Full Circle

Gram Parsons: The Man and the Mystique

Gram Parsons


Emmylou Harris


Cap Rock in Joshua Tree

There is a place in the high desert where I go every year usually in spring. It’s within the borders of Joshua Tree National Monument. It’s called Cap Rock. It is a place that can be so silent; if you listen to the stillness long enough, you can almost hear the music that has passed through the nights there. It’s a place to remember Gram Parsons who many believe still returns to visit. Regardless, even the most skeptical visitor will feel the holiness of that place.

On March 4 North County’s Belly Up Tavern will host a tribute to the legendary cosmic American music singer-songwriter. The evening will include

performances by San Diego’s own Jack Tempchin, Rick Shea, Austin singer Brennen Leigh, the Rocksliders, Eve Selis and Marc Twang, and Mark Nemetz.

Last fall, in Burbank, hundreds of people crammed into a saloon where a local Americana hero, Ronnie Mack, held a birthday tribute to Gram Parsons. It was one of many happening around the country during 2011, which marked what would have been Gram’s 65th birthday. Gram International was there, an organization dedicated to establishing the singer’s continuing legacy and seeing to it that he is inducted into the

Country Music Hall of Fame through a signature campaign and tribute concerts held around the world. The evening in Burbank was packed with local songwriters and musicians wanting to pay tribute to Gram, including Rosie Flores, Ronee Blaklee and Steven Casper, and Cowboy Angst; each set had room for only two songs per artist. People danced, talked, laughed, and drank the night away. But, there came a moment that caused a hush among the crowd as Karla Olson and former Byrds member, John York, sang the Rolling Stones’ heavily Gram-influenced song, “Wild Horses.” Olson and York were among the few performing that night who knew Gram personally. As they sang, “Let’s do some living after we’ve died,” a wave of recognition came over the audience. It was what Gram Parsons had led us all to do. A dance of memory with him. And if any American artist has done some living after death it is Gram Parsons, who died in 1973. But, his influence has taken on an iconic status. What is it that makes Gram Parsons so compelling? Interest in him continues to grow, especially since the rise of the Americana music genre over the last 15 years. Today Parsons’ notoriety and popularity seems at times like it’s on the verge of growing into Elvis-like proportions. The story of Gram’s rise is as compelling as his music.

Born in Florida and raised by alcoholic parents, his father committed suicide when Gram was a child. His mother, Avis, was the daughter of citrus fruit magnate John Snively, which meant Gram would inherit a fortune and live his life independently wealthy. He would later change his last name to Parsons when his mother married Robert Parsons who adopted him. In 1956, Gram saw Elvis in Waycross, Georgia, forever changing his life. During his high school years in the early ’60s he was swept away by the folk music revival led by the Kingston Trio. In 1965 his mother died from cirrhosis caused by alcoholism. He left his home with his guitar and formed folk groups in Greenwich Village, eventually ending up a theology major at Harvard University.

It was sometime between 1965 and ’66 that Gram would discover country music. He soon found a passion for hard-core country that changed the way he played folk and rock music. The transition can be heard on the 2001 release Another Side of This Life: The Lost Recordings of Gram Parsons, which consists of rough demos recorded in 1965 and 1966. It begins chronologically with covers of folk songs by Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, and Tom Paxton, but ends in the winter of ’66 with country-flavored original songs, “Brass Buttons” and “I Just Can’t Take It Anymore.” According to his neighbor and friend in Greenwich Village, Richie Furay, Gram introduced him to George Jones. Both Furay and Parsons would go on the next year to form their own country-influenced rock bands. While Richie Furay fused his country-rock with the energy of Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, Gram would forge his own way, leaning more toward the country sound of George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens.

In 1966, while attending Harvard, Gram formed what may have been the first country rock group, the International Submarine Band. In 1967 the band moved to the folk-rock friendly city of Los Angeles and were signed by Lee Hazlewood(“These Boots Are Made for Walking”) and recorded their now-classic album Safe at Home. It includes such country classics as Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” and Merle Haggard’s “I Must Be Somebody Else You’ve Known,” along with the durable Parsons’ originals, “Luxury Liner” and “Blue Eyes.”

The album was held until 1968 after the band had already broken up. Parsons had moved on to better things. Through a chance encounter with Chris Hillman, Gram was drafted into the Byrds to replace David Crosby. While he was never contracted as an official Byrds member, Gram was influential enough to sway their latest project, titled Sweethearts of the Rodeo, from a survey of various forms of American music into a hard-core country album that included his own compositions as well as songs by Merle Haggard. He even persuaded the band to move the recording sessions to Nashville. While Parsons sang lead on many of the songs, Lee Hazlewood would file a law suit that would prevent his voice from being heard on most of the record. Subsequent re-releases of Sweethearts of the Rodeo have restored Gram’s vocals. His stay with the Byrds was cut short when the band decided to tour South Africa. Gram left the band while they were in England because of the racist apartheid laws then in place in South Africa. Today Chris Hillman is skeptical of Gram’s convictions because Gram was non-political and had just met the Rolling Stones in England and preferred to stay with them to indulge in their life style. However, Gram grew up in the deep south during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. It seems a strong case can be made that he was sincere about his objections to the South Africa tour.

