Friday November 12th 2010, 11:00 am
The Return Of The Grievous Angel: The Story Behind The Song
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Friday, November 5th marked what would have been Gram Parsons’ 64th birthday. To celebrate, we’ve decided to highlight the story behind the essential Gram Parson’s song “The Return Of The Grevious Angel”. You may be surprised to learn that the lyrics to the song were mostly written not by Parsons, but by a shy young poet named Thomas Stanley Brown (hereafter Tom Brown).

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As the story goes, Brown came up to Gram Parsons in a bar called Olivers in Boston where he was performing during the summer of 1973 and handed Parsons a sheet of lyrics that he’d written, asking him to please consider setting it to music. More about the song after the jump, and be sure to check out the comments below to see an update on this article!

Here are the lyrics:

Won’t you scratch my itch, sweet Annie Rich
And welcome me back to town.
Come out on your porch or step into your parlor,
And I’ll tell you how it all went down,
Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels,
And a good saloon in every single town.
Oh, and I remembered something you once told me,

And I’ll be damned if it did not come true,
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down,
And they all lead me straight back home to you.

‘Cause I headed west to grow up with the country,
Across those prairies with those waves of grain.
And I saw my devil and I saw my deep blue sea,
And I thought about a calico bonnet,
From Cheyenne to Tennessee.

We flew straight across that river bridge,
Last night half past two.
The switchman waved his lantern goodbye,
And good day as we went rolling through.
Billboards and truckstops pass by the grievous angel,
And now I know just what I have to do.

And the man on the radio won’t leave me alone,
He wants to take my money for somethin’ that I’ve never been shown.
And I saw my devil and I saw my deep blue sea,
And I thought about a calico bonnet,
From Cheyenne to Tennessee.

The news I could bring I met up with the king,
On his head an amphetamine crown.
He talked about unbucklin’ that ol’ bible belt,
And lightin’ out for some desert town.
Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels,
And a good saloon in every single town.

Oh, but I remembered something you once told me.
And I’ll be damned if it did not come true.
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all lead me straight back home to you.

Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down,
And they all lead me straight back home to you.

As you can see, Brown’s poetic lyrics tell of a man coming home after having lit out for the west, to unknown territory, in order to experience life and get a little livin’ under his belt. Now he’s coming back, hat in hand, asking the girl he’d left behind to let him inside so he can tell her about all of the things that he’s seen on his adventures.

Brown to this day is still credited with co-writing the song, which first appeared as the lead-off track on Parsons’ second solo album, Grevious Angel (Reprise 2171). The record was released posthumously, in January 1974, just a few short months after his death (at age 26) on September 19, 1973.

The album turned out to be both Gram Parsons’ artistic peak as a solo artist and, some might say, his last will and testament. Parsons’ affairs were in such disarray after his death that initially the song was credited solely to him in the first pressing of the album, but Parsons’ estate later acknowledged the actual authorship as soon as Brown came forward. Parsons also added a few lines of his own and fine-tuned it (particularly, the section where he sings about the “man on the radio”). These lyrics, incidentally, were in a notebook that Gram grabbed as he fled from his home, which burned down shortly before the second solo album sessions were scheduled to begin.

Brown was, unfortunately, not given credit on any releases until the early ’80s when a 45rpm single was released with an alternate version of “Return of the Grievous Angel” (backed with a purported remix of Parsons song “Hearts On Fire”).

In Hickory Wind: The Life And Times Of Gram Parsons (St. Martins Press: NY, 1991), author Ben Fong-Torres includes just two short mentions of Brown, and reveals that Gram Parsons had visited Harvard earlier the same day as the gig in Boston, where he had paid a visit to a friendly college adviser of his named Reverend James Thomas, who was also known to some of his friends and colleagues as “Jet.”

It’s possible that Brown was a student at Harvard at that time — Parsons had attended the University himself, between September 1965 and February of 1966. Fong-Torres says that “Return Of The Grievous Angel” actually chronicled Brown’s romance with his wife, or the woman who became his wife (“Sweet Annie Rich”) but that Brown also “had Gram in mind, too. The title was inspired by a photo he’d seen of a sad-looking Gram; the king with the head full of speed was Gram.”

Fong-Torres describes the song in this way: “‘Return Of The Grievous Angel’ sounded like pure Parsons with its conversational tone, its crisp descriptions evoking the South and ‘the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels,’ its Dylanesque reference to a meeting with ‘the King’ ‘on his head an amphetamine crown,’ and it’s swooping chorus tailor-fit for Gram and Emmylou’s hand-held harmonies.”

