The Grievous Angel
Many people have never heard of Gram Parsons and most people certainly have no concept of his brief life and of his impact on the face of country and rock music. Sadly, his story is filled with tragedy and addiction. To his loyal fans, his self- destruction remains one of the classic "what ifs" of popular music. Parts of his life make him seem unworthy of all his accolades, yet essentially, Gram was just a flawed human being like so many others.
Gram's compulsive personality linked with drug abuse and physical dependence combined to end his life much too early. This story differs from Hendrix's or Joplin's in the respect that Gram had everything a success requires from day one. His meteoric rise to rock star status was matched only by his quick, untimely death. The music world will never know what might have been had Gram Parsons not possessed privilege and the will to self destruct.
Rolling Stone magazine ranked Gram Parsons #87 on their list of the 100 Most Influential Artists of All Time. ("The Immortals," Rolling Stone, Issue 946) Parsons, born on November 5, 1946, was to become a shooting comet on the American music scene who died of a drug overdose at the age of 26 in a hotel room in Joshua Tree, California. His life personified the old saying of living fast, dying young, and leaving a beautiful corpse.
Gram was a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and pianist who played with the Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers before he became a solo artist, formally introducing Emmylou Harris in his duets. Though Parsons hated the term "country rock" and the kind of music the term came to define, Gram pioneered the concept of a rock band playing country music, and as a solo artist he moved even further into country, blending the two genres until they became indistinguishable from each other. Wary of labels, Parsons was satisfied to describe his own records merely as Cosmic American Music.(www.biographybase.com)
Parsons' actual output — the number of records he made and sold — was pretty minimal. But his innovative effect on country music remains enormous. Performers like Elvis Costello, Linda Ronstadt, Tom Petty, the Eagles, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Pure Prairie League surely felt Parson's musical influence.
While he was alive, Parsons was a cult figure that never sold many records but he influenced countless fellow musicians, from the Rolling Stones to the Byrds. After death, his stature has grown even more. Writer Mark Leviton once said, "Gram Parsons was on loan to us for a little while, but we didn't look up fast enough." (Shaun Mullen, "The Moderate Voice," TMV, February 3 2008)
Parsons had a great smile and a way of making people feel comfortable around him. Emmylou Harris remembers Gram foremost as " a Southern boy: very polite, raised in a kind of genteel society, and there was a certain inherent kindness and humor that was always there, and you could spot it right away. It was in the way he carried himself." (www.gramparsonsproject.com)
Parsons had it all from the beginning: looks, cool, charm, charisma, money, style, genius, health, poetry, soul, chops, rapacious sexuality, and good fellowship – and threw it away with both hands, every minute of the day. (David N. Meyer, Twenty Thousand Roads,2007)
The Life of Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons was born Cecil Ingram Connor III, in Winter Haven, Florida. He was a grandson of citrus fruit magnate John A. Snively, who owned roughly one-third of all the citrus fields in the state. He was raised in Waycross, Georgia, where where Cecil owned a box-making factory and Grandpa Snively owned other extensive properties.
Gram's early life was marred with tragedy. His father,"Coon Dog" Connor, a flying ace in World War II, suffered mood swings and abruptly committed suicide two days before Christmas, 1958. Seriously shaken by the event, Gram had been attending the prestigious Bolles School in Winter Haven at the time, but soon after his father's suicide, he was kicked out of the school for disciplinary problems.
After returning to Winter Haven, Gram's mother, Avis, then married alleged fortune-hunter Bob Parsons, whose surname Gram adopted. Avis Parsons gave birth to a daughter by her new husband, but before long, Bob Parsons was spending an unseemly amount of time with their 18-year-old babysitter.(Ben Fong-Torres, Sid Griffin, "Byrd Watcher," ebni.com/byrds) Avis rapidly descended into alcoholism and prescribed drugs, which Gram began to sample from her medicine cabinet as this early age.
Gram had seen Elvis perform in 1956 in Waycross as an opener for Little Jimmie Dickens and quickly developed strong musical interests as his family began disintegrating around him in a Tennesse Williams-esque drama. He got Elvis's autograph, and soon was lip-synching Elvis numbers on his front stoop for the neighborhood kids.Gram learned how to play the piano at the age of nine. His young friends remember Gram Connor as smart, charismatic, and prone to spinning wild tales.
Gram played in numerous rock cover bands as a teen. In 1960, he formed The Pacers. One of the early bands,The Legends, consisted of fellow future hit makers Jim Stafford and the members of the band Lobo. By age 16, he began playing folk music.
In 1963, he joined a professional folk group, The Shilos, and began working the folk scene, and in the summer of 1964, the group even traveled to New York City's Greenwich Village and played appearances at the famous club, The Bitter End. John Phillips, founder of the Mamas and Papas, brought the Shilos to the office of Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan's manager. A Grossman underling was intrigued, but balked when he learned the Shilos were all too young to sign a contract.
