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Saturday, April 23, 2005
Artist Overview: Gram Parsons
Almost universally considered the father of country rock, Gram Parsons left a relatively slim but immensely influential body of music in the six years he was active, from 1967-1973. In it, you will hear the genesis of the Eagles, much of Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt's classic work, bits of one of the Rolling Stones' greatest albums, the work of the Long Ryders and Uncle Tupelo, and literally a thousand others. Never a star himself in terms of sales (he was never featured on a top-40 album or single as a performer, and only one album he appears on broke the top-100), Parsons was a musicians' musician; everyone he worked with, from Roger McGuinn to Keith Richards, changed their musical approaches considerably from that point forward, incorporating country conventions into rock music with a new confidence. The mainstream was saturated with country rock for nearly a decade in his wake. He's still a reference point for many young musicians now.
The short, strange odyssey of a life that was Gram Parson's began on November 5, 1946 when Cecil Ingram Connor was brought into this world, the grandson of multimillionaire Florida citrus magnate John Snively.
The son of one Coon Dog Conner, who married Snively's daughter, he learned to play piano by the age of nine. He saw Elvis Presley perform at his school that same year and decided to become a musician. The first tragic turn in his life came when was twelve, when his father commited suicide.
His mother remarried and he was adopted by his stepfather, taking his surname and a new first name, and became Gram Parsons. As a teenager, he played in local Winter Haven bands The Pacers and the Legends; the Legends included Kent Lavoie, who would later come to fame as Lobo. In 1963, at the age of 16, Parsons formed his first real touring band, The Shilos, a folk unit. The Shilos cut a few demos, and played gigs throughout Florida, but didn't really go anywhere. When Parsons was 18, his mother died from alcohol poisoning, on the day he graduated high school.
Parentless, the young Parsons enrolled at Harvard as a theology major, but spent most of his time playing music, and forming his new rock group, The International Submarine Band . Once its lineup was set, he dropped out of Harvard and set out for New York City with the band. It was in New York City, of all places, where Parsons developed his first country stylings; after a year in the city the band had developed a following, and released two country-influenced rock 'n' roll singles in 1966. Neither sold, and the band relocated to Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles, they encountered Lee Hazelwood, who was then enormously successful as half of a duo with Nancy Sinatra; impressed, he signed the band to his own label, LHI International, which released their lone album Safe At Home in 1967. They also landed a movie cameo in L.A., in Roger Korman's The Trip, a psychedelic Peter Fonda vehicle. The band went through some lineup instability at this time; bassist Ian Dunlop and drummer Mickey Gauvin walked out just prior to the LHI audition. The group that appears on Safe At Home consists of Parsons on guitar and vocals, John Neuse on guitar, Parson's childhood friend John Corneal on drums, and bassist Chris Ethridge, plus Nashville session players on pedal steel and piano. It was produced by Suzi Jane Hokum, the LHI house producer.
Safe At Home shed the psychedelic shades their two rare New York singles had, and instead sounds like a straight slab of country music, with only a hint of a rock sound. At this stage, Parsons had immersed himself in country, and hadn't yet developed the synthesis with rock that would spawn the genre. The original album featured four Parsons originals, and five country covers (a Sundazed reissue adds a sixth), including two by Johnny Cash and one by Merle Haggard. Parson's songwriting is already pretty good; "Blue Eyes" is a standout, and he handles Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and Haggard's "I Must Be Somebody Else You've Known" with respect, sensitivity, wit, and passion that seems extraordinary for a 20-year-old. The band sounds rehearsed and play well. It still sounds like an artist who hasn't found his comfortable space yet, but it's a fine listen.
The album failed to chart, but it did get some listens via word-of-mouth among rock musicians, who recognized the possibilities Parsons represented. In February, 1968, the Byrds (who were down to a duo of Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman following the departures of Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, and David Crosby over the course of a year and a half) invited Parsons to join, despite the fact that the International Submarine Band was still under contract to LHI. Threatened with a lawsuit, he had to sign over his rights to the International Submarine Band name, and was also blocked from adding any vocals to the Byrds' album. The International Submarine band attempted to find a replacement, but couldn't, and folded.
The Byrds had dabbled in country music over the course of their mid-late 60's releases, but with Parsons in the fold, the band made a complete transformation into a country-rock unit. Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, recorded by Parsons, original Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, and new drummer Kevin Kelly, is where country-rock really begins as a true subgenre. While it might be tempting to credit Parsons with transforming the Byrds, the Byrds also had a profound effect on Parsons, teaching him some things about rock. The result is the perfect hybrid; seemingly using Safe At Home as a blueprint, they delivered a collection of 9 covers and 2 Parsons-penned originals (A Columbia reissue includes eight bonus songs, including two more Parsons originals) that sound like sincere, realistic country, but still plays like rock.
This change in style for the Byrds was a controversial one, and it came with a price; the album peaked at #77, the Byrds' worst showing to date. Still, it was a sound they (or McGuinn) committed to; after Parsons and Hillman left the band following the release of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, the Byrds continued in a similar vein, remaining a country-rock outfit for the remainder of their career.
Parsons' tenure with the band ended after just a few months when he refused to accompany them on a tour of South Africa, in protest against apartheid. Chris Hillman would follow him out of the Byrds shortly thereafter, and the two formed a new band together, The Flying Burrito Brothers. The band also included former International Submarine Band bassist Chris Ethridge and "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow on pedal steel. The Flying Burrito Brothers' first release, The Gilded Palace of Sin, came out in February 1969.
