Pieces Of The Sky: The Legacy Of Gram Parsons
(Photo: Robert Altman)
Gram Parsons is often credited with the creation of country-rock, and his influence hovers over a huge cross section of songwriters and musicians today – from those who worked with him like Emmylou Harris and Chris Hillman, to modern rock and rollers like Ryan Adams and Jeff Tweedy.
“Every single generation has an amazing legion of young people that are so dedicated to Gram,” says his daughter Polly Parsons, who now runs the Gram Parsons Foundation in her father’s honor.
Maybe part of what attracts us to Gram today is his mysteriousness. There’s very little video footage of him. In one clip, from the Maysles Brothers’ film Gimme Shelter, he’s on stage with The Flying Burrito Brothers at the infamous Altamont concert singing the trucker anthem, “Six Days On The Road.” In another video, a promo shot by A&M Records in 1969 for the Burritos’ first single “Christine’s Tune,” he’s strumming a Telecaster and wearing his famous Nudie suit, looking waifish and feminine.
An enigmatic but dedicated artist, Parsons was on a mission to share a new type of music with the world. “It’s hard to describe how deeply Gram loved his music,” writes Keith Richards in his autobiography, Life. “He had one foot in country and one in rock and roll,” says Emmylou Harris. “I think they were both very real for him because of his upbringing and his generation.”
“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.”
“We were rock kids into [R&B] music, or whatever you called it at the time,” says Luke Lewis, who went to high school with Parsons at Jacksonville’s Bolles School, and is now President of Universal Music Nashville. In 1962, while they were at Bolles, Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds In Country & Western was released, and it had a big influence on both of them. “It was probably the first time either of us had a clue about country music.”
Lewis lost touch with Gram after high school, but later founded the revered record label Lost Highway, which has been home to artists like Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, and Johnny Cash.
“We were just kids. I taught him how to surf at Ponte Vedra beach,” remembers Lewis. “Gram was one of those guys who we thought, ‘This guy is gonna be a star.’ You could tell he was gifted and special and was totally dedicated to it. He had whatever ‘it’ is, which is sort of magnetic. He was a reader and had taken piano lessons. He was really musical and literate. And he had tragic stuff happen to him when he was really young.”
In 1966, Gram moved to Los Angeles, after dropping out of Harvard, where he’d studied theology. The Los Angeles of the late 1960s that attracted him was already ripe for a fusion of country music and rock and roll.
Al Perkins came to California from Texas in the late ‘60s with a band called Shiloh (whose drummer was future Eagle Don Henley), and would later join The Flying Burrito Brothers. He also played pedal steel on Gram’s two solo records, GP and Grievous Angel.
“Back then, they knew when a longhaired steel guitar player crossed the state line, so I got a few calls from people who were doing this new edgy country,” recalls Perkins. “They weren’t calling it any specific thing but it was a very creative time and it was in the air.”
In a few years, Jerry Garcia would play pedal steel on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Teach Your Children,” and the Grateful Dead would release the country music-indebted Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Bands like Poco, Country Joe McDonald and The Fish, and Dillard and Clark were also incubating in the country-rock scene.
By July 1967, Gram and his Harvard friend Jon Nuese had begun recording tracks like “Blue Eyes” that would end up on Safe At Home, The International Submarine Band’s debut album (Nuese and Parsons formed the band in 1965). But by the time the album came out in March 1968, Gram had already joined The Byrds.
“My instinct says that he knew he had a lot to do in a very short time,” says Polly Parsons. “I can’t help but think he really had some type of profound knowledge that he wasn’t going to be here for a long time.”
We were spinning our wheels, to use Roger [McGuinn]’s phrase, and here comes Gram,” says Chris Hillman, The Byrds original bassist, who grew up playing bluegrass and folk music, and only became a rock musician after the band plugged in. Hillman invited Parsons to join the band as a replacement for David Crosby, and found an ally in Gram as someone who shared his love of country music. (Click here to read Hillman’s take on several songs he co-wrote with Parsons.)
In 1968, The Byrds went to Columbia Record’s recording studio on Music Row in Nashville to begin work on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Gram’s composition “Hickory Wind” would feature country session players like Lloyd Green on pedal steel, and bluegrass legend John Hartford on fiddle. Their appearance at the Grand Ole Opry caused controversy when Parsons decided to sing “Hickory Wind” for his grandmother in the audience, instead of the agreed upon Merle Haggard cover “Sing Me Back Home.”
Lewis, who is now one of the major brokers of country music, overseeing records by artists like George Strait and Sugarland, compares Parson’s version of country then to alt-country today. “I don’t know that he found Nashville a warm and fuzzy place, considering what he was doing.”
What Sweatheart Of The Rodeo did do, according to Hillman, was “open the floodgates to the country-rock genre.”
By the fall of 1968, Gram and Hillman had both left the Byrds and were living in a house together in the San Fernando Valley, writing songs for what would become the Burritos’ first album, Gilded Palace Of Sin, which was released in February 1969 on A&M.
“I had two great years with Gram,” says Hillman. “Gram was on top of his game. He was fun to work with. Gram as a songwriter had an amazingly bright and funny way of looking at things. For two years we were like brothers.
“Here we were living together in this San Fernando Valley house, both coming off failed relationships. We had this bond together and we started writing songs.”
The duo penned classics like “Christine’s Tune” and “Sin City.” Hillman says Gram opened him up to new musical approaches by choosing interesting material like the soul song “Do Right Woman (Do Right Man).”
“It was Aretha Franklin’s big song at the time, but we did it country. That was the genius of Parsons. He got me into looking beyond the country parameters into R&B and making that work. That was really brilliant.”
