The Flying Burrito Brothers Song That Includes a Tribute to Bobby Kennedy

I have probably heard “Sin City” by the Flying Burrito Brothers more than a hundred times.  But I never realized that one of the verses is about Robert F. Kennedy until reading an interview with Steve Earle.

In the interview, Earle recounted how the song’s co-writer Chris Hillman explained the Bobby Kennedy connection.  The following verse is about Kennedy.

A friend came around,
Tried to clean up this town;
His ideas made some people mad;
But he trusted his crowd,
So he spoke right out loud;
And they lost the best friend they had.

In another interview from many years ago in The Los Angeles Times, Hillman confirmed the above verse was about Kennedy. Hillman also explained how he and Gram Parsons came to write the song.

Hillman woke up one morning with the opening lines of the song in his head: “This old town’s filled with sin, it’ll swallow you in….”  He immediately woke up his roommate Parsons, who soon came up with the melody for the song.

Parsons and Hillman, who both had recently experienced relationship breakups, completed the song in about thirty minutes.  And they both ended up singing it on the first Flying Burrito Brothers album, The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969).

Bobby Kennedy was not the only person referenced in the song.  Hillman, who still had bad feelings about the breakup of his former band The Byrds, included an allusion to that band’s manager Larry Spector.  Hillman considered Spector a thief, and the man lived on the thirty-first floor of a condo.  Hence the line:  “On the thirty-first floor a gold plated door / Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.”

Hillman further explained that they wrote “Sin City” as a cautionary tale to “people like Gene Clark from the Byrds, who came here from Kansas with all that talent and all bright-eyed and talented and idealistic, and the whole thing just swallowed him up.”  Unfortunately, that cautionary tale could equally refer to the tragic young death of Parsons.

“Sin City” remains one of the great collaborations between two great singer-songwriters. While the original recorded by the songwriters remains definitive, there have been a couple of nice covers through the years. Below in a performance from 1989, k.d. lang and Dwight Yoakam do the song justice.

Finally, here is a wonderful version by Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings (Buddy Miller is also there on guitar).

And that is the story behind the song.

What is your favorite song by the Flying Burrito Brothers? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Best Gospel Songs by Pop Stars (Part 5): Cash & Byrds


    Chimesfreedom continues its periodic discussion of the best gospel songs by popular singers.  In this Post, we consider recordings by Johnny Cash and The Byrds.

    “Spiritual,” Johnny Cash

    I am not sure why it has taken me until this far into our “Gospel Songs by Pop Stars” series to write about “Spiritual” because I love this song. Johnny Cash, of course, recorded a number of religious songs though his career, but this one recorded near the end of his life stands out for me.

    “Spiritual” was written by Josh Haden, son of great jazz bassist Charlie Haden. There are other excellent versions of the song, including one of Josh singing on his father’s 2008 album, Rambling Boy. But Johnny Cash’s version from his 1996 Unchained album gets me every time.

    The song starts slow and hypnotic, gradually building to an emotional cry of pain. Beautiful.

    “I Like the Christian Life,” The Byrds

    The Byrds, under the influence of Gram Parsons, recorded “I Like the Christian Life” for their Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968) album. The excellent album is largely credited as a major catalyst for the country-rock movement, and “The Christian Life” was a cover of a classic Louvin Brothers song for the hippie crowd.

    On a rock record, one might expect the song to translate into tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, but the song feels genuine in its praise of living a simple Christian life. It is hard to imagine an album by a major pop group including a song like this one today.

    Originally, the Byrds recorded the song with Gram Parsons singing lead vocal, but a dispute about Parson’s contract with another record company, the Byrds replaced Parsons’s lead vocals on some of the songs. Some believe that the change was also motivated by the band’s concern that the album was becoming too much of a Gram Parsons project.

    So, the official album version featured Roger McGuinn’s vocals dubbed into the lead. Both versions are excellent and appear on re-issues. Below is McGuinn’s version that was originally released on the CD.

    For comparison, below is a rehearsal take featuring Gram Parsons singing lead.



    Check out other posts in our series on Gospel Songs by Pop Singers.

    What is your favorite gospel song by a popular singer? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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  • Great Song, Bad Name: Hot Burrito #1
  • Best Gospel Songs by Pop Singers 3: Ready, Walk, Great
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    Sturgill Simpson: “You Don’t Miss Your Water”

    Although Sturgill Simpson’s voice is most often compared to Waylon Jennings, his choice in music often connects him to a wide variety of artists. So it was pretty cool recently to see he had performed “You Don’t Miss Your Water” live.

    “You Don’t Miss Your Water” was written by William Bell, who released his own version of the song on Stax Records in 1961. Most people, however, may be familiar with Otis Redding‘s version that appeared on his 1965 album Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul.

    Sturgill Simpson, however, is not the first person to take the soul song into country territory. The Byrds covered the song on Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), with Roger McGuinn doing lead vocal work on the official release even though Gram Parsons had originally recorded the lead.

    With such a rich history, a lot of people still do not know the song. So, it was great to see that Simpson performed “You Don’t Miss Your Water” at First Avenue in Minneapolis on Sunday, June 5, 2016. Check it out.

    “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is a heartbreak song. The singer explains how how he took his lover for granted, but then he only realized what he had when the lover left: “You don’t miss your water/’Till your well runs dry.” It is a perfect song for both soul and country artists.

    Simpson’s most recent album is A Sailor’s Guide To Earth (2016).

    What is your favorite Sturgill Simpson song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    No Sinner’s Cover of Gram Parson’s “She”

    Today’s song of the day is Gram Parson’s classic song “She” as covered by the Vancouver band No Sinner. Lead singer Colleen Rennison pours her soul into her performance of the song.

    The video is of an acoustic rendition of the song at the Indaba Bowery loft in New York. Check it out.

    If you are not familiar with the young Canadian band No Sinner (whose name comes from Rennison’s name spelled backwards), check out some more of their soulful music, including their album Boo Hoo Hoo (2014).

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Tompall Glaser RIP

    Country outlaw Tompall Glaser passed away this week. Glaser had a distinguished career, performing with his brothers and running a publishing company. But most of us know him for his work on the first “outlaw” country album, appropriately named Wanted! The Outlaws. The 1976 album — which also featured Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter — was a landmark album that went platinum.

    One of the songs Glaser performed on the album, along with “Put Another Log on the Fire,” was “T for Texas.” Here he is performing the song in the 1980s.

    Glaser also co-wrote the great song, “Streets of Baltimore,” for Bobby Bare. The song contains a lot of alt-country street cred because of the wonderful version by Gram Parsons. More recently, the song has been covered by The Little Willies. Here is a 2006 Virginia performance of the song by Ryan Adams.

    T for thanks for the great music, Mr. Glaser. Rest in peace.

    What is your favorite Tompall Glaser song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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