The Gilded Palace of Sin takes Sweetheart Of the Rodeo's approach and refines it to perfection. It is this album that truly kicked off the country-rock movement at large. A weak seller, peaking at #154 on the charts, it nontheless impressed nearly every musician who heard it, and many of them took its lessons to heart. Among these musicians would be Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who would become as much of an influence on Parson's life as Parson would be on Richards' music.
On this album, Parsons gained the confidence to nearly dispense with cover versions altogether; he and Hillman formed a fruitful songwriting partnership that produced six of the albums 11 songs; Parsons had a hand in three more. The Gilded Palace of Sin is an album of weepers, regetful, hurt, angry, and resigned ones, befiting of the title, and in the grand old tradition of the Bakersfield school of country in particular. "Juanita" and "Sin City", are classic pieces of country music, blended with a vaguely psychedelic Byrds-influenced rock sensibility. Covers like "The Dark End Of The Street" (later covered by Linda Ronstadt, Percy Sledge, and Richard Thompson among many others) are given definitive treatments.
Following this album, Ethridge left the band and was replaced by future Eagle Bernie Leadon. Former Byrd Michael Clarke was brought in on drums. Parsons began spending a lot of time with Keith Richards, which drew his attentions away from the band. His drug use grew quickly out of control while in Richards' company; the stories of their drug adventures together are legendary. To support this habit, Parsons began draining his trust fund. Richards, for his part, gained a whole new musical vocabulary from Parsons, one that would inform much of the Rolling Stones' 1971 album Sticky Fingers, including "Wild Horses" and "Dead Flowers".
On the Burrito's sophomore album, Burrito Deluxe, Parsons took a step back from the spotlight. Released in 1970, it came at a time when his attentions were more with the Stones than with his own band, and he delivers only six songs. Interestingly, this has a positive effect on the rest of the band, who step out more into the forefront themselves. Parsons does bring the band "Wild Horses", which appeared on this LP a year before the Stones released their version. His own material is weaker in comparison to that on the debut; "Cody Cody" and "Lazy days" are good songs, but nothing on par with the highlights on the debut. Hillman, Leadon, and Clarke all have good moments, but there was a disconnect between frontman and band, and the album ultimately suffers. It also sold worse than its predecessor.
Parsons quit the Burritos shortly after the record's release; they soldiered on without him, hiring Rick Roberts as his replacement; Hillman would eventually leave to join Manassas and Leadon would leave for the Eagles, but ever-changing lineups have kept the Flying Burrito Brothers' name active to the present day.
Parsons appeared to be somewhat adrift following his departure from the Burritos. He recorded some tracks with former Byrds producer Terry Melcher, but nothing came of them. He continued to hang with the Stones, consuming immense amounts of drugs and alcohol. He was present at the Exile On Main Street sessions and was on the verge of signing with the Rolling Stones' record label before he had a change of heart and returned to Los Angeles in late 1971. He spent the next few months writing material for his first solo album.
His album, G.P., was released in 1972. For this album, he assembled the best and brightest from the growing Los Angeles and Nashville country-rock scenes, including most notably Emmylou Harris, who duets with him on the achingly beautiful "That's All It Took" and "We'll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning". There is something of an epic sweep to this 11-song collection; it moves from cryin' in your beer weepers to uptempo numbers, and some rhythm and blues with horn section. It is arguably the best document of his vision; Gilded Palace Of Sin is the only other real contender.
He put together a touring band, the Fallen Angels, and played numerous dates towards the end of 1972 and into 1973. By this point, his drug and alcohol abuse began taking its toll on him, sapping his strength and weakening his musical instincts. He had one more album in him, Grievous Angel, released in the summer of 1973. Featuring most of the same lineup as his debut, including Harris, who continued to grow as a singer, the album didn't match its predecessor. It's a good record; one of the best country-rock albums of the early 1970's, but a let-down for those who were expecting Parsons to continue developing into a major figure in his own right. "Return Of The Grievous Angel" "$1000 Wedding" and "In My Hour of Darkness", a fitting album (and career) closer are fine originals, and he does a good version of Tom T. Hall's "I Can't Dance". The album reached #195 before vanishing from the charts; his previous album hadn't charted at all.
Stuck with his habit, his trust fund running out, and his albums failing to find the mainstream even as bands featuring his former bandmates and the musicians they inspired were going gold right and left, Parsons decided to take a time-out. After completing the Grievious Angel sessions, he left for Joshua Tree National Park in the desert of Southeastern California, where he spent his last days consuming drugs and getting loaded on alcohol. On September 19, 1973 he suffered an overdose of morphine and tequila and was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
What transpired next is one of the more famous stories in the annals of rock history, one that has overshadowed his musical contributions in the public imagination. While his body was at the airport, awaiting transport to New Orleans, where it was to be buried, it was hijacked and stolen by his road manager Phil Kaufman in an elaborate caper, and driven out to Joshua Tree. There, Kaufman attempted to cremate the body in a funeral pyre. Upon his arrest, he revealed that he and Parsons had made a pact that whomever survived the other would cremate the other's body in this fashion.
In the years since his death, Gram Parsons' influence remains as strong as it has ever been; his music was referenced by 80's indie country-rock bands like the Long Ryders (whose leader, Sid Griffin, has written a good biography and documentary on Parsons), and 90's alternative country acts like Son Volt. He was the subject of a 2004 film; all of his music remains available and a great many live albums and outtakes have surfaced in the decades since his death.
Those wishing to explore his work further could do worse than with a trio of his career definers: Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, Gilded Palace Of Sin, and G.P. For an excellent career anthology that covers all the bases from 1967-1973 admirably, try Rhino Records' Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology. Anybody who likes country-rock owes it to themselves to give the father of the genre a listen. His work retains a timeless quality, and it still sounds fresh today.
Listen to The International Submarine Band: Luxury Liner (1967)