They’re the most famous supergroup that refuses to call it quits, even if their personnel has never been consistent and their name has changed a few times over a half-century. Now known as simply the Burrito Brothers – the “Flying” part of the name was dropped long ago – the group of hippie musicians that began under Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman recently released a new album, The Notorious Burrito Brothers, and was all set to play more live gigs.
Then came covid-19.
“Not being able to go out anywhere is a real downer,” said Chris P. James, the group’s current lead singer, harmonica player and keyboardist.
However, James, who lives in the Nashville area, said it is his job during the ongoing shutdown to get the word out about his band’s latest music, as well as tease more new tunes to come when he and his bandmates can get back into the studio. James said he and his bandmates have exchanged various song ideas over the internet, but recording will absolutely wait until social distancing is a thing of the past.
“It’s a shame we’re not sitting together in the same room playing, and we’re holding off on recording…our next album until we can do that,” he said. “We can get a lot of preparation done, but we’re not the kind of band that wants to build tracks through individual solo efforts. We like getting together and playing together.”
In its various incarnations, the Burrito Brothers has released over 20 live and studio albums since their formation in the late-’60s. Founding member Parsons was only with the group for their first two albums, and Hillman left a few years later. (Parsons died of a drug overdose in 1973 at the age of 26.) Since then, a who’s-who of rockers has cycled into and out of the lineup, including Rick Roberts and Chris Ethridge.
“Anyone who has ever been in the group has been talented and good,” said James, adding that Parsons’s dream for the band was always that it would continue on, no matter who was involved. “That’s how we feel: You gotta keep it going.”
The ensemble’s latest album, The Notorious Burrito Brothers, features a variety of influences from bluegrass to rock. And, of course, country, given that Parsons and Hillman deserve credit, James believes, for being one of the first innovators to meld country into rock ‘n’ roll.
“It’s a hybrid: It’s a rock band that uses country songs,” James said, adding that early Burrito albums such as “The Gilded Palace of Sin” were even played on country radio. “There’s a lot of things in so-called country music now that don’t sound nearly as country as those.”
The Flying Burrito Brothers was at the forefront of this unique marriage of country and rock that also ensnared contemporary acts such as the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Poco, Pure Prairie League and even the Grateful Dead.
“It’s sort of historical hindsight, [but] they weren’t all that successful at the time,” James said of those early innovators. “It’s just been reevaluated over the years and put up on a pedestal, [which is] well deserved.”
James calls The Notorious Burrito Brothers a concept album in that it has a rocking opening (“Bring It”) followed by various subsequent acts and a finale song (“Hearts Desire”) that brings the whole effort together as a piece.
“We feel that there was a foundation, a template, set down on the ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin,’ the album that Gram Parson and Chris Hillman spearheaded,” James said.
He added that even though the band’s roster has continually shifted over a half-century, it’s ultimately the music that matters—and staying true to the spirit of what Parsons and Hillman began in 1968. And always experimenting.
“To varying degrees of success, the Burrito Brothers – which started out as the Flying Burrito Brothers—has stayed true to that. There are no two albums in a row with the same personnel,” James said, adding there are few, if any, other classic rock acts that have ever so constantly changed players but kept up the name.
“The thing that’s really beautiful about that is that each time [a band member] says he’d had enough, there’s always been some record label, saying, ‘We still want the Burrito Brothers,’” James said. “So who are the most viable guys still standing from the latest version? Add one or two new guys.
“Each time that happens, it’s a reinvention. There’s a desire to prove that it’s still in the right hands and we are the right guys.”
Whenever the global pandemic ends and musicians are able to record and tour again, James said the Burrito Brothers hope to reschedule postponed concert dates as well as put some new ones on the docket for the future—whenever that turns out to be.
“I like to think we’re something of a classic rock band, but the problem is classic rock as a genre is just a radio format that plays all the hits. And that’s not necessarily us,” James said, adding that it’s his belief the band has always done better overseas than domestically. “We’re actually not a ‘road dog’ bunch of guys. We’re older guys who all do lots of sessions in Nashville. It’s not [the same] eagerness as if we were 20-something, 30-something to stay on the road.
“We’re into looking for nice, shorter jaunts.”
The Notorious Burrito Brothers is now available from Store for Music records.