Writer Stanley Booth chronicles this period of the Burritos in his book, True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones. Around this time, Gram began hanging out with the Stones, who were living at 14 Oriole Drive in Los Angeles and finishing Let It Bleed while rehearsing for their U.S. tour in November.
Gram and the Burritos were playing honky-tonks around L.A., to small but faithful audiences. Booth describes a night of watching the Burrito Brothers at Huntington Beach’s Golden Bear venue. “You all are really going to be a success,” Booth told Parsons after the first set. “I think we already are,” replied Gram.
“There were a lot of guys out here in California in the late ‘60s – singer-songwriters like Glenn Frey, John David Souther, Don Henley,” remembers Hillman. “All these guys would come watch The Flying Burrito Brothers play. I remember Glenn would come and sit in the audience and watch us.
“The greatest legacy of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram is we were the alternative country band. We couldn’t get on country radio and we couldn’t get on rock radio! We were the outlaw country band for a brief period,” says Hillman.
In the summer of 1971, Gram joined Keith Richards and The Rolling Stones at the Villa Nellcôte in southern France, as they began work on their classic album, Exile On Main Street.
“I just had the feeling this man was about to come out with something remarkable,” writes Keith Richards of their time together in France. Gram had some of the material that would later be released on his solo albums, but mostly the two of them sang and played classic country songs together.
While Gram had found an able partner in Hillman, and a brother in Richards, another enduring musical partnership was with a young Washington, D.C.-based folk singer named Emmylou Harris, whom he met in 1972.
“I was at the train station in Washington, D.C., and I picked him and [his wife] Gretchen up,” remembers Harris. “They had come in from Baltimore where he had been playing with The Flying Burrito Brothers. We went to my show and I think in between sets we sang a few songs in the basement of this place called Clyde’s. And he just said, ‘You’ll hear from me.’ It took a year to get the recording sessions together. Finally, I got a plane ticket in the mail.”
In late 1972, Gram brought together some of the players from Elvis Presley’s TCB Band, including pianist and arranger Glen D. Hardin and guitarist James Burton, to begin work on GP, his solo debut.
“We just played what we felt. [Gram] wanted everyone to just do what they did,” recalls Al Perkins, who played pedal steel.
To Perkins, the sound of both GP and Grievous Angel, often considered high-water marks in country-rock music, were Gram’s way of bringing together his love of Elvis with his love of country music.
“He loved the plaintiveness of country music and loved the fire that Elvis had. Some of these [session musicians] were associated with country music before they played with Elvis, but they still have this drive and fiery feel to their music, sometimes with the extreme up-tempo feel to the music that Elvis would do.”
On the cover of GP, released in January 1973, Gram looks out from a chair at the Chateau Marmont. He’s more fat-Elvis than the comely cherub from the A&M promos; the light pours in from the open window, and he looks healthy and happy.
One of the most poignant songs Gram ever wrote is “A Song For You” from GP. In a radio interview, Gram describes it as “a love song having to do with an area sort of like the one I came from in the South, the swampland, about somebody who just can’t stick around too long.”
“Take me down to your dance floor/ I won’t mind the people when they stare,” goes the chorus. In a 1973 review in Rolling Stone, Bud Scoppa said it was the saddest song he’d ever heard.
In 1973, Gram put together a road band he dubbed the Fallen Angels, including Emmylou Harris on acoustic guitar and vocals. They played shows throughout the Midwest, Texas, South, and East Coast. “People who saw that tour I think would remember it as a magical experience. It certainly was for me,” says Harris.
Harris remembers the early days as being more like jam sessions led by Gram. “He knew every country song. When we were rehearsing for the tour, we never worked up a single song. Gram would just go on to another song. We kinda of touched on songs on the record, but he was always playing other things and always moving on to the next thing. We actually got fired from our first gig because we didn’t have any beginnings, middles, or endings to any of the songs. After that, it was a wakeup call. So we had what is known as a rehearsal and worked up arrangements of the songs. Then it was amazing from there.
“Gram was really together. He was amazing on stage – an amazing presence and totally focused. We just sang and sang and sang. When we weren’t on stage we were just always working up something new. I was learning all these country songs. I was like a religious convert. I couldn’t get enough.”
In the summer of 1973, Parsons reconvened many of the same players from GP and began sessions for Grievous Angel in L.A. Harris says after the tour she and Gram were ready and focused. But Parsons would never see the album’s release. After the basic sessions had finished, he took a trip out to the desert and on September 19, 1973, he died of a drug overdose in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn, at the of age 26.
“I feel like Gram was ahead of his time,” says Jim Lauderdale on a rainy day in Nashville. “GP and Grievous Angel are such touchstones. It just all came together in my mind on those two records. With the pickers, the material, Emmylou. They’re just classic records.”
“I only knew Gram for a very short year. I think music was a great comfort to him and how he dealt with the world,” says Harris. “It’s hard for me to be objective about it because he had such a huge influence on me. I can’t imagine if I’d have even ended up being an artist if I hadn’t met Gram.”
“I owe Gram a lot and so does Emmy,” says Hillman. “He influenced all of us. I’m just sad that we lost him so young.”
Hillman, who became a Christian later on, says that the songs he and Gram wrote had an inherent spirituality, a yearning for something that they perhaps weren’t fully aware of yet. “I think we both [had a spiritual life] or we would never have even gone there. It was sort of tongue-in-cheek but it also wasn’t,” he says about songs like “Wheels” and “Sin City.”
“He would be here right now if he’d have found what he was looking for,” Hillman reflects at the end of our conversation.
In five short years, Gram Parsons recorded six albums that have attained near mythical status: The International Submarine Band’s Safe At Home; The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo; two Flying Burrito Brothers albums and two solo albums.
“His songs were deep and dark. There aren’t many country hits lately that are dark,” says Luke Lewis. “There are albums that endure, but not many. And he had them.”