to take off, the writing was in the wind. A perennial pattern had again emerged when former BYRDS player; in this case, Skip Battin (also ex-NEW RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE), superseded someone farmed out to session work; in the case, Etheridge. Playing drums on the latter set was sixth member, drummer Warren “Bugs” Pemberton; playing piano on the said set was STEVIE WONDER, who performed on his own contribution, `She’s A Sailor’.
The band split up once again when Battin re-joined The NEW RIDERS; his replacement Ed Ponder also departed; as did Gene Parsons. As the new wave kicked in, Guilbeau and Kleinow (alongside bassist Thad Maxwell, drummer Mickey McGee and singer/guitarist Bobby Cochran – ex-STEPPENWOLF and nephew of EDDIE COCHRAN), decided country-rock was still worth another shot (in the foot) via the eponymous SIERRA (1977) {*4} set.
The FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS winged it again under the auspices of Kleinow, Guilbeau, Battin and Gene Parsons. But when the latter couldn’t play due to a wrist injury, in came Greg Harris (vocals/guitar/banjo) and the aforesaid drummer Ed Ponder for the LIVE FROM TOKYO (1979) {*3} effort.
It was clear as day that the country-pop act were not exactly “flying” anymore, and indeed on Kleinow, Guilbeau and Battin’s return to the fore a la HEARTS ON THE LINE (1981) {*3}; with singer/guitarist John Beland in tow, their nom de plume was shortened to: BURRITO BROTHERS. Country affiliates Curb Records were also responsible for giving the band a leg up for SUNSET SUNDOWN (1982) {*2} – a point each for both Guilbeau and Beland, the only remaining members, who partially let go of the reins in ‘84.
Kleinow had apparently bailed from this cash-in debacle just prior to its release, and when the original FLYING BURRITO BROS. name came up for grabs, he was quick on the draw to corral Battin, Harris and drummer Jim Goodall into the fold. Nevertheless, a couple of concert records, CABIN FEVER (1985) {*3} and LIVE FROM EUROPE (1986) {*3} were hardly worth the wait. Indeed it probably re-enforced a low-flying The BURRITO BROS. (Guilbeau, Beland and others) to add another disaster of an album, BACK TO THE SWEETHEARTS OF THE RODEO (1987) {*2} to bring their fake walls crashing down.
A rest-bite for fed up fans was put to bed in 1990 when FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS: Kleinow, Guilbeau, Beland and ex-POCO drummer George Grantham joined forces. However, this temporary arrangement was overhauled when Rick Lonow and bassist Larry Patton stepped into the breach for ENCORE – LIVE IN EUROPE (1991) {*3}; recorded the previous May..
In 1993, the main trio weathered yet another storm and went into the studio; alongside returning original Etheridge (bass/vocals), Australian-born Brian Cadd (keyboards/vocals) and former ELVIS associate Ron Tutt (drums), they re-surfaced with EYE OF A HURRICANE {*3}. Whilst the work of steely Pete was commendable, for Beland to sound like GARTH BROOKS left purist fans bemused; the yo-yo effect of Etheridge was felt when he bailed two days prior to the group’s promotional tour, and was replaced by Larry Gadler.
The drummer at the time, Gary Kubal, stuck around for CALIFORNIA JUKEBOX (1997) {*5}, a star-studded record that also saw newbie bassist Larry Patton saddle up with WAYLON JENNINGS, CHARLIE LOUVIN, BUCK OWENS and accordionist JO-EL SONNIER. The good news was they’d discovered UNCLE TUPELO via `Windfall’, The JAYHAWKS’ `Two Hearts’ and SONNY LANDRETH’s `Back To Bayou Teche’; the bad news was they’d banked on Nashville-addled covers of LITTLE FEAT’s `Willin’’, NEIL YOUNG’s `Dance, Dance, Dance’ and RODNEY CROWELL’s `I Ain’t Living Long Like This’ to win pass marks.
During this critically-harsh decade for FBB, which portrayed them as a kind of clearing-house for ageing country-rockers, the absence of Sneaky Pete and Guilbeau weighed down hard on 1999’s SONS OF THE GOLDEN WEST {*5}; Wayne Bridge would fill the double vacancy. One of the better latter-day ‘Burrito records, the set featured a slew of new and old country stars, ranging from bluegrass The OAK RIDGE BOYS and SAM BUSH, to DELBERT McCLINTON and the late MERLE HAGGARD; an indication of the esteem in which the band were still held.
Meanwhile, there seemed another opportunity for yet another FBB off-shoot to transpire after Beland retired in 2000. The all-encompassing BURRITO DELUXE found Kleinow, Tommy Spurlock (guitars/dobro/mandolin/vocals), Carlton Moody (guitar/vocals), Willie Watson (vocals) and Rick Lonow (drums) enjoying a bit of retrospective playtime on the welcoming GEORGIA PEACH (2002) {*7}. Able to eschew the virtues of golden nuggets that made GRAM PARSONS and The FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS household names around Nashville, this set-up continued to entice the country-rock fraternity via THE WHOLE ENCHILADA (2004) {*6}; note that The BAND’s Garth Hudson (accordion, keys, synths) replaced Spurlock, and bassist Jeff “Stick” Davis allowed Moody to sing lead when Watson departed.
Without the exchange of said Hudson, Lonow and Sneaky Pete Kleinow; the latter had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and sadly passed away on January 6, 2007, guitarist/singer WALTER EGAN (a solo star in his own right), keyboardist Richard Bell and drummer Bryan Owings tried their damndest to give their old boss a worthy send-off via DISCIPLES OF THE TRUTH (2007) {*7}. For many country fans it was a fitting tribute to the pedal steel player, who graciously appeared on the final edits.
Whatever one thought on their never-say-die motives, Egan and Lonow roped Chris P. James (keyboards/vocals) and Fred James (bass/dobro/guitar/pedal steel/vocals), and continued onwards and upwards as The BURRITOS for 2011’s SOUND AS EVER {*4}. A year down the line, news had filtered through that Etheridge had sadly died on April 23, 2012.
Whether Chris P. James’ intentions was to carry The BURRITO BROTHERS name over the 50-year mark (give or take several months!) was a valid reason, he and Tony Paoletta (pedal steel, dobro), Bob Hatter (guitars/vocals), Larry Marrs (bass, vocals) and John Sturdivant, Jr. (drums), nevertheless unveiled something to wag the tongues of the “Flying” country-rock contingent by way of STILL GOING STRONG (2018) {*4}.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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