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A pioneering figure in the histories of both rock-n-roll and country music, Gram Parsons was a singer-songwriter who saw common ground in both genres, and attempted to combine them throughout his short but prolific career, which encompassed stints in the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, as well as a pair of critically acclaimed solo albums before his death in 1973. Parsons' best songs featured the high, precise harmonies of traditional country, which were abetted by his frequent musical partner, Emmylou Harris, with touches of rock and soul that lent an earthy quality to the material. He was largely responsible for creating one of the first country-rock albums, the Byrds' legendary Sweethearts of the Rodeo (1968), before delving deeper with the Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace of Sin (1969). Parsons' notorious appetites for drugs and alcohol left him adrift in the early 1970s, but he marshaled his strength for a pair of stunning solo albums, GP (1973) and Return of the Grievous Angel (1974), which seemed to concrete his musical aspirations. Parsons died before he could partake more fully of his revitalized vision, but his influence was felt in countless bands that forged links between country and...
A pioneering figure in the histories of both rock-n-roll and country music, Gram Parsons was a singer-songwriter who saw common ground in both genres, and attempted to combine them throughout his short but prolific career, which encompassed stints in the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, as well as a pair of critically acclaimed solo albums before his death in 1973. Parsons' best songs featured the high, precise harmonies of traditional country, which were abetted by his frequent musical partner, Emmylou Harris, with touches of rock and soul that lent an earthy quality to the material. He was largely responsible for creating one of the first country-rock albums, the Byrds' legendary Sweethearts of the Rodeo (1968), before delving deeper with the Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace of Sin (1969). Parsons' notorious appetites for drugs and alcohol left him adrift in the early 1970s, but he marshaled his strength for a pair of stunning solo albums, GP (1973) and Return of the Grievous Angel (1974), which seemed to concrete his musical aspirations. Parsons died before he could partake more fully of his revitalized vision, but his influence was felt in countless bands that forged links between country and rock in the decades that followed his untimely passing.
Born Ingram Cecil Connor III on Nov. 5, 1946 in Waycross, GA, Gram Parsons was the son of Cecil "Coon Dog" Connor, Jr., a decorated World War II pilot who owned a box-making factory, and his mother, Avis Snively, whose father was Southern citrus fruit magnate John A. Snively. By all accounts, Parsons was a happy, charismatic child who began playing the piano at age nine and loved the new sound of rock-n-roll after seeing Elvis Presley perform live in 1956. His personality and passion helped him contend with a troubled home life: both parents suffered from alcoholism, and his father committed suicide two days before Christmas in 1958, which devastated his son. In the wake of the tragic death, Parsons and his mother moved in with his grandparents in Winter Haven, FL where in 1959, she married Robert Parsons, who adopted her son and gave him his surname.
Rock-n-roll became a source of consolation and freedom for Parsons in the midst of so much upheaval. He jointed his first band, the Pacers, while in eighth grade, and soon defected to another local group, the Legends, whose members included future '70s-era singer-songwriters Jim Stafford and Kent LaVoie, who later performed under the stage name Lobo. He soon added several folk groups to his growing stable of acts, which helped to keep his mind off the growing turmoil in his household. After giving birth to a daughter, Avis had fallen deeply into alcoholism and a dependency on prescription drugs to contend with her husband's infidelity with the family's teenaged babysitter. Parsons himself began pilfering from his mother's medicine cabinet, which began his long and unfortunate relationship with pharmaceuticals.
The Legends came to an end in 1963 when Parsons' family sent him to military school to prevent him from marrying his then girlfriend. But he soon fell in with a professional folk act called the Shilohs, which played coffeehouses and school dances throughout South Carolina before heading to New York. There, they played many of the more famous clubs like the Bitter End, where they caught the attention of future Mamas and Papas leader John Phillips. Through him, they were introduced to Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, who expressed interest in the group, but stopped short of signing them after learning that they were still high school students.