In fall of 1963, Gram returned to the Bolles School to repeat his junior year. He passed and continued to play music.
Aside from her husband's conduct, Avis Parsons had been experiencing other troubles: she had been embroiled in a bitter internecine legal struggle over her brother's management of the Snively businesses -- a struggle that helped cause the loss of the entire family fortune by 1974. These emotional strains had worsened her condition. In June, 1965, on high school graduation morning, Gram learned that his mother had died of alcohol poisoning (cirrhosis) after a period of hospitalization.
The Shilos folded and Bob Parsons soon married the family's babysitter. Despite considerable strain in their relations, Bob Parsons helped his step-son secure a draft deferment (on the grounds that he was supposedly 4-F) and encouraged him to apply to Harvard. Gram was accepted and attended Harvard University for one semester as a theology student, a move he believed was a "back-dive" for him because Harvard was into a new phase of choosing students out of the traditional mold. It, after all, was the turbulent '60's.
In Boston, Gram heard Merle Haggard for the first time and began taking a serious interest in playing country music. In 1966, he and others from the Boston folk scene formed the International Submarine Band. The group spent a year in New York, developing a heavily country-influenced rock & roll sound and cutting two unsuccessful singles for Columbia Records.
Then, the band relocated to Los Angeles the following year. There they secured a record contract with Lee Hazlewood's LHI record label to record an album (1967's Safe At Home). The group had already disbanded by the time of the album's release.
In Los Angeles, Parsons became acquainted with Chris Hillman of the Byrds, who in 1967 began looking for a replacement for David Crosby and Michael Clarke. In February 1968, he passed an audition for the band, being initially recruited as a jazz pianist but soon switching to rhythm guitar and vocals.
Although Parsons was an equal contributor to the band, he was not a legitimate member of The Byrds in the eyes of Columbia Records, the band's record label. (Johnny Rogan, The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited, 1998) Only Hillman and Roger McGuinn signed the contract: Gram was on salary as a side man even though the public and the press considered Parsons a member of the band with equal billing. (Bud Scoppa, "Track-by-Track," Sacred Hearts Fallen Angels) During this time (1968) Parsons help persuade the Byrds to record their highly acclaimed album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, including two of Gram's songs.The album was originally planned to feature Parsons' lead vocals, but as he was still contractually obligated to Lee Hazelwood's record label, his voice had to be stripped from most of the final product.
While in England with The Byrds in the summer of 1968, Parsons left the band over his opposition toward a planned concert in South Africa, citing opposition to that country's apartheid policies.(David Fricke, Sweetheart of the Rodeo: Legacy Edition, 2003 CD liner notes) Near this time, Parsons became friendly with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.
Parsons soon developed a close kinship with Richards and reintroduced Richards to country music. Parsons had experimented with drugs and alcohol before he met Keith, but in 1969 he dove deep into substance abuse, which he supported with his sizable trust fund. (Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide) According to Keith, Gram had "better coke than the Mafia." (David M. Meyer, Twenty Thousand Roads, 2007)
Pamela Des Barres, girlfriend of Chris Hillman, describes the Parsons/Richards relationship: "But Keith had a much stronger constitution - obviously, it's notorious - and Gram was a weeping willow tree. He couldn't keep up with him...Obviously, many of the songs that came after and during their friendship with Gram sounded.country-like. "Country Honk," "Dead Flowers," "Sweet Virginia" that was Gram's presence, wafting out into their music. They saturated themselves in him. And he was so willing to it; he was really thrilled to be an influence."
As one of the disciples of the Stones, Gram, the guy from the middle of nowhere, Florida, was actually friends with Mick and Keith -- rather unbelievable at the time. (www.gramparsonsproject.com) He was a handsome, hip and educated upstart, and this combination somewhat threatened Mick Jagger.
Stanley Booth, author of Adventures of the Rolling Stones, said to Mick Jagger, Gram Parsons represented someone who "has cooler clothes, cooler records, knows more about music - it was like Mick was going down the fast lane at 100 miles an hour, and somebody passes him at 200 miles an hour." Keith Richards, on the other hand, felt as if Mick was acting like a kid in a sandbox: "He's my friend; he can't be yours." Paul Kaufman, manager, stated, "He (Gram) was their equal: he wasn't a strap-hanger. They respected him."
Returning to Los Angeles, Parsons sought out Hillman (both as rhythm guitarists), and the two formed the Flying Burrito Brothers with bassist Chris Ethridge and pedal steel player Sneaky Pete Kleinow. The 1969 album The Gilded Palace Of Sin featured the Bakersfield style of country music made popular by Buck Owens, and the band appeared on the album cover wearing Nudie suits emblazoned with all sorts of hippie accoutrements, an avant-garde thing to do.
