THE NEW SOFT SHOE
Extraordinary Local Musicians Perform The Music Of Gram Parsons
The Happy Dog, 5801 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
8 p.m. on the second Thursday of every month -FREE!
Al Moss Andy Leach Brent Kirby Jon Niefeld Tom Prebish Justin Gorski
25 Reasons We Rock: Words & Music [+Show]
Clevland Magazine ~Jeff Niesel
For late country-rock legend Gram Parsons, a cult following grows in Cleveland
Published: Sunday, October 23, 2011, 6:00 AM
John Soeder, The Plain Dealer By John Soeder, The Plain Dealer
Gram Parsons is alive and well and living in Cleveland's Gordon Square neighborhood.
Or at least his music is.
The songs of the late country-rock pioneer have found a new home at the Happy Dog on Detroit Avenue, where a Parsons tribute band named the New Soft Shoe (after one of his tunes) performs on the second Thursday of every month. They've won a sizable following.
The six-piece group is led by local singer-songwriter Brent Kirby.
"If anyone doesn't know who Gram Parsons is, grab someone's iPhone and Google it," Kirby teased the audience on a recent evening. Between numbers, he paused to tune his acoustic guitar in the glow of the neon signs behind the stage.
Rainy weather didn't deter dozens of fans from packing the cozy venue. Many not only seemed intimately familiar with Parsons' songbook, but shouted requests, sang along with gusto and cheered every solo. A few couples even danced.
You won't find a more vibrant mini-scene in town, even if the object of all this affection is long gone.
Parsons died in 1973 of an overdose of morphine and tequila. He was 26.
Yet as the 65th anniversary of his birth (on Nov. 5, 1946) approaches, his popularity shows no signs of waning.
By fusing the timeless twang of country and the youthful energy of rock 'n' roll, this cult hero blazed a trail for the likes of the Eagles and any number of other so-called "country-rock" artists. Parsons himself preferred the term "cosmic American music" to describe his sound.
"Gram wrote great songs," his pal Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones wrote in his memoir, "Life."
Parsons hung out with the Stones when they recorded their 1972 magnum opus "Exile on Main Street" at Richards' villa in France.
"He could write you a song that came right round the corner and straight in the front, up the back, with a little curve on it," Richards wrote.
"Guys he could rub pretty hard . . . but his effect on women was phenomenal. It wasn't boo-hoo, it was heartstrings. He had a unique hold on that particular string, the female heart."
At the Happy Dog this month, Kirby and friends performed "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," the landmark 1968 album by the Byrds, recorded during Parsons' short-lived tenure in that group.
The New Soft Shoe played the album in its entirety, from "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" to "Nothing Was Delivered." They also did outtakes, as well as a whole other set that included "Luxury Liner," "Sin City," "Hot Burrito No. 2" and other Parsons favorites.
His unfettered spirit was expertly channeled by Kirby, a restlessly creative dynamo who also plays original music with a band called the Lost Fortunes. He's in the Jack Fords, too.
His bandmates have their credentials in order, too. Ace guitarist Andy Leach is the director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's Library and Archives. Pedal steel virtuoso Al Moss plays with Hillbilly Idol. Keyboardist Justin Gorski moonlights as DJ Kishka. Bass player Tom Prebish is a member of Chris Allen's band and the Boys from the County Hell. And drummer Jon Niefeld used to be in the Rembrandts, of "Friends" theme fame.
"The last thing any of us needed was one more project," Kirby said.
"Everyone in the band has plenty of other things going on. But this just seemed like fun. And everyone is here for the right reasons.
"It feels like we're doing something that has substance."
'The hippies-playing-country thing'
The New Soft Shoe might be just a side project, but Kirby & Co. give it everything they have. Their devotion to the material borders on religious. And the musicianship, complete with inspired soloing and tight vocal harmonies, is top-notch.
"This is about as good as it gets in this town," said John Hannibal, a New Soft Shoe regular who runs the Radio Hannibal music blog.
The proceedings are casually educational, too, with Kirby prone to slipping Parsons trivia into his song introductions.
"They wrote this song about a draft notice they got in the mail," Kirby said before launching into "My Uncle" (as in Uncle Sam), a gem off "The Gilded Palace of Sin," the 1969 debut of another Parsons band, the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Emcee Emma Sleva, a disc jockey on WRUW FM/91.1, harmonized sweetly with Kirby on "A Song for You." And Dave Molnar, the Happy Dog's sound man, borrowed Leach's guitar to fire off a mean lead on "Return of the Grievous Angel."
It was past midnight when Kirby & Co. signed off with a ripsnorting version of "Mr. Spaceman," a Byrds song that Parsons was known to have covered.
J.C. Spearry of Chagrin Falls soaked it all in at a small table down front. Whenever he can, he'll drive crosstown to catch the New Soft Shoe.
"They've brought a lot of life back to Gram Parsons on this little corner," Spearry said. "They really love what they're doing."
