Fifty years ago tomorrow—February 22, 1969—A&M Records released the seminal country-rock debut album by the Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin. The Burritos, of course, were led by singer-songwriter-guitarists Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, who had moved on from a brief stint in The Byrds, whom they turned in a country-rock direction on 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Both are classics of the genre that belong in any record collection! Parsons and Hillman co-wrote “Wheels,” and they sing it as a duet on the album (though I’d say the lyrics certainly seem to mirror Gram’s poetic, somewhat elusive lyric inclinations more).
Parsons’ tenure with the Burritos was short; he and Hillman split acrimoniously in early 1970 after the failure of their second album (Burrito Deluxe, which featured Gram’s haunting first recording of Jagger-Richards’ “Wild Horses”), and a host of other issues. Eventually, Gram signed a solo deal with Warner Bros. and made two great albums for the label, GP, released in 1973, and Grievous Angel, which had been completed by the time of his death from a drug overdose in September 1973, but came out posthumously in 1974. On both of those albums, and on his solo tours, Gram was joined by a then-unknown singer named Emmylou Harris, and it is she, beginning with her exceptional 1975 solo debut album, Pieces of the Sky, (which featured players such as Elvis Presley Band veterans James Burton, Glenn D. Hardin, and Ron Tutt, all of whom had been on Parsons’ two albums), who really embraced Parsons’ legacy and brought him into the country music mainstream for the first time. She has proudly championed his songs ever since.
Emmylou first recorded “Wheels” on her second album, Elite Hotel (also released in 1975). It was one of three Parsons tunes that made the record; the others were “Sin City” (also from Gilded Palace of Sin) and “Ooh Las Vegas (from Grievous Angel). This video version comes from a 2014 appearance on the Music City Roots Live from the Factory program, for which Emmylou was joined by a small acoustic group featuring singer-guitarist Rodney Crowell, who had been a member of Emmylou’s dynamite original Hot Band lineup in the mid-’70s as another guitarist and Emmylou’s main vocal foil. Good stuff! —Blair Jackson