At one time there was a magazine or fanzine called Cosmic American Music News which actually featured a short interview with Tom Brown, of which here is an excerpt:

CAMN: Did you give Gram the lyrics in Boston?

Brown: Yes, I gave Gram the lyrics at a club called Oliver’s, near Fenway Park in Boston. I believe the club is called something else now.

CAMN: What were you doing as a living when you gave Gram the song?

Brown: At the time of the meeting in Boston, I had been studying and writing poetry for about a dozen years. Only once had I tried to adapt my writing to music; a high school friend had a band that got a record deal out of New York. He asked me to help him write some material, but his label people had no idea what to make of our work. They said it was too “wiggy” for release. A year or so later, Bob Dylan’s first record with obscure, scatter-shot lyrics came out. We had to laugh and like so many others, we got a huge hit off it.

As good as Brown’s lyrics are, Parsons’ melody makes them all the more memorable, especially the gentle but determined chorus that gives the heartstrings a firm and determined yank. Parsons’ original recording played the “lovable rogue with a heart of gold” card for all it was worth, while Lucinda Williams’ 1999 rough-and-ready cover managed to up the toughness quotient a few notches.

YouTube Preview ImageLucinda Williams and David Crosby- Return of the Grievous Angel

Despite rave reviews in Rolling Stone, the L.A. Times and placing at #15 on the Village Voice‘s list of top 20 albums of 1974, Grievous Angel did not sell very well (Gram’s albums both sold an average of 40,000 copies at the time of their original release). It peaked at a disappointing #195 after only 3 weeks on the Billboard album charts.

According to Fong-Torres, in December 1973 as Reprise prepared Grievous Angel for release, Gram’s wife Gretchen (with whom he’d filed papers in order to begin divorce proceedings) put a stop to plans for the album to feature a cover photo of Gram and Emmylou astride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle (with Emmylou’s arms resting on Gram’s shoulders).

Joe Smith, the president of Warner Bros. Records at the time (Reprise and Warner Bros. would later be combined as Warner-Reprise), chose to “respect the family’s wishes,” and Emmylou was relegated to a back-of-the-cover LP credit with no photos of her whatsoever.

As for what happened to Thomas Stanley Brown, we’ve contacted several of Parsons’ recent biographers, but none of them were able to provide any clue as to Brown’s current whereabouts, and we were unable to locate him either. The publisher representing Brown’s share of the song’s royalties doesn’t even know what happened to him, which seems surprising. Perhaps, he too “headed west to grow up with the country,” and his Kerouac-ian adventures have led him to places unknown, places from which he hasn’t returned. Or perhaps, like George Webber at the end of Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again, he has found that “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,…back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame…back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

Nostalgia makes us yearn for places from our past, but those places — perhaps in the mostly metaphysical sense — no longer exist, at least not in the way that we’d hope to find them. Just a few years ago, Brown himself was posting in a Gram Parsons web forum and then he just … disappeared. Still, the words he wrote in his youth certainly continued to resonate and and today represent yet another example of a truly American experience, of trying to find one’s place in the world. Let’s hope Tom Brown found his place.

Ben Fong-Torres gets the final word about this lovely song of Parsons and Brown’s: ‘Grievous Angel’ became the album’s signature song. It also served to show how resourceful Gram was when he needed to be, as he applied the perfect, lilting melody to Brown’s words. Whether he did it be design or out of desperation, Gram’s resulting set of original songs was brilliant, a dossier of a life lived and deeply felt.”

“Return Of The Grievous Angel”
music by Gram Parsons / lyrics by Gram Parsons and Thomas Stanley Brown
Published by GPJ Music (BMI) and Hot Burrito Music (BMI), adm. by Bug Music, and Sixteen Stars Music (BMI), adm. by Horipro Entertainment Group Inc., Nashville.

Produced by Gram Parsons for Tickner-Dickson Productions
Engineered & Mixed by Hugh Davies
Recorded in July 1973 at Wally Heider Studio 4, Hollywood, CA:
Mixed at Capitol Records Studio, Hollywood, CA

Personnel on “Return Of The Grievous Angel”:

Gram Parsons: lead vocals, acoustic guitar
Emmylou Harris: vocals
James Burton: electric lead guitar
Bernie Leadon: acoustic rhythm guitar
Herb Pedersen: acoustic rhythm guitar
Byron Berline: fiddle
Al Perkins: pedal steel guitar
Glen D. Hardin: piano
Emory Gordy: bass
Ronnie Tutt: drums

37 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Great post! I like the music investigation.

