Review - Safe at Home

Artist: The International Submarine Band

I used to have an original vinyl copy of this album. Actually, I had four, and I sold 'em for about a buck apiece. Why do I mention this? Because Gram Parsons (who, as principal songwriter and cutie-pie focal point, was largely responsible for the sound of ISB) has, in the last decade or so, gone from being a mildly interesting country-rock cult figure to some sort of full-bore legend/standard-bearer. Which is odd, because I always thought Gram Parsons was a bit of a fake.

His music, especially his first solo album, is infinitely enjoyable. But something nags at you even if you didn't know that he was born into a deeply cushioned upper-middle-class life, that his grandparents were hugely successful citrus farmers from Winter Haven who were initial investors in Cypress Gardens, or that his parents owned a box factory in Waycross, Ga. Listening to Parsons – even without knowing that his real name was Cecil Ingram Connor III, or knowing he went to Harvard or was in a by-the-numbers folk group from South Carolina – you realize that his style has always sounded forced and imitative.

True, his lyrics were usually brilliant and his taste in collaborators impeccable, but listen to Safe at Home and tell me you don't hear a group of rich kids dabbling in the music of the common man as a novelty. Lee Hazlewood knew a thing or three about novelty, so it's not surprising that this album was originally released on his LHI label, but what few Gramophiles might want to admit is that their hero was as complicit in the sales job. Parsons wanted success as a musician and he wanted it badly. He knew he had a gift for songcraft, but his ego simply wouldn't allow him to write wonderful songs for other people. Whether it was for ISB, the Flying Burrito Brothers or his eventual solo career, his personality and force of will always helped him "humbly" elbow his way to the front of the stage to give that aw-shucks grin of his.

For evidence, look at the songs on Safe at Home: Parsons couldn't even come up with enough original material to fill the album, forcing the group to fill the gaps between a lifeless, Emmylou-less "Luxury Liner" and the original version of "Do You Know How It Feels (To Be Lonesome)" with somnambulant covers such as Bobby Bare's "Miller's Cave" and a medley of "Folsom Prison Blues" and "That's All Right." (Novelty? Huh?) Covers, yes. Contributions from other band members, no. By the end of the CD's 10 tracks (this Sundazed reissue tacks on a cover of "Knee Deep in the Blues"), you'll be wondering what all the fuss about this "lost classic" is. Me too.

Widely regarded as the first country-rock record (as if that was a good movement to kick off), Safe at Home is a decidedly unsteady and rather unrewarding record. For the legions of Parsons fanatics – and there are many more now than a decade ago – this won't matter. To them, Gram was the real deal, a desert-loving messiah of twang, and these songs are filled with glimmering foreshadows of the greatness that would come in the next few years before Gram was lifted up into heaven to sit at the right hand of Hank the Father. For the rest of us who happen to be sane, Safe at Home is remarkably unremarkable. Legend or not.

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