By Richie Unterberger

When his debut solo LP Kindling came out in 1973, Gene Parsons was known mostly as a drummer after having held that position in the Byrds from September 1968 through mid-1972. In fact, however, he'd been a multi-instrumentalist and singer since the mid-1960s. He'd played some guitar and harmonica, and done some singing, on records that the Byrds cut in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as he had on some early country-rock-leaning recordings he made with other musicians prior to that. Kindling, however, was his first opportunity to take the spotlight as a versatile instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, on a strongly country-flavored set for which he wrote more than half the material.

    As Parsons remembers today, the opportunity to record as a solo artist arose through Kindling producer Russ Titelman. "Russ actually tried to get me to join Little Feat, 'cause he was working with Little Feat when they were in the process of forming," says Gene. "He tried to get me and [guitarist] Clarence White to be in Little Feat, and we declined because we were in the Byrds at that point. But Russ became a good friend, and when Roger [McGuinn] fired me from the Byrds, I put together some tunes and gave 'em to Russ. He said, 'We should record this stuff. Let's get you a contract with Warner Brothers.' Eddie Tickner, who had been the manager of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, was my manager at that point. So he negotiated a deal with Warner Brothers, and we went into Amigo Studios in Burbank."

    While Parsons would sing and play guitar, bass, and drums on the album, he benefited from a strong support cast that saw contributions from Vassar Clements, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne, top session drummer Andy Newmark, and jazzman Red Callender (also known for writing Jerry Wallace's 1959 hit "Primrose Lane"). Also on hand were some old friends with whom Gene had closely collaborated in the recent past, those being fellow ex-Byrd Clarence White (on both guitar and mandolin) and (on violin) Gib Guilbeau, who'd played in bands and recorded with Parsons not long before Gene joined the Byrds. Bassist Roger Bush also had close connections to the extended family of sorts that had innovated country-rock in Southern California, having recently played on a live Flying Burrito Brothers LP (and having played bluegrass with White in the Kentucky Colonels back in the mid-'60s).

    "Russ was a very good producer for me," praises Parsons. "He did a lot of things I would have never even thought of. Initially when he would say 'I want to do this or that,' I would go, 'Why? I can't hear it.' He said, 'Trust me.' And I'm glad that I did." Titelman was responsible for getting Payne to do keyboards and Callender to play tuba. When Russ also suggested having Nick DeCaro add accordion to "Willin'," a Lowell George song recently recorded by Little Feat, "I said, 'Aw, you gotta be kidding!' He said, 'No, I got this guy Nick and you're gonna love what he plays.' Well, boy did I ever."

    "Willin'," incidentally, had been performed by the Byrds live when Gene was in the band and recorded as part of the sessions for their 1970 album (Untitled), though the group didn't release the song at the time. Another tune with Byrds connections was "Do Not Disturb," written by Skip Battin (who'd played bass in the Byrds alongside Parsons and White) with Kim Fowley (who'd penned a few Byrds tunes with Battin). "I Must Be a Tree," co-written by Parsons and Guilbeau, went all the way back to the pre-Byrds days when the pair were playing nightly gigs at the Jack Of Diamonds club in Palmdale, managing to compose and record an earlier version of the song in a recording studio they'd built. Guilbeau himself wrote another of the LP's tracks, "Take a City Bride."

    The sole other song on Kindling not to have been written or co-written by Parsons was "Drunkard's Dream." As Gene explains, "At one point Russ said, 'There's a song I want you to do. It's a Stanley Brothers song, and I think we might be able to get Ralph Stanley to come out and sing tenor.' That was the song that I guess Carter Stanley [the other half of the Stanley Brothers] had written, which is sort of ironic, because Carter died of alcoholism. But we got Ralph to come out and Vassar Clements to come out from Nashville, and recorded that tune, and of course Clarence played on it and sang the low part." Told to sing tenor, Ralph Stanley "listened and said, 'That's not tenor. That's high lead.' The way he described a tenor, second part, is a high lead; in other words, it doesn't have any lesser importance. He sang so beautifully that when we were done with the session and everybody was gone, [engineer] Lee Hirschberg put the tune up, and Russ said, 'Take everything off except for Ralph's voice.' And we sat and listened to Ralph sing. What a wonderful voice."

    As for White's contributions to the LP, Parsons elaborates, "In the banjo instrumental 'Banjo Dog,' he played guitar and then overdubbed mandolin. And when he did the mandolin, he did a harmony part to the banjo. He said, 'There's a note in here I want you to listen for that I played on the very end of it. It makes it kind of poignant and a little sad. I think you'll like it.' And if you listen, just one note he hangs onto towards the very end really gets you. He had a choice of notes that was fantastic, wonderful, and unique. The electric guitar playing that he did on 'I Must Be a Tree' through a Leslie speaker with the wonderful StringBender stuff—you'll never hear that anywhere else."

    "I Must Be a Tree" was also one of the instances, adds Gene, where Titelman "tricked me into doing a performance. We recorded it live, pretty much. I was in a booth with a guitar, and I wasn't going to sing. Russ said, 'Well, I'm gonna set up a mike for your vocal. I want you to just sing real soft so it doesn't get in the guitar. We'll put it on a separate track just for reference, so that it has a live feel.' Well, what he was doing was, he wanted to get the vocal live, and he wanted me to sing it soft. I'd started singing, just sketching the words out—'no no,' he says, 'sing all the words.' So we got the track, and I said, 'Okay, that's a good track, so I'm ready to go do the vocal.' He said, 'No, you're done.' He was a very skillful producer, and brought the best out in everybody.

    "The last tune we did was 'On the Spot.' Russ said, 'Okay, what else you got?' I said, 'Well, we're going to have to write some tunes.' He said, 'Well, we need to finish this project up. If we had one more, we could call it an album.' I said, 'Would an instrumental be okay?' He said, 'Sure.' So Gib was there, Clarence was there, and we just started playing and said, 'Well, record this.' So they recorded it, and we named it 'On the Spot.'"

    After Kindling got some positive press coverage, continues Parsons, Warner Brothers "wanted me to go on the road, and I was ready to put a band together and go on the road. And that was right when Clarence got killed [after getting hit by a car on July 15, 1973]. That just took the wind out of my sails, and that basically was the end of my career with Warner Brothers, because I just couldn't get it together to play music for years, really, afterwards. I did try to do one little tour; I got Gib Guilbeau and Eric White, Clarence's brother, to go with me and another fellow. It wasn't very successful. My heart wasn't in it." Though Warners wanted Parsons to do another record, they agreed to let him out of his contract.

    Fortunately, Gene did return to music, becoming part of a reformed Flying Burrito Brothers lineup for a while in the mid-1970s, and then recording a few more albums under his own name. He's also renowned as a builder and installer of StringBenders, the first of which he invented back in 1967 to help Clarence White bend notes by using a shoulder strap to actuate a string-pulling, note-bending mechanism. "A lot of people have gotten in contact with me over the years and said, 'This is still one of my very favorite records,'" he says of Kindling. "They've worn out two or three copies, so I think having it come out on CD now is gonna make quite a few people happy. It's really cool to have people enjoy something that much that you've done." – Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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