- 05 Nov 20
To mark what would have been Gram Parsons' 74th birthday, we're revisiting Will Russell's reflections on the King of Cosmic American Music.
My dog is called Gram Parsons. On the sunny day that I got married, I smoked a morning Cohiba at Gram’s grave in a remote part of New Orleans. So yes, I really like the dude. Always have. I dug his voice from the off, when I was a kid listening to 'Love Hurts'. Then I found out about the man and was hooked. Stuff befell Gram.
Elvis played at his school. His group, the awfully named International Submarine Band blended the lemon kiss of psychedelia with roots music. He dragged The Byrds into country on Sweethearts of the Rodeo but was gone before its release. He created his Cosmic American Music on two albums with the Flying Burrito Brothers. He hated The Eagles. Arguably he influenced The Eagles more than anybody else. He expanded the Rolling Stones musical knowledge and was the coolest guy in the room even when hanging out with them British bad boys. Some reckon he invented country rock. He definitely helped put the soul and emotion back into country. He released two excellent solo records with Emmylou Harris and Elvis’ band. He almost became a punk with Jonathan Richman, but tragically died young. After his death, his myth continued to grow, his corpse been taken by legendary road mangler Phil Kaufman and cremated in Joshua Tree Park.
Like he did it for many people, Keith Richards included, Gram got me understanding country. His biographer David N. Meyer by way of Colonel Kurtz, captured it best, saying that hearing Gram, “well, it really put the hook in me.” His voice invites you to do that, to think a little bit more about what music is and where it comes from. His Cosmic American Music was a preposterous cocktail of country, gospel, blues, folk, bluegrass, rockabilly and honkytonk. It was a search for Lost America. As necessary, beautiful and pointless as McCarthy, Kerouac, Hemingway or Whitman.
The epitaph on his gravestone is GOD’S OWN SINGER. Perhaps it sums him up best. No one really knew what they were getting with Gram, most still don’t. The Byrds certainly didn’t. When Gram joined them, they had five top forty albums and eight hit singles with their chiming guitars and three-part harmonies. They were a major influence on countless bands aping their LA hippie style. But Gene Clark was gone, Michael Clarke was gone, David Crosby was gone. It was just Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn. They brought in drummer Kevin Kelley who had played in Rising Sons with blues virtuoso Taj Mahal and slide-guitar maestro Ry Cooder and they were looking for a fourth. Gram had stood in a number of times for Gene Clark. McGuinn believed he was hiring just a piano player but ended up with “a monster in sheep’s clothing…George Jones in a sequin suit.”
McGuinn had been thinking of taking The Byrds in a more Eight Miles High jazz fusion direction, but Gram and Hillman put paid to that, pulling the band in the direction of country. They decamped to Nashville to record. The Byrds became the first rock band to perform on The Grand Old Opry. It was a clash of cultures. The atmosphere was charged. Hecklers shouted out “Cut your hair!” Gram, to the fury of the Opry head buck cats went off the setlist and played 'Hickory Wind', dedicating it to his grandmother. It didn’t quell the crowd, but nor did it incense them further - it was country rock.
On the subsequent tour, nobody wanted to hear Sweethearts of the Rodeo and McGuinn pushed Gram to the side but he was already moving on. Gram had met Keef. The Rolling Stones were coming off the back of an uncharacteristic wayward plunge with Their Satanic Majesties Request. Gram taught Keith the mechanics of country music, influencing Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Exile on Main St. “I think pure country includes rock and roll. I don’t think you have to call it country-rock,” Parsons once said, “I was brought up in the South. I never knew the difference between gospel music and country music. It was all the same to me.”
It had been quite the road for Gram. A negative Old Opry was nothing. He hocked his version of country in the dive bars and hardcore honkytonks of New York and LA to hostile audiences. Searching for the essence of country and not a rock diluted version.
He had heard plenty of country back in his hometown of Winter Haven, Florida. However, in school he played in rock and roll cover bands and his first money making outfit the Shilos were influenced by the folkie harmonies of The Journeymen. Gram’s search for something else had begun around the bars and coffee houses in Greenwich Village and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the tail end of folk and where Dylan was taking it. But Gram heard Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and perversely went country. The folkies hated that stuff. The hippies detested it. They saw it as redneck country and western dirge.
Gram’s country was that of the Bakersfield sound. Not commercial. Not Nashville. Rawer. Primal. He rehearsed incessantly in a duplex in the Kingsbridge area of the Bronx, with what would become the International Submarine Band. Their record Safe at Home bombed, but it is one of the first country rock records ever produced.
When Gram and Hillman left the Byrds, they began writing songs for what would become The Flying Burritos Brother’s first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin. Terrible name, great band. They had come up with it while chowing down on enchiladas in a taco place in the Valley. They played impromptu gigs at the Corral and the Palomino in North Hollywood to small but faithful audiences. People like Glenn Frey and Don Henley were in those audiences. It was an evolved Bakersfield sound with soul and psychedelic rock. The Burritos were outlaws. Outlaws dressed in Nudie suits.
There was a second Burrito album and then GP, Gram’s solo debut. Sessions for his second solo record Grievous Angel began in the late summer of 1973. He had gathered quite the band. Gram and a young Emmylou Harris. Elvis boys’ Glen D. Hardin on piano, James Burton on lead guitar, Emory Gordy on bass and Ronnie Tutt on drums. And guests Bernie Leadon and Linda Ronstadt. The album was the sound he sought almost realised.
Emmylou is the vital piece. His other Louvin Brother. His Loretta Lynn. On 'Hearts on Fire', they are a two voiced being. Boudleaux Bryant’s song 'Love Hurts' has been around - the Everly Brothers, Nazareth, Roy Orbison and Cher have all had a crack at it, but it’s Gram and Emmylou’s song. Breaking hearts in desperation. The ballads 'Brass Buttons' and 'In My Hour of Darkness' place Gram at the feet of Jimmie Rodgers. The album is set in no particular time or place. It is Everyman. Much of it is hidden, like Hemingway’s iceberg, with many of the sordid details hinted towards but never revealed. I like Gram’s songs not for their darkness, but for their smiling in the darkness. He lets the mirth in on 'I Can’t Dance and Las Vegas'. And gives you the chills on 'Brass Buttons' singing, “the sun comes up without her /It just doesn't know she's gone”. If the record could be served up with 'Hot Burrito #1' & '#2' off The Gilded Palace of Sin in place of the 'Medley Live from Northern Quebec', it would be a masterpiece.
Man, it’s a lost as America gets. As lost as Ginsberg. As lost as Link Wray. The songs would never get the live airing they deserved. A few weeks after cutting the record, Gram lost consciousness and could not be revived in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn.
On the night he died, fresh from recording with Elvis’ band, he found a song of his on the jukebox in a dive bar and played it incessantly. Later, he hopped up with the bar band to sing Merle Haggard’s 'Okie from Muskogee'. Gram was more Beat than hip, living his songs, like Hank Williams before him. We hear him in Steve Earle, Will Oldham, Beck, Lambchop and Wilco. But most of all in Emmylou. She soldiered on and became a Queen of Nashville.
Like America, Gram was lost.