The Shilohs disbanded in 1965, victims of a musical sea change from folk to rock-n-roll from the British Invasion. Parsons also graduated from high school that year, though again, family tragedy robbed him of any sense of happiness. His mother died from alcohol poisoning on the morning of his graduation ceremony, leaving her son with a legal mess involving alleged mismanagement of the family's finances by her brother, who would essentially bankrupt the Snively fortune in 1974. Robert Parsons, who would marry the family babysitter almost immediately after Avis' death, helped to earn his stepson a draft deferment on the basis of being unfit for duty, then encouraged him to apply to Harvard University. Parsons' major at Harvard was theology, but after a semester, he dropped out to pursue his musical aspirations. He had never expressed a particular interest in country music, but after hearing Merle Haggard while at school, he began exploring in depth the genre's long history. Local guitarist John Nuese encouraged his country interests, and the two soon formed the International Submarine Band with bassist Ian Dunlop and drummer Mickey Gauvin. The band relocated to New York City, where Parsons began formulating his first songs with an explicit country-rock feel. After moving to Los Angeles, the band fell apart prior to landing a contract with producer Lee Hazelwood's LHI Records. Parsons hastily assembled a new International Submarine Band to record their debut album, Safe at Home.
During the album's lengthy recording contract, Parsons had befriended Chris Hillman, bassist for the Byrds, which had recently lost two key members, David Crosby and Michael Clarke, in 1967. The following year, Parsons joined the Byrds, which spurred the end of the International Submarine Band and the ire of Lee Hazelwood, who had finally released Safe at Home in 1968. Hazelwood wielded Parsons' contract with LHI as legal ammunition against the group, which responded by wiping Parsons' vocals from three songs on their latest album, a concept double album that was intended to trace the history of popular music from bluegrass to electronic sounds. However, Parsons had convinced the group to abandon the sprawling scope and focus on his country-rock hybrid, which resulted in 1968's Sweethearts of the Rodeo, the first fully realized country-rock album and a vanguard of the genre for generations. Among its highlights was "Hickory Wind," an achingly bittersweet song penned by Parsons and International Submarine Band member Bob Buchanan. The song would become Parsons' signature tune, and a staple of his live performances.
Parsons' tenure in the Byrds was short-lived. Never a full-fledged member in the eyes of both the label and some of his bandmates, he abandoned the group while on tour in England over proposed concert dates in South Africa. He fell in with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and re-ignited the latter's dormant passion for classic country music. Parsons' influence on the Rolling Stones could be heard in songs like "Honky Tonk Women" and later, the whole of the legendary Exile on Main St. (1972) album, which experimented with country, blues, soul and gospel sounds. In turn, Richards stoked Parsons' growing appetite for drugs and alcohol to self-abusive levels.
In late 1968, Parsons returned to Los Angeles, where he found Chris Hillman, who had also been recently cut loose from the Byrds. With bassist Chris Ethridge and pedal steel player "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow, the duo formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, and delved even further into Parsons' country-rock aspirations. Their debut album, 1969's The Gilded Palace of Sin, featured an updated version of the Bakersfield sound, as popularized by its leading proponent, Buck Owens, who blended traditional country rhythms with electric instruments and hints of jazz. Ex-Byrds David Crosby and Michael Clarke also contributed to the album, which received critical acclaim but sold few copies. A haphazard promotional tour, which crossed America via train due to Parsons' fear of flying, was met with bewilderment by audiences, who were baffled by both the band's refusal to play original material in favor of country covers as well as Parsons' bizarre on-stage behavior, which was exacerbated by a massive drug intake.
In 1969, Parsons reunited with Richards and the Rolling Stones as they completed work on their album Let It Bleed. The British group made the Burrito Brothers their opening act at the infamous Altamont Music Festival, where they hurried through a short set before departing via helicopter, barely missing the onslaught of brutality unleashed by the Hell's Angels, who were working as security at the event. A portion of the Burrito Brothers' set was captured in the 1969 documentary "Gimme Shelter." The Burrito Brothers would record one more album with Parsons, Burrito Deluxe (1970), which featured an early cover of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses," but otherwise failed to increase their fortunes. Parsons left the group that year under less than amicable circumstances, having burnt his final bridges with Hillman after years of erratic behavior.