Comment by TAB 11.13.10 @ 7:19 am

Totally agree. Great post, I would like more of that.

Comment by bostig 11.16.10 @ 9:00 am

In this day and age, long posts like this one are usually ignored due to ever shrinking attentions spans….but when the post are THIS GOOD, it is well worth the time. Thanks for taking the time to write this brilliant rundown of “Return”.

Comment by judd6149 11.18.10 @ 6:05 am

a complete and thorough investigation of a classic! thank you…WYA does it again!

Comment by zack 11.18.10 @ 9:23 pm

wow, truckers and kickers and the cowboy angels! no clue what that means but its my favorite verse

Comment by John Bessa 11.04.11 @ 2:28 pm

I could never understand how the “headed west to grow up with the country…” but “thought about a calico bonnet from Cheyenne to Tennessee.” Which has them moving from west to east. (unless there is a Tennessee and Cheyenne I am unaware of.

Comment by Bill 11.04.11 @ 5:07 pm

way to bring it! thanks you

Comment by sheri 11.04.11 @ 6:36 pm

Nice tribute.Gram changed the word “roughnecks” to “kickers” and added the two bridge lines. I was giving poetry readings in Cambridge at the time, and I was a fan of Gram’s. I wrote the lyrics in about 20 minutes and gave them to Michael Martin to give to Gram, who was busy fighting with Gretchen. I asked him to tell Gram I’d be at the bar and chatted up Emmy.

Comment by Thomas Stanley Brown 03.30.12 @ 8:55 am

Mr. Brown, you captured Gram’s soul with that song. When I first heard that someone else wrote those lyrics, I couldn’t believe it, and maintained my “Tom Brown atheism” for a good twenty years!

Comment by Keith 06.28.12 @ 9:16 pm

Thanks for checking in, Mr. Brown! I am glad that I came back and re-read this wonderful post, and find the welcome news that you’re still out there with the truckers, and the “roughnecks” and the cowboy angels. Shalom.

Comment by Suzanne 07.26.12 @ 12:04 pm

Listened to the song by GP and ELH many times, then again by Lucinda…both beautiful. I read this entire post with blurry,tear-filled eyes. Can a person be joyful and sad at the same time? Thank you Mr. Brown, and GP wherever you are.

Comment by Bill 08.31.12 @ 2:48 pm

Amazing how attached to Gram Parsons we remain after all these years. His music is totally relevant today. How proud he would be of Emmylou. She has “done him proud” all these years. Love both of them.

Comment by Jo 09.11.12 @ 10:42 am

Amazing! Thanks for the fantastic post AND thanks a million to Thomas Stanley Brown! Out with the roughnecks, right on!

Comment by Frisco 12.09.12 @ 8:41 am

Holy smokes! Thanks a bunch.

Comment by Jovana Jane 03.12.13 @ 12:28 am

This has been my favorite song since I first heard it in 1973 and I never get tired of hearing it. Lucinda’s cover only let me listen twice as often as before. Thank you Thomas Brown and thank you Gram.

Comment by Vic 03.27.13 @ 11:40 am

Just got this album after hearing about it for decades. Put it on the turntable and by the time Emmylou’s voice kicked in I knew this was going to be one of my favorite songs and albums ever. Thanks for all the background, very lovely post. So sad that Gram left us so early and such a blessing that Emmylou is still with us.

Comment by Mark 04.17.13 @ 10:29 am

Oh, and thanks Tom for a beautiful song.

Comment by Mark 04.17.13 @ 10:30 am

to Tom, Gram, and Emmy
Thank you for one of the greatest songs of my lifetime.

Comment by Bob 06.09.13 @ 9:06 pm

On of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard. So we called our band the Calico Bonnets here in Germany. Feel free to listen to them on!

Comment by Matt 07.13.13 @ 8:36 am

Dearest Emmy Lou, listening to you sing has sustained me for my entire life. When you sang with Gram (and he was “on”).

Never forget how much you brought to the party !
You kept G.P. alive for a long time.