It was during his time in England that Gram would meet two influential friends: Keith Richards and Phillip Kaufman, the road manager for the Rolling Stones. Through Gram, Keith would re-discover country music, which would influence the musical direction of one of the world’s most famous rock bands. Philip Kaufman would become a close friend to Gram, later forming a fateful contract with him. The three of them would spend hours playing and listening to country music. Eventually, Gram would introduce them to Joshua Tree National Monument, a place that seemed worlds away from Los Angeles rather than just a 90-minute drive.

In 1968, when Gram returned from Europe, he reconciled with Chris Hillman, who had since left the Byrds himself and together they formed the Flying Burrito Brothers. His stay with the band lasted for two years and two albums, along with a tour that included a show at the now infamous Altamont/Rolling Stones concert, documented in the film Gimmie Shelter. Hillman grew weary of Parson’s chronic drug use and fired him from the band in 1970.

In 1972, Gram was signed to A&M records despite his escalating addiction to opiates and alcohol. Working in the studio with Elvis’ guitarist, James Burton and Emmylou Harris, whom he met in Washington D.C. through Chris Hillman, he completed his first solo album, GP. Recording the album was described as chaotic because of Parsons’ drug use. The result, however, is a fine example of Gram’s musical vision, combining his rock and roll attitude with an uncompromising country sound. In a sense, it was the sequel to what he began in his work with the Byrds on Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

Even though GP failed to chart, Parsons continued to record and perform with Emmylou Harris. Legend has it that even though his live performances were inconsistent during this period, it was Emmylou who helped to bring the band together for rehearsals and to improve the shows along the way.

With a second album on its way, Parsons’ put together a new band in 1973 to include the legendary Clarence White, also a former member of the Byrds. However, it was not to be. White was tragically killed by a drunk driver in the California high desert during a reunion with his brother, Roland, and the Kentucky Colonels. At the funeral Gram sang “Farther Along” with the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon. It was during this funeral that Gram told his friend Phil Kaufman that he wanted to be cremated in Joshua Tree. Also, it was about Clarence’s untimely death that Gram wrote “In My Hour of Darkness,” a song that would also foreshadow his own future. Its lyrics seem haunting and prophetic.

Another young man safely strummed
His silver-stringed guitar
And he played to people everywhere
Some say he was a star
But he was just a country boy
His simple songs confess
And the music he had in him
So very few possessed.

In September of 1973, just before embarking on a national tour, Gram decided to spend time in Joshua Tree. By all accounts, Gram had been drug free during rehearsals for the tour. However, during his stay he took opiates and drank heavily. On September 15, Gram died of an accidental overdose in room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn. He was 26 years old.

But, this wasn’t the end of the story. Phillip Kaufman had made a promise that Gram would be cremated in Joshua Tree. Kaufman stole his body from L.A. International Airport and took it to Cap Rock at Joshua Tree National Monument. Although his remains were retrieved and buried in New Orleans, many still refer to this as Gram Parsons’ final resting place, or the place where his spirit was set free.

Today, it’s my way to see my heroes wherever I go and that would include Gram Parsons. When I hear his songs in my spirit far away from the digital overload of today’s culture, I find comfort and something real. I’ve often seen Gram Parsons in the high desert breeze that blows through Cap Rock. It’s not a hallucination, but in some dream-like fashion he’s appeared on the wings of a hawk that once flew above me. That moment was captured by a photographer. For the last 15 years, I’ve made an annual trek to Cap Rock in Joshua Tree National Monument. I bring my kids. They’ve grown up climbing the same rocks that Keith Richards and Gram climbed in altered states, smoking weed and trying find UFOs in the dark starless skies above. I bring my guitar and without fear or shame sing “Sin City” and “Return of the Grievous Angel.” The words that nearly always bring me to chills and tears (sometimes along with shits and grins) are “Twenty thousand roads and I went down, down down and they all led me straight back home to you.” The line implodes as I sing it thinking of the early lift-off of dear, young Gram carrying in his spirit so much talent that came from his deeply-rooted love for American music, music he called “cosmic.” And that still remains the best description. I can see honky-tonk stardust there alongside snuff-queens and whiskey dreams. Wherever I turn, my road leads back to that same point of departure Gram met at Cap Rock on the California desert. We all dream our way through life and then wake up and maybe we’ve lived it fully and maybe not. Gram lived several lifetimes it seems. His music always reminds me of how much life can be embraced and then slip away in a forgotten night of addiction.

The last time I was at Cap Rock, I leaned against a rock near the cave where fans regularly and respectfully chalk images and sayings. Each year the images are cleaned by the park rangers. Each year the fans return and re-create them. Probably most poignant is the one that says “the sun comes up without you. It doesn’t know you’ve gone…” Love does hurt. Some do meet these tragic endings. But, the music I have heard from Gram has made my life a little easier. It inspires others to write songs as good and as timeless as his. Still, I think about that desert hawk. I think of the rattlesnake and the jack rabbits that roam around Gram’s memorial space there at Cap Rock. I see him in them. I see us all headed down the same road, listening for Gram’s voice in the sound of his hickory wind.

  • March 2012

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