The album was not a commercial success, but largely through its release, the group gathered a dedicated cult following that was mainly composed of musicians.The album also provided a template for the country rock to follow.
The singer's dedication to the Rolling Stones was rewarded when the Burrito Brothers were booked as the opening act of the infamous Altamont Music Festival. Playing a short set including "Six Days on the Road" and "Bony Moronie", Parsons left on one of the final helicopters and attempted to pick up Michelle Phillips.
Gram recorded a second album with the Burrito Brothers, but spent a large amount of time ingesting alcohol and drugs. By this time, Parsons' own use of drugs had increased to the extent that recording the album was slow and acrimonious. Burrito Deluxe (1970), like its predecessor, underperformed commercially but faced the double whammy of being lambasted by critics.The album did feature Jagger and Richards' "Wild Horses" as a first release of the famous Rolling Stone's song.
Chris Hillman had a definite take on Parson's persona at the time. Hillman stated, "By the time Burrito Deluxe came along, it was not on the best of terms, and at that point in time, he (Gram) was completely taken with the hedonistic lifestyle, to be diplomatic [laughs]. He wasn't showing up for shows on time, he was showing up not in any shape to sing or play - and we eventually got rid of him." (www.gramparsonsproject.com)
So finally, in an agreement with Chris Hillman, who was at his wits' end after two years of babysitting Parsons, Gram left the Burritos. Parsons had developed deep and serious problems with alcohol, cocaine, and heroin. He accompanied the Stones on their 1971 tour in the hope of being signed to the newly formed Rolling Stones Records. He was present for much of the Rolling Stones recording sessions for Exile On Main Street, but eventually was asked to leave my Anita Pallenberg, Richards' domestic partner.
After leaving the Stones' camp, Parsons married in 1971, for the only time, to aspiring actress Gretchen Burrell. Allegedly, the relationship was far from stable, with Burrell cutting a needy and jealous figure while Parsons quashed her burgeoning film career.
With the assistance of Ric Grech, bass player for Blind Faith and Traffic and one of the bassist's friends, Hank Wangfore, a doctor friend who dabbled in country music, Parsons managed to kick his heroin habit once and for all
Gram headed back to Los Angeles late in 1971, spending the rest of the year and the first half of 1972 writing material for an impending solo album. There he met Emmylou Harris through Chris Hillman, and Parsons asked her to join his backing band; she accepted. (Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide)
Emmylou Harris recalls first meeting Gram: "I'd heard his name, but I didn't really know that much about him - and at that point in my life, I wasn't impressed by anything. I was the jaded, cynical, old 25 year-old: I'd had a baby and a broken marriage, and I'd worked as a waitress and I'd been on food stamps, and I had so much experience."
"I didn't realize how committed he was to country music until we started working together and working up all those country songs [laughs]. I just saw an opportunity. I was very opportunistic at that point. I had to raise a child, and I got offered a ticket out to Los Angeles to work on a record, and I thought 'Gee, I'm going to get on that plane before they change their minds.' It was a round-trip ticket and I got a free meal on the plane [laughs]." After singing with Gram, Emmylou fell in love with his voice and later fell in love with Gram. (www.gramparsonsproject.com)
According to documentary director Gandulf Henning (Fallen Angel), Parsons and Harris were "musical soul mates, the two had a compatibility that was, as Harris once put it, like "Astaire and Rogers." It's moving to hear Harris talk about how, when Parsons finally sobered up, she really "heard" his voice for the first time.
Harris stated this about their love: "Oh yeah (love). And if he hadn't died. We were definitely moving that way. A couple of weeks before, I'd finally accepted the fact that I was in love with him. But, you know, why even tell him? I was going to see him in a few weeks. I had all the time in the world. And then he died, so I never even got to tell him." (www.gramparsonsproject.com)
Parsons' new backing road band included legendary bluegrass guitarist Clarence White, Pete Kleinow, and Chris Etheridge. Tragically, on July 14, 1973, White was killed by a drunk driver while loading equipment in his car for a concert with the New Kentucky Colonels. At White's funeral, Parsons and Bernie Leadon launched into an impromptu touching rendition of "Farther Along." White's death dealt another tremendous blow to Gram.
That night, the distraught and drunken musician reportedly informed Phil Kaufman, road manager who insured that Gram stayed away from substance abuse by limiting his alcohol intake during shows and throwing out any drugs smuggled into hotel rooms, of his final wish: to be cremated in Joshua Tree. He had become enamored of Joshua Tree National Monument. He had gone there regularly, with Chris Hillman when they were bandmates, and later with Keith Richards, to get high, commune with the cactus, and watch the sky for UFOs.
Despite the almost insurmountable setback of Clarence White's death, Parsons, Harris, and the other musicians decided to continue with plans for a fall tour.