You will always be My ” Queen Of The Silver Dollar”

Comment by David Allardice 03.12.14 @ 8:49 am

I was just listening to this song and went to look up the meaning of the “man on the radio”, and found this page. It’s a beautiful summary of the background of this song, and really the person Gram was. I’m fourteen now and I first started listening to this album when I was three (played by my dad) and have found out now that I share the same birthday as Gram! Thanks for leaving a message Mr. Brown, the lyrics are great ones.

Comment by Lily 03.13.14 @ 3:53 am

I feel like this song cuts to the essence of growing up and falling in love and how it changes everything. It is so important to have someone on your side. This song keeps good company!

Comment by Annie 03.14.14 @ 10:19 am

I’ve been a singer songwriter for my whole life and I have played this song since about 1978. I love it still and know now the whole story behind it. I will share it with my audience from now on. Thank you for the article and thank you Mr. Tom Brown.

Comment by Barry J. Sharp 08.11.14 @ 11:32 pm

Thanks, all (and especially Tom Brown), for helping me think about this perfect song in a new way. I didn’t think my appreciation of “Return of the Grievous Angel” could grow, but it has. Wonder if the title was Gram’s or Mr. Brown’s?

Comment by Chris Reynolds 09.19.14 @ 5:51 am

if you’d like to know the whereabouts of thomas brown, he got in touch with me today to see if i’d give a song of his a listen. how honored am i!!

Comment by tracy grammer 12.11.14 @ 1:39 pm

Having lost my dad 30 years ago when I was 6, Gram’s music is so nostalgic to me and connects me to my dad in so many ways. The fact that his music is still being talked about and covered is proof that he was a musical genius. Return of the Grevious Angel really resonates with me, and I was curious to the story behind the song. Great article! Thank you!
*Pretty amazing that Thomas Stanley Brown himself commented!

Comment by Nicole T. 06.15.15 @ 3:52 pm

I have listened to Return of the Grievous Angel for almost 40 years and still cannot resist the temptation to give it “one more play”. Thank you for the wonderful insight into the song.

Comment by Les O'Loughlin 07.01.15 @ 5:26 am

Great story. Thank you. I would to see the picture of Gram and Emmy Lou on that Harley.

Comment by Cecil 07.29.16 @ 2:44 pm

Hi, I love this song for many many years and just discovered now that “kickers” was originally “rougnecks” and that explains a lot, thanks! But what does “cowboy angels” mean/refer too?
Niall, Dublin, Ireland.

Comment by Niall Ahearne 10.08.16 @ 2:43 pm

I have listened to this song thousands of times over the last 40 years, I’ve always thought that “I thought about a calico bonnet from Cheyenne to Tennessee ” is so beautiful. Today, the day after the extraordinary, unbelievable outcome of the election, I have played it many times. Gives comfort in times of trouble!

Comment by Su Askwith 11.10.16 @ 3:08 am

I have loved this song since the first time I ever heard it way back in the early 70’s. The imagery that it portrays and the chord progression in the song weave themselves together so magnificently. I think the Grievous Angel is the handle of an 18 wheeler and the sustenance that carries the driver down the “20,000 roads” it has traveled is that “calico bonnet.” I have performed this song hundreds of times over the years and I never tire of it; it truly is an anthem for love.

Comment by George Pappas 01.01.17 @ 12:37 am

“But I remembered something you once told me..”
What did he remember??

Thoughts anyone??

Comment by Johanna 01.12.17 @ 9:48 pm

I think the next two lines indicate what she said. She told him “You will come back to me someday”

Comment by Thomas E Dietz 02.18.17 @ 6:32 pm

Have been assigned this homework assignment by The Professor, my picking buddy. Amazing all the way around. Gram and Emmylou are my King and Queen of Cosmic Country Music.

Comment by Mar 03.23.17 @ 10:59 pm

Many thanks for this story. I loved this song since the first two lines and I had to play and sing along with all the singers that performed this song.Thanks to internet that we didn’t have when we were teens 50 years ago here in Italy. Knowing the story behind gives it another perspective even though I give these words a new meaning anytime I sing it. I will hang on with Country. Cheers Paolo Sala Italy

Comment by Paolo 04.30.17 @ 8:13 am

Eight Second Angel Women Cheyenne Boot

[…] feel like this song cuts to the essence of growing up and falling in love and ho […]

Trackback by Brown Blog 07.20.17 @ 8:37 pm

My favorite song – loved it when Lucinda covered it.

It is an amazing lyric and just is a great song.

Thank you for the background on it.

Carry on!

Comment by Jan 07.30.17 @ 12:39 pm

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