The Shilos were one of countless folk and folk-based groups that appeared in the early '60s, in the wake of acts like the Kingston Trio and the Highwaymen. They showed an extraordinary level of talent and virtuosity, sufficient to make them successful in the southeast where they were based. They were also first the professional group of which Gram Parsons was a member. Paul Surratt (banjo, guitar, vocals), Joe Kelly (upright bass, vocals), and George Wrigley III (lead vocals, guitar, banjo) got together as a trio in Greenville, SC, in the early '60s. Their main influences at the time were the Kingston Trio and the Journeymen, of which Surratt, in particular, was a serious devotee. It was while Wrigley was hospitalized, and Kelly and Surratt were working as a duo, that Gram Parsons crossed paths with them at a folk concert in Cypress Gardens, FL. He decided after the performance that he had to join the Shilos and did just that. The Shilos became a quartet, managed by Lewis Freeman, who had been Parsons' manager, and they became very popular locally, playing at charity events, department store openings, amusement parks, and luncheons for civic and professional groups. In between the occasional originals (often by Parsons), the Shilos became especially proficient at covering songs by their idols, the Kingston Trio and the Journeymen, and also incorporated elements of their respective sounds into many of their own songs. Their lineup also included two female singers, Marilyn Garrett and Kathy Fowler, and Parsons and Fowler did spots of their own at the group's shows.
For all of their activities in and around South Carolina, and despite the best efforts of Freeman to boost the group's profile, the Shilos never made the jump to a recording contract. They made one body of nine songs as a demo, cut in March of 1965 at the radio station at Bob Jones University, in the hope of securing a recording contract. The music on that tape, later released as an album by Sierra Records called Gram Parsons & the Shilos: The Early Years, Vol. 1, is extraordinary -- the nine songs, featuring a handful of Parsons originals interspersed with covers of songs by Dick Weissman (of the Journeymen) and others, show a command of traditional folk styles ranging from country blues to gospel to bluegrass; the harmonies are some of the most beguiling of the whole early '60s folk revival, and Surratt's rippling banjo is a wonder to behold. Additionally, they were true believers in their repertory, their arrangement of "The Bells of Rhymney" is sung with the passion of an original composition, and Dennis Hupp's "Mary Don't You Weep" sounds like it is the last message of the singer.
The group was perhaps just a little late getting started professionally. The folk boom peaked in 1963-1964 -- the British invasion took a lot of the commercial wind out of its sails (and sales), and when Bob Dylan and the Byrds added electric instruments to the music, they took the youngest and most active chunk of the folk audience away with them. Additionally, there were splits within the group, even though they played and sang beautifully together; Parsons was developing interests in country music and rock and was hoping to work in those areas, while Surratt and the others were more focused on traditional folk music. By 1965 when they cut their demo tape, time had run out for the group, not only commercially but also in terms of their internal dynamics. The quartet played one last show at a beach party in Garden City, SC, and went their separate ways the next day. Parsons took off for Harvard and then the West Coast to carve out a unique place for himself in the history of rock music, while the other members initially left music -- in recent decades, however, Paul Surratt has been a major force as a producer and archivist in preserving the legacies of groups like the Kingston Trio and the Journeymen, as well as the Shilos.