Gram Parsons' heart belonged to Georgia, but his considerable wealth belonged to his family. The grandson of an orange grove proprietor, Parsons made wilting country music about prisons, poorhouses and truckers despite a Harvard education. His willingness to romanticize a tough working-class life more likely to offer death than enlightenment bestowed a posthumous badge of authenticity on the trust-fund rocker.
The Beachwood Sparks shrug off the dangers of idolizing an obviously flawed and mythical construct in this case, Parsons. His search for all things worldly and gratifying killed him, yet the Sparks' latest LP, Once We Were Trees, heads for the same canyons where the sounds of The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers have careened and echoed off the sloping rocks for 30 years.
Sometimes the Sparks let those echoes come straight through into their music, as on "Let It Run." The reverb-soaked ballad wraps with a repetitive refrain that whispers like a breeze, "Don't be late/ Live for happiness," as if Parsons were asking his disciples to hurry up and join him in the afterlife.
But there's nothing rushed about the Beachwood Sparks' music. They have studied their influences, and their influences' influences, carefully, heading past the well-worn pages of the 1960s and into Bill Monroe's 1940s. "Old Manatee" trots to a banjo pluck, responding to the traditional apologue "I Am A Pilgrim" both musically and lyrically. Rather than adhere to the Christian ideals of "Pilgrim," singer/bassist Brent Rademaker wonders if the Garden of Eden's Tree of Knowledge was just a bad acid trip as he sings, "Stay with me, because the only trees are in our minds."
Despite the lyrical mysticism of some songs, the Beachwood Sparks avoid the typical groan-ola rock tropes. Only on the title track does the band break loose with a wonderfully self-indulgent, full-scale psychedelic freak-out. The majority of the songs feature a tight country-rock sound with subtle harmonies and a great feel for melody. The Beachwood Sparks balance deft restraint with hot guitar licks, making Once We Were Trees the best Byrds album since Sweetheart of the Rodeo.