The Gilded Palace of Sin: The Birth of Cosmic American Music

Cover of The Flying Burrito Brothers album The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969).
Cover of The Flying Burrito Brothers album The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969).

The Flying Burrito Brothers released The Gilded Palace of Sin in 1969 when there was a still a clear distinction in popular music between traditional Country and Rock & Roll.  In the contemporary scene, the Rolling Stones blended Country music elements into several songs on Beggar’s Banquet and Let it Bleed, but their general point-of-departure was firmly rooted in Blues-oriented rock.  In their band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman endeavoured to create a brand new genre of modern Country-Rock called Cosmic American Music.  It was a pastiche of Country, Rock & Roll, Folk, Gospel, and Soul.  The Gilded Palace of Sin was not commercially successful.  Album sales were weak when it was released and its availability was limited until 2000 when it was finally reissued on compact disc.  Despite this poor reception, history has been very good to The Gilded Palace of Sin with respect to its prestige and influence.  Its presence resonates throughout contemporary music.  Although it is not well known, it is often referred to by musicians as having been a vital influence.  A few of the musicians the album has influenced are the Eagles, Elvis Costello, Allan Jackson, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Dwight Yoakam, the Avett Brothers, and Steve Earle.

The Burrito’s hybrid style is a vigorous expression of familiar, foundational elements of strong musical genres.  It is a music that dwells between two dominant households, somewhat estranged by a lack of a stable identity and single place of origin.  It is a home, nonetheless, a floating vessel with a tryworks and blistering crucible that alters traditional music and transforms it into something novelThe driving force of the album is the songwriting direction Parsons and Hillman began with The Byrds album Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), which is frequently cited as the first Country-Rock album by a popular act.   It is also worth noting that their beautiful harmonies were not released on Sweetheart because Parsons’ vocals were removed at the last minute due to contracting issues, but that’s a sad story for another time.  The pair engaged session musicians “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar, Chris Ethridge on bass, and several drummers to record the album.  One of the highlights and transforming elements in the band’s musical crucible is Sneaky Pete’s pedal steel guitar contribution.  His approach touches on everything from old-fashioned traditional styles to effects-driven, fuzzbox distortion that was popular in Psychedelic music of the time.  He manages this without being merely cliché.

“Now a woman like that all she does is hate you
She doesn’t know what makes a man a man”

The album begins with a Bakersfield-sounding background in the trouble-making-prostitute themed “Christine’s Tune (Devil in Disguise)”.  Kleinow’s playing projects a strong country feel throughout most of the song that is in close sympathy with the Everly Brothers styled harmonies, but it is punctuated with an aggressive use of fuzzbox effects on his pedal steel guitar.  This most uncanny juxtaposition of styles creates the tone and atmosphere for the rest of the album.  It tempts the listeners from different perspectives into the comfort of familiar territory only to unsettle them with interjections of peculiar, yet familiar sounds.  “Sin City” continues the musical themes expressed in “Christine’s Tune” and plays them against an overstated warning to Los Angeles sinners who will suffer the wrath of “the Lord’s burning rain”.  Although the lyrics might be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Parsons’ point-of-view is never irreverent.  His love for country music seems to permeate every note.  “Sin City” has the balance right as the sentimental hyperbole of the lyrics are tempered by Kleinow’s sensitive, less aggressive pedal steel guitar nuances.   Another side of Cosmic American Music is represented in the beautiful interpretations of the Soul songs “Do Right Woman” and “Dark End of the Street” where Parsons’ Southern voice is given the opportunity to shine alongside a traditional Country twang.

“Yes, you loved me and you sold my clothes
I love you but that’s the way that it goes”

The second side of the album begins with “Wheels” and it follows a similar progression to “Christine’s Tune.”  Kleinow exhibits slightly more restraint with his fuzzbox effects on “Wheels”, but there is still an abrupt Psychedelic harshness to the chorus.  This combination of soft and hard atmospheres anticipates what is forthcoming in the “Hot Burrito” songs penned by Parsons and Ethridge.  The somewhat cryptically named “Hot Burrito #1″ and “Hot Burrito #2″, to my mind, form the cornerstone of the album.   The first piece is a sentimental ballad sung to a lover who has chosen another man.  Parsons’ voice pines with the compelling feeling of the wallowing “toy” singer who declares to his beloved, “don’t want no one but you to love me.”  He is completely overwhelmed by the loss of his beloved.  In the second piece, however, the singer has moved on from the relationship to some degree, no longer pinning for his lost beloved, the woman who, he says, has “sold my clothes”.  The piece is both musically upbeat and lyrically insistent.  Each section ends with searing steel pedal guitar effects combined with the former toy who now demands that he be loved.  He frustratingly asserts, “You better love me, Jesus Christ”.    The “Hot Burrito” pieces demonstrate the tension that is a fundamental aspect of Cosmic American Music, especially at its nascent stage.  The first piece authentically expresses deep “cowboy” angst over a lost beloved that is essentially crippling.  The second piece, however, is at times cavalier with a “so it goes” attitude, but it also demonstrates an adolescent, Rock & Roll attitude that insists on being loved, accentuating it with a curse.

Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons

Gram Parsons recorded Burrito Deluxe with the Flying Burrito Brothers (which included future Eagle Bernie Leadon) and two outstanding solo albums along with Emmylou Harris, GP and Grievous Angel.   He died tragically of a heroin overdose in 1973 at age 26.