A solo album, GP, (including three members of Elvis Presley’s touring band, Glen D. Hardin, James Burton, and Ronnie Tutt) was finished toward the end of the summer in 1973, and Parsons celebrated its completion by taking a vacation near his favorite destination, the Joshua Tree National Monument in California. He spend most of his vacation there consuming drugs and alcohol. "Parsons' appetite for self-destruction remained intact. Parsons lived the life of a true 'honky tonk hero' with all the excesses of Hank Williams." (www.rhino.co.uk)
Following the release of the album , Parsons went on a small tour with his new band, the Fallen Angels.The touring party also included Gretchen Parsons—by this point extremely envious of Harris—and Harris' young daughter.
Also in the summer of 1973, Parsons' Topanga Canyon home burned to the ground, the result of a stray cigarette. Nearly all of his possessions were destroyed with the exception of a guitar and a prized Jaguar automobile. The fire proved to be the last straw in the relationship between Burrell and Parsons, who moved into a spare room in Kaufman's house.
Before formally breaking up with his wife, Parsons already had a woman waiting in the wings. While recording, he saw a photo of a beautiful woman at a friend's home and was instantly smitten. The woman turned out to be Margaret Fisher, a high school sweetheart of the singer from his Waycross, Georgia days. She had drifted west, like Parsons, to become a part of the Bay Area music scene.
For his next and final album, 1974's Grievous Angel, Gram again used Emmylou Harris and guitar great James Burton. The record, which was released after his death, received even more enthusiastic reviews than had GP, and has since attained classic status. Parsons reportedly loved the new sound and seemed to have finally adopted a serious, diligent mindset to his musical career, eschewing most drugs and alcohol during the sessions.
Before a new tour was scheduled to commence in October 1973, Parsons decided to go on one more excursion to Joshua Tree. There, he reserved two rooms at the nearby Joshua Tree Inn, a modest cinder-block motel whose owners had come to know Parsons after several visits. Along with Parsons on this trip were his "valet" and chum, Michael Martin; Martin's girlfriend Dale McElroy (no fan of Gram Parsons); and his new girlfriend Margaret Fisher. (Ben Fong-Torres, Sid Griffin, "Byrd Watcher," ebni.com/byrds)
Less than two days after arriving, Parsons died September 19, 1973 from a lethal combination, purportedly of morphine and alcohol. ("What's Up With the Strange End of Country-rock Pioneer Gram Parsons," The Straight Dope)
Parson's stepfather arranged for a private ceremony back in New Orleans and neglected to invite any of his friends from the music industry. According to Phil Kaufman, "Bob Parsons knew that under Louisiana's Napoleonic code, his adopted son's estate would pass in its entirety to the nearest living male -- Bob Parsons -- notwithstanding any will provisions to the contrary. But the code would only apply if Bob Parsons could prove that Gram Parsons had been a resident of Louisiana." So, burying the younger Parsons in New Orleans would bolster the arguments for Louisiana residency. At stake was his stepson's share of the dwindling but still substantial Snively fortune." (Road Mangler Deluxe, 1998)
Bob Parsons went to Los Angeles to claim Gram's body, but to fulfill Parsons' "funeral" wishes, Kaufman and a friend stole his body from the airport and in a borrowed hearse drove it to Joshua Tree where they attempted to cremate it by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin and throwing a lit match inside. What resulted was an enormous fireball. Police chased them, but according to one account they "were encumbered by sobriety," and got away. ("What's Up With the Strange End of Country-rock Pioneer Gram Parsons," The Straight Dope).
Kaufman reported that the two were arrested several days later. Since there was no law against stealing a dead body (a corpse has no intrinsic value), they were only fined $750 (or $700) for stealing the coffin and were not prosecuted for leaving 35 lbs of his charred remains in the desert.
Bob Parsons had the charred remains of his stepson shipped to New Orleans for a small service with family only.Gram Parson's remains were buried in The Garden of Memories, a nondescript cemetery on a highway near the airport. A bronze plaque marks the gravesite; it reads "God's Own Singer." Bob Parsons' scheme to seize control of the Snively fortune was nevertheless thwarted by a Florida court. About a year later, Bob Parsons died of an alcohol-related illness. He never made a dime off of Gram Parsons. (Phil Kaufman, Road Mangler Deluxe, 1998)
Chris Hillman summed up Gram and his life like this: "You've got to understand: he was a really sweet guy. I'm not trying to rag him. But he was totally like a kid in a candy store. Two years prior to all this happening, he was a kid in his first year of college, listening to Rolling Stones and Byrds albums. And all of a sudden, he's thrust into this arena. We'd all had our hit records and been a bit jaded by then, but he was ready to go. But he had the potential to be anything he wanted to be as a songwriter. He had the talent and the charisma - all of the things that were god-given to him. And unfortunately, he threw them away." ((www.gramparsonsproject.com)