Gram Parsons

Missing image
Gram Parsons, wearing his Nudie suit on the lot of A&M records

Gram Parsons (November 5, 1946September 19, 1973), born Cecil Ingram Connor III, was a folk and country rock singer, influential to many later artists. He was born in Winter Haven, Florida to a wealthy family of fruit growers with extensive properties both there and Waycross, Georgia, where Parsons was raised. He died of a drug overdose at the age of 26.



After failing out of Harvard University, Parsons started his career as a folk singer in Massachusetts coffee houses. A meeting with like-minded musicians saw him form the International Submarine Band in 1966, and rekindled his interest in country music. The band relocated to Los Angeles the following year, to record an album (1968's Safe At Home).

By 1968, Parsons had come to the attention of The Byrds who, depleted by the firing of David Crosby and the departure of Michael Clarke, were seeking new members. Under the influence of Gram and original member Chris Hillman, the Byrds embraced country music wholeheartedly on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album (1968), which included several of Parsons' songs, including the evocative "Hickory Wind". During their subsequent tour, however, Parsons left the band, after refusing to play in apartheid-ridden South Africa, and spent the remainder of the tour building his friendship with Mick Jagger and, especially, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

Returning to Los Angeles, Parsons and Hillman looked to continue to play their country-styled rock-and-roll music. With bassist Chris Ethridge and pedal steel player "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow they formed The Flying Burrito Brothers. Playing a mixture of country and soul music standards with some Hillman/Parsons compositions they rapidly recorded their first album, The Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969), another record which, whilst not a commercial success, provided a template for the country rock to follow.

By this time, Parsons' own use of drugs had increased to the extent that the recording of the followup, Burrito Deluxe (1970), was slow and acrimonious, and it was no surprise that Parsons left the group. The album was less inspired than its predecessor, but did contain a version of "Wild Horses", a Rolling Stones song that was clear evidence of Parsons' influence on that band.

His friendship with Keith Richards led to him sharing some of Keith's passion for excessive drinking and drugs. During the 1970s Parsons' efforts to blur the line between country music and rock and roll was a key influence on many bands such as The Byrds, The Eagles, and the Rolling Stones. His inspiration may also be heard in many alt-country bands such as Son Volt, The Jayhawks, and Wilco. Wary of labels, Parsons was satisfied to describe his own records merely as Cosmic American Music.

The remainder of 1970 was largely wasted by Parsons, and his penchant for cocaine resulted in the abandoning of sessions for what was to have been a solo record for A&M, and Gram returned to hanging out with the Stones, first in London and later France, during the recording of Exile on Main Street.

Parsons returned to the US, for a one-off concert with the Burritos, and at Hillman's instigation, went to hear Emmylou Harris sing in a small club in Washington D.C. They became friends and, within a year, he asked her to join him in LA for another attempt to record his first solo album, that would eventually be released as GP (1973). Working with a crack group of session musicians, including James Burton and many others who had worked with Elvis Presley, the record was completed quickly, containing an equal mix of Parsons' songs and cover versions.

To promote the new record Parsons, Harris and a new band (Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels) toured across the US, but most of the sessionmen returned for Grievous Angel (1974), which again centred on the harmonies between Parsons and Harris, but added more country-rock numbers as a contrast to the balladry of GP. It received even more enthusiastic reviews, and attained classic status after Gram's early death.

Parsons died September 19, 1973 in Joshua Tree, California at the age of 26 from a drug overdose. In a story that has taken on legendary stature, Parsons' body disappeared from the Los Angeles International Airport, where it was being readied to be shipped to Louisiana for burial. His former road manager, Phil Kaufman, claimed that Gram had remarked after Clarence White's funeral in July of that year that he (Gram) did not want to be buried when he died, but instead would rather be taken out to Joshua Tree and burned. Kaufman and a friend managed to steal Parson's body from the airport and, in a borrowed hearse, drove Parsons' body to Joshua Tree where they cremated it. They were arrested several days later and fined $700 for burning the coffin, since stealing a body was not a crime. [1] ( The burned remains were eventually returned to Parsons' family and interred in Louisiana. A version of these events is depicted in the 2003 film Grand Theft Parsons; they are discussed at length by several people including Kaufman in the documentary Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons.

Note - The U2 album, The Joshua Tree is believed to have been named after this incident.



Further reading

  • In The Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music, Nicholas Dawidoff, Vintage Books, 1998. ISBN 0-375-70082-x
  • Are You Ready for the Country: Elvis, Dylan, Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock, Peter Dogget, Penguin Books, 2001. ISBN 0-140-26108-7
  • Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes and the changing face of Nashville, Bruce Feiler, Avon Books, 1998. ISBN 0-380-97578-5

External links

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