Parsons signed a solo deal with the Burritos' label, A&M, and commenced work on an album with producer Terry Melcher in 1970. The duo's combined passion for cocaine and heroin torpedoed any chance at productivity, so Parsons soon lit out for England, where he toured with the Rolling Stones and hoped to launch a duo act with Richards for the group's new label, Rolling Stones Records. He followed the band to France, where they recorded Exile on Main St., but Parsons proved more hindrance than help due to his constant state of intoxication. Eventually, he was sent packing by Richards' girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, and returned to the States where he commenced a highly combative marriage to his then-girlfriend, actress Gretchen Burrell. Parsons finally kicked his heroin habit in 1971 and gained control of his life and his creative facilities. He set to work on a new album, and after amassing an all-star lineup of players that included Elvis Presley's guitarist, James Burton and Rick Grech of Blind Faith, recorded GP for Reprise in 1972. The album featured the same wistful sound of his best-known song, "Hickory Wind," and featured a gorgeous cover of Tompall Glaser's "The Street of Baltimore." Adding to the album's sense of fragile beauty was the ethereal voice of Emmylou Harris, a singer he had met in Washington, D.C., and with whom he would enjoy a fruitful collaboration for many years.
GP failed to generate massive album sales, but Parsons and Harris launched a tour behind the record, which after a slow start, gained national acclaim for their stellar harmonies and unbridled onstage enthusiasm. The pair quickly began work on a new album, which featured a handful of covers, a new version of "Hickory Wind," and several songs from his days as a folk singer, as well as two originals: the stately "In My Hour of Darkness" and "Return of the Grievous Angel." The latter also gave the album its title, and after completing the sessions, he joined a brief tour of Warner Bros.' country acts that included ex-Byrd Clarence White and his former Burrito bandmates Pete Kleinow and Chris Ethridge. White was killed by a drunk driver during the tour, which devastated Parsons. He reportedly told his road manager, Phil Kaufman, that if he befell a similar fate, he wanted to be cremated at the Joshua Tree National Monument in the southeastern California desert. He had been spending time there in its vast stillness while under the influence of LSD. Parsons' home in Topanga Canyon burned to the ground in 1973, leaving him with only his guitar and a Jaguar convertible. The disaster also signaled the end of his relationship with Gretchen Burrell, and Parsons soon moved in with Kaufman, where he played with visiting up-and-coming acts like Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers and cultivated a new romance with his high school sweetheart, Margaret Fisher. Sadly, Parsons' substance abuse issues also returned with a vengeance.
In late 1973, Parsons traveled to Joshua Tree with Fisher and his assistant, Michael Martin. On September 19, two days after their arrival, Parsons died of an overdose from a massive amount of morphine combined with alcohol. Martin brought the singer's body back to Los Angeles, where it was brought to Los Angeles International Airport for a flight to Louisiana to be buried. However, Kaufman intercepted the body and lit out for Joshua Tree in a hearse, where he and a friend attempted to cremate Parsons with five gallons of gasoline, resulting in a massive fireball and only partially consumed remains. The site was later marked by a concrete slab, which was later relocated by the U.S. National Park Service to the Joshua Tree Inn, where Parsons was staying at the time of his death. Parsons' final album, Grievous Angel was released to critical acclaim in 1974, and helped to establish his mythological status as a musical visionary who foresaw the union of country and rock that came to pass in subsequent decades through such bands as Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, Lucinda Williams and countless others. The events of Parsons' death were made into a highly fictionalized comedy, "Grand Theft Parsons" (2003), which featured Johnny Knoxville as Phil Kaufman. That same year, Parsons was posthumously awarded the President's Award by the Americana Music Association.
By Paul Gaita
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