Gram Parsons (1946-1973)
Gram Parsons is widely acknowledged to be one of the most important pioneers of the country-rock genre. Though he lived to be only twenty-six, Parsons created an influential body of work that includes, most notably, albums recorded with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and his two solo records. Parsons's critical reputation has grown steadily since his death in 1973, and his music has influenced a younger generation of so-called alternative country, or "alt-country," musicians, particularly Son Volt, Wilco, and Ryan Adams.
Parsons was born Ingram Cecil Connor III in Winter Haven, Florida, on November 5, 1946. His father, Cecil, was a major in the air force. His mother, Avis, was the daughter of the prominent Snively family, who had made a large fortune in the Florida orange business. After retiring from the air force, Cecil moved to Georgia and ran the Snively's crate production plant in Waycross (Ware County), where Parsons and his younger sister, Avis, grew up. Parsons often referred to his childhood as the happiest years of his life, even though his parents' drinking habits cast a shadow over the family. He listened to the country radio that dominated Georgia and sang hymns in church. He was also exposed to both soul and rhythm and blues music through the family's black domestic help, and his father, an amateur musician, encouraged his son to learn piano. In 1956 the ten-year-old Parsons saw Elvis Presley play at the Waycross City Auditorium, an experience that changed his musical outlook.
When Parsons was thirteen, his father, who likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after his service in World War II (1941-45), committed suicide. His mother then married Bob Parsons (whose name Parsons would take despite their uneasy relationship), and her drinking continued, eventually causing cirrhosis of the liver. She died on the day of Parsons's high school graduation.
Parsons's first important foray into music was with the International Submarine Band, which formed during his freshman year at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He left school after only one semester. The band moved to Los Angeles, California, where Parsons quickly connected with the West Coast scene. The band recorded one album, Safe at Home (1968), a mix of classic country music covers and Parsons originals. Even at this early stage the elements of his sound—country, rhythm and blues, soul, gospel, and rock—were formed.
In 1968 Parsons joined the rock band the Byrds as the piano player. His powerful personality and musical vision immediately transformed the band. The result was Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), a country-music record made in Nashville, Tennessee. Parsons wrote much of the material on the record, and many critics called it one of the best records of the year and one of the Byrds' best efforts to date. The Byrds were invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry—the first rock-and-roll act to appear on that stage—where they upset the management by performing Parsons's song "Hickory Wind" instead of the Merle Haggard tune they had been asked to play. Despite the band's successes, however, Parsons's work ethic was not up to the Byrds' standards. When he opted to stay in London, England, and hang out with friends instead of playing with the group in apartheid-run South Africa, he was fired.
Parsons immediately formed the Flying Burrito Brothers and recorded Gilded Palace of Sin (1969). The album includes Parsons's original material and cover versions of such rhythm and blues hits as "Dark End of the Street" and "Do Right Woman." Parsons never liked the term country-rock; he preferred to call his sound "cosmic American music." The sound is firmly rooted in honky-tonk and country but suffused with a rock, counterculture spirit. The Flying Burrito Brothers gained a small, devoted following, but radio airplay eluded them and record sales were not strong. The band was considered to be too country for rock radio, yet did not fit the rigid Nashville country mold either.
During this time Parsons had Nudie Cohn, the famed designer, make suits that enabled the band members to wear (literally) their country-rock style on their sleeves. The Nudie suit was at the time a widely recognized country look, popularized by such artists as Hank Williams and Gene Autry. Parsons's white Nudie suit was sequined with images of naked women, marijuana leaves, pills, and a giant beaming cross on the back, in place of the usual cacti, cowboy hats, and lassos.
Parsons made only one more record with the Flying Burrito Brothers, Burrito Deluxe (1970), which features the first recording of "Wild Horses," the well-known Rolling Stones song. (The Stones gave Parsons an early crack at the song as a gift for his help with writing the tune.) But Parsons's escalating drug use and erratic lifestyle once again caused problems with the band he fronted, and he left.
After two years out of the studio, Parsons enlisted the then-unknown folk singer Emmylou Harris to accompany him on vocals for his comeback solo record, GP (1973). The duets they performed were so successful that he asked Harris back to the studio for his second solo album, Grievous Angel (1974). Critics often cite Parsons and Harris alongside the likes of the great country duo Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Parsons's songwriting reached new levels on these records; his sound is stripped down and mature yet retains the signature soul and rock elements of his earlier work. Parsons was, by all accounts, pleased with these recordings. He was also attempting to clean up his drug habit.
On September 19, 1973, only months after he had finished recording Grievous Angel, Parsons died from an overdose of morphine and tequila while on vacation in Joshua Tree, California. In a bizarre incident that would help to feed Parsons's cult status, his road manager and friend Philip Kaufman—acting on a request by Parsons to have his ashes spread across Joshua Tree National Park—stole Parsons's corpse and coffin from the airport, where it was waiting to be flown home. Kaufman and another man took the coffin to Cap Rock in the park, doused it in gasoline, and lit it on fire. The casket and body were, according to Kaufman, completely consumed on the spot. Because there was no law in California against stealing a dead body, Kaufman was charged only with stealing a coffin.
Parsons's music continues to find new admirers and gain critical recognition. Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology (2001) offers a good introduction to his work. The collection Another Side of This Life: The Lost Recordings of Gram Parsons, 1965-1966 (2000) showcases his early musical development, and a recording of a New York City performance with his backing band the Fallen Angels, Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels, Live, 1973, was released in 1982 and rereleased in 1997. A noteworthy tribute album, called Return of the Grievous Angel, was released in 1999 and features such artists as Beck, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, and Steve Earle performing Parsons's songs.