Chris Ethridge: Gram Parsons acolyte who co-wrote three of his best-known songs

 

Atransient but important member of The Byrds and a major influence on the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons has long been acknowledged as the father of country-rock, though he preferred to call the genre "cosmic American music".

His friendships with Harris and Keith Richards, his death from a drug overdose in September 1973, and the small number of albums – half a dozen – he recorded have helped fuel the legend and turn him into an iconic figure, the US equivalent of Britain's Nick Drake.

The bassist and songwriter Chris Ethridge played an important part in the Parsons story. He was a member of two of Parsons' groups, The International Submarine Band, whom he joined in November 1967, just in time to complete their sole album, Safe at Home; and the Flying Burrito Brothers, whose 1969 debut, The Gilded Palace of Sin, became a country-rock touchstone. The original Flying Burrito Brothers line-up also featured Chris Hillman, another former member of The Byrds, and the destinies of these two groups remained intertwined.

On hearing of Ethridge's death, Hillman told the Los Angeles Times: "Here's what people don't know or don't remember. Three of Gram's greatest songs were co-written by Chris: those would be "Hot Burrito #1", "Hot Burrito #2" and "She". He was a real good songwriter. I think Gram helped with a couple of the lyrics," stressed Hillman, who was also ideally placed to assess Ethridge's bass playing, since he took over from him in 1970. "He had the feel. He was not the fanciest bass player, but that's not what it is about. He had the groove, he had it right in the pocket. I learned a lot from him."

Born in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1947, Ethridge played in various rhythm and blues bands before moving to Los Angeles in the mid-Sixties. After 18 months as a session musician, he was recruited by the restless Parsons, who swiftly moved on from the International Submarine Band to The Byrds. Consequently, Lee Hazlewood's LHI label issued the International Submarine Band album just a few weeks before the seminal Byrds long-player Sweetheart of the Rodeo in the summer of 1968. No matter, as, by the end of the year, Parsons, Hillman and Ethridge had recruited pedal steel guitarist "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow and formed the Flying Burrito Brothers.

With its covers of "Dark End of the Street" and "Do Right Woman", the Southern soul compositions by Chips Moman and Dan Penn, its six Hillman-Parsons co-writes and the plangent "Hot Burrito #1" and "Hot Burrito #2" by Ethridge and Parsons, The Gilded Palace of Sin proved as innovative as Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It pioneered an irresistible blend of honky tonk, folk, gospel and rhythm and blues – "cosmic American music" indeed – but didn't find its niche with the record-buying public at the time, though it would later be embraced by the alt-country groups Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt and the Jayhawks. The "Nudie suits", the rhinestone-decorated outfits that the Burritos wore on The Gilded Palace of Sin cover, on stage and on television, also helped to popularise the work of the designer Nudie Cohn.

Ethridge left the Burritos before they appeared at the Rolling Stones' fateful concert at Altamont speedway in December 1969 and returned to session work. He contributed to several albums by Ry Cooder and also worked with Rita Coolidge, Arlo Guthrie, Dave Mason, Graham Nash and Newman. In 1973, Parsons included "She", another collaboration based on an Ethridge piano motif, dating back to their Burritos days, on GP, his solo debut. It has since been covered by Norah Jones and the Black Crowes among others.

Following Parsons' death and emerging cult status, various promoters and labels approached former members of the Burritos with offers to reform the band. In 1975, Ethridge and Kleinow drafted former Byrds drummer Gene Parsons – no relation to Gram – guitarist Joel Scott Hill and fiddle player "Gib" Guilbeau and regrouped as the Flying Burrito Brothers. As Ethridge put it, the name was "synonymous with the origins of country rock. We did one gig at the Palomino in Los Angeles, and we thought there'd be about 50 people because we'd been out of circulation for so long. Turned out there were 2,500 people lined up around the block to hear us."

The Burritos signed to Columbia and recorded Flying Again, but, despite an attempt at conjuring the old magic with "Hot Burrito #3", the album was panned by the critics. Ethridge quit the Burritos, who soldiered on without him again with ex-Byrd Skip Battin in his stead. He subsequently spent eight years on the road with Willie Nelson and acted alongside the country legend in the 1980 film Honeysuckle Rose. Ethridge died of complications from pancreatic cancer.

John Christopher Ethridge II, bassist, pianist, songwriter: born Meridian, Mississippi 10 February 1947; married (one daughter, two sons); died Meridian, Mississippi 23 April 2012.

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