Last month, Kirby and Moss performed in front of hundreds of Parsons fans at a festival in his hometown of Waycross, Ga.
Parsons was born into a wealthy family, although his youth was hardly carefree. When he was 12, his father committed suicide. On the day of Parsons' high-school graduation, his mother died of alcoholism.
Parsons briefly attended Harvard University, but dropped out to jam with the International Submarine Band.
Next came a stint with the Byrds. After parting ways with that group in 1968, Parsons and another ex-Byrd, Chris Hillman, formed the Flying Burrito Brothers.
By 1970, Parsons was on his own. He made two solo albums, "GP" (1973) and "Grievous Angel" (1974). Shortly after the latter album was completed, he died while on vacation near the Joshua Tree National Monument in California.
Years later, those albums struck a chord with Kirby, a Wisconsin native who moved to Cleveland in 2001.
"I like old country, people like George Jones and Merle Haggard," Kirby said.
"But when I heard Gram Parsons, it was like: 'Now that's someone I can relate to.' It had the same roots. But it felt more contemporary. Maybe it's the whole hippies-play-country thing. I related more to that than to a bunch of dudes in cowboy hats."
Parsons crammed a lot of remarkable music into his meteoric career, said his daughter, Polly Parsons.
"If you consider the body of his work, it's pretty incredible," she said by phone from her home in Austin, Texas.
Growing up, she rarely saw her father without a guitar.
"I remember there being a lot of music around him, and around me when I was with him," Polly Parsons said.
"His voice was so musical, even when he spoke. He had this beautiful tone and this Southern drawl to his speech. When he would call my name, it was magical.
"He carried me around on his shoulders in public, constantly. That was the way our relationship was. He was a joyful presence in my life."
You can hear echoes of Parsons' music in any number of contemporary artists, ranging from Wilco to Ryan Adams to Mumford & Sons.
Parsons "is a huge inspiration to young musicians," said Parsons, who founded the Gram Parsons Foundation in 2004 to help artists overcome addictions.
In June, she unveiled gramparsons.com, a new website devoted to her dad.
Parsons has been the subject of numerous books and tribute albums. He also inspired "Grand Theft Parsons," a so-so movie starring Johnny Knoxville.
And the salutes keep coming.
On her latest album, "Hard Bargain," Emmylou Harris dedicates a song to Parsons, her former duet partner in the early 1970s. His spirit hovers over "The Road," the moving opening track, while Harris sings:
I can still remember
Every song you played
Long ago when we were younger
And we rocked the night away
Parsons has received three Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations (most recently in 2004), although he failed to get enough votes to make the cut. He isn't in the Country Music Hall of Fame, either.
Regardless, Kirby won't be deterred on his mission to keep Parsons' flame burning bright.
Nearly two years after the New Soft Shoe played its first gig at the Happy Dog, in January 2010, the monthly affair continues to gain momentum.
"A couple of months ago, I asked the crowd: 'How many people know about Gram?' " Kirby said.
"About 75 percent of them raised their hands. Then I asked how many of them knew about Gram a year ago. Most of the hands went down. So I know we're making headway.
"I definitely want to spread the gospel of Gram Parsons."
25 Reasons We Rock:
Words & Music [+Show]
Andy Leach &Brent Kirby
program with Dee Perry
when we discuss
Gram Parsons and
the New Soft Shoe.
Nov. 10th, 2011
Gram Parsons Tribute
Band To Perform
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo
For late country-rock
legend Gram Parsons,
a cult following grows
in Cleveland [+Show]
~By John Soeder
The Plain Dealer
Gram Parsons Tribute Band
Soon To Be The Rage
In Cleveland [+ Show]
PLAYLIST- GRAM PARSONS 101
Want to check our Gram Parsons, but not sure where to start? These songs come highly recommended by the New Soft Shoe's Brent Kirby, who also provided commentary:
• "Luxury Liner": One of Parsons' first country-rock tunes rode a Johnny Cash-style train beat. The album of the same name became a No. 1 record for collaborator/torchbearer Emmylou Harris.
• "Christine's Tune (Devil in Disguise)": The Flying Burrito Brothers at their most liberated, featuring Sneeky Pete Kleinow's fuzzy pedal steel and tight harmonies by Parsons and Chris Hillman. A solid example of "cosmic American music."
• "Hickory Wind": Parsons' ode to his childhood in Waycross, Ga. One of the few Parsons originals on the Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." His impromptu performance of this song at the Grand Ole Opry ranks among the greatest moments in Opry history.
• "Return of the Grievous Angel": Lyrics about meeting Parsons were written by a fan and salvaged from a fire, with images of "amphetamine crowns" and "kings with bible belts."
• "Love Hurts": The friendliest introduction to Parsons -- a popular tune presented in his own unique way. Emmylou Harris' harmonies soar. Nominated for a Grammy.
The New Soft Shoe