- 19 Sep 19
46 years ago today, legendary country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons passed away, aged 26. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting Liam Fay's reflections on his life and legacy.
The tag attached to Gram Parsons most often is that of The Father of Country Rock. He preferred to describe what he did as “Cosmic American Music”, but there’s no doubting that he had a rare affinity for the traditional country of his native Southern states.
Forget the manor, Parsons was to the Grand Ole Opry born. Even his biographical details read like the plot from some melodramatic Nashville ballad. If it’s true that into every life a little rain must fall then Gram Parsons lived through a veritable monsoon season.
Born Cecil Ingram Connor on November 5th, 1946, he grew up in Waycross, Georgia. His mother came from a very wealthy family while his father, one Coon Dog Connor, was a ranch-hand and singer-songwriter who committed suicide when Gram was thirteen. His mother then remarried, to a man called Parsons, but continued her sharp slide into chronic alcoholism. She died from cirrhosis of the liver on the day Gram graduated from High School.
Parsons inherited his parents’ self-destructive streak. His own drinking became legendary and, ultimately, contributed to the massive heart attack which killed him on September 19th, 1973 as he lay sleeping in a motel room in the town of Joshua Tree, California. He was only twenty-seven years of age.
Despite such a short, fast and tragic life, however, his imposing legacy answers any suggestion that his reputation is overblown.
For an individual, especially one whose entire musical career barely lasted a decade, his impact and influence are probably unequalled. Having experimented with various bands of his own in the mid-Sixties, he joined The Byrds and was responsible for some of the best tracks on their most important album, 1968’s Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Nevertheless, within three months, he had also quit The Byrds because he refused to join them on a tour of South Africa.
Later, with fellow ex-Byrd, Chris Hillman, he formed The Flying Burrito Brothers and enriched such albums as The Gilded Palace of Sin (’69) and Burrito Deluxe (’70) with some honey-glazed examples of his outstanding songwriting. In the early Seventies, the prominence of his talent, not to mention his lifestyle, brought him into the exalted orbit of The Rolling Stones. As a songwriter, he hugely impressed both Jagger and Richards, and was the catalyst for the Stones’ own forays into “country” territory on songs such as ‘Honky Tonk Women’ and ‘Wild Horses’. A bitter row with Jagger over composer credits, however, prematurely sundered that relationship.
Gram Parsons merely recorded two solo albums but I use the word merely in terms of quantity, not quality. 1973’s G.P. and Grievous Angel, which was posthumously released in ’74, are two of the all-time great collections. And now – tarantara! – you can have them both together, digitally remastered and side by side on a special Nice Price Reprise CD. (This is precisely the way the increased capacity provided by compact disc should be used – we’ve had far too many rip-off re-releases offering nothing more imaginative than a couple of haphazard extra tracks that are more of a burden than a bonus.)
Parsons wanted Merle Haggard to produce G.P. but Haggard declined because he thought the young upstart’s hair was too long and that he was some kind of hippy. Undaunted, Gram decided to do the job himself, with some help from session musician, Rik Grech. The album was recorded both at country music’s much-favoured West Coast studio and at rock’s palace of hits, the Wally Heider studio in Hollywood. The result was something that transcends both genres.
“Funky country” was the nearest thing to a label for G.P. that one critic could find at the time, but it was more than that. It was trad country, parody country, rock country, gospel country, funny country, heart-rending country, every-which-way-but-lose country. At its core lay some beautifully off-kilter duets with Emmylou Harris and such truly unforgettable Parsons’ compositions as ‘She’, ‘How Much I’ve Lied’, ‘Still Feeling Blue’ and ‘The New Soft Shoe’. Startlingly, however, there was better still to come.
It was with Grievous Angel that G.P.’s muse really went ballistic. The feeling that Parsons was not much longer for this world permeates the album, with ‘In My Hour Of Darkness’, ‘Return Of The Grievous Angel’ and ‘$1,000 Wedding’ sounding chillingly like musical farewell notes. His marriage was scuppered, his house had burned down in mysterious circumstances and he was going to hell in a bottle, but he was writing the songs of his life. Clearly, when the going gets tough, the tough get even tougher.
Again, however, Emmylou Harris’ contribution should not be underestimated here. Her duets with Parsons on ‘Love Hurts’ and ‘Hearts On Fire’ still stand as vocal monuments to this day. All things considered, Parsons had more than achieved what he set out to do. He had redefined the music he’d grown up with and hammered a rhinestone right between the eyes of rock. G.P. and Grievous Angel are remarkable albums that still prompt bouts of wondering what else he might have accomplished had he lived.
Before he died, Gram Parsons had expressed a wish that he be cremated and that his ashes be strewn at a natural monument near Joshua Tree called Cap Rock. These wishes were faithfully carried out by his road manager, Phil Kaufman, and a friend, though they had to steal his body from the coroner to do so. If all of this sounds too much like the stuff of rock’n’roll myth then that’s because the man himself was so much larger than life. His music, however, is perfectly life sized, often immaculately so.
If you have yet to make Parsons’ acquaintance, there’s never been an easier time to do it than now. Treat yourself to this kilo of Gram.