Sweet Bard of the Rodeo
By Gregory Nicoll (March 14, 2001)
Inside the jewel box of the Brooklyn Cowboys' debut CD, Doin' Time on Planet Earth, is a reproduction of a folded, tattered piece of notebook paper nearly 30 years old. Carefully hand-printed between its thin blue lines are the lyrics to "Carolina Calypso," the last song ever written by the late Gram Parsons, who since has become the patron saint of the alt-country movement.
"It's one of my prize relics," says the Cowboys vocalist/guitarist Walter Egan, who still owns the lyric sheet. "In 1973, Emmylou Harris brought those words to me from Gram. And then, within a day or two of me doing the best I could to compose music for them, I got the news that Gram had died ..."
Egan's introduction to Parsons had occurred several years earlier. "I first saw his name on the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo album and wondered who this guy was who was wrecking the Byrds," he laughs. "I listened to it again later, though, and was inspired. Then I had a band called Sageworth, playing in the same circuit as Emmylou Harris, and Emmylou came to me one day and said, 'There's this guy named Gram who wants to sing with me.' She didn't know who he was! So I played his records for her, and the first time they sang together was in my kitchen -- just testing their voices to see what they'd sound like."
One song Parsons sang with Harris was Egan's own "Hearts on Fire." "It was one of the first songs I ever wrote," he recalls with a grin. "It started off tongue-in-cheek -- I mean, it was about heartburn -- but one of the guys in my band had seen its potential as a straight country song, and he'd showed it to Emmylou."
A new version of "Hearts on Fire," recorded by Egan and alt-country darling Joy Lynn White, appears on Doin' Time, which also includes the long-delayed debut of the Parsons-Egan collaboration "Carolina Calypso." Working in pleasant contrast to the Egan songs on Doin' Time are the varied compositions from the band's drummer/co-founder Fredrough Perry. His "Reachin' for the Sky" could almost pass for early-'70s Stones, and Perry's "Exquisite Torture" resembles something culled from the Hank Sr. catalog. "Fred has a more meticulous approach than I do," observes Egan, "a slower approach, you might say."
Egan and Perry first paired up during '96 in New York, where a series of informal weekly jam sessions soon evolved into something more serious. "We started doing demos, came up with the name Brooklyn Cowboys, and then we got Buddy Cage to join." Pedal steel player Cage was best known for replacing Jerry Garcia in the New Riders of the Purple Sage, but "with his legend behind him," he was ready to saddle up with the Cowboys. Egan moved to Nashville in '97 and -- after taking a year to get his bearings -- summoned the group down to start recording. Ultimately their debut disc appeared on many critics' "Best of 2000" lists and performed impressively on Americana radio, reaching No. 13 on the Gavin charts.
These accomplishments mark yet another milestone in Walter Egan's already impressive career. In addition to his previous work with Sageworth, he also was a member of the Malibooz, a well-known second-wave surf band; he played bass in Spirit during the '80s; and he recorded five solo albums that yielded the radio hits "Magnet and Steel" and "Hot Summer Nights." At one point, he was even memorialized by having his handprints in the cement outside the now-defunct Peaches record store in Atlanta.
Currently, Egan is in the midst of a long-overdue roadtrip with the Cowboys. He evokes the spirit of Gram Parsons in each night's performance, often with the assistance of the group's newest member, singer Lona Heins, who earned a Grammy nomination for her vocal work on The Gram Parsons Notebook.
"I liked his attitude," says Egan, recalling the late Parsons again. "He had a good sense of fun, a good sense of the traditional mixed with a good sense of psychedelia, too, and a great deal of charisma. I liked the vulnerability in his voice. He had all the elements of the mythical creature. Was he really that great, or did he just luck into it? I don't know. But meeting him was a wonderful thing -- that is, when he was sober. I hung out more with him at Oliver's in Boston, when he was playing there for three days, and that's when I saw the dark side, the drunk side, the stupid side.
"He was my last hero. I've since learned you have to make yourself your hero."