Uncovering Grams Parsons: the man behind the legend
The musician helped country-rock take root despite a battle with inner demons.
By Gregory McNamee, Special to the Times
Published December 16, 2007
Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music
By David N. Meyer
Villard, 592 pages, $27.95
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Gram Parsons had it all.
Born Ingram Cecil Connor III in 1946 in Winter Haven, he was rich (even if, as biographer David Meyer frowns, "from rich white trash"). Parsons was heir to a Florida fortune built on concentrated orange juice and real estate, including the swamp that would become Cypress Gardens.
As a teen, Parsons was popular, the center of the small-town high school universe of Waycross, Ga. He had the kind of smile that would light up the night sky, drove a cool car, had all the right clothes. And he could play the guitar like nobody's business.
Gram Parsons had everything except happiness. In the footsteps of his birth father, an alcoholic and a suicide, and his hard-drinking family and social circle, he attempted to self-medicate his depression. It only made him more depressed, as well as - well, Meyer uses unkind words that we might translate here as unpleasant, unreliable and egomaniacal.
His demons, numerous as they were, also produced world-changing music.
Like kindred spirit Townes Van Zandt, Parsons came onto the American music scene just as the British Invasion was shading into folk rock, poppy Beatlemania tempered by the chiming guitars of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and their acolytes. Along the way, though he had grown the requisite bangs and sideburns, Parsons had been imbibing a steady diet of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, George Jones, the very pantheon of pure country.
Parsons' attitude toward these artists and the country genre was reverential, but how he came to it is something of a mystery. Meyer reckons that he would have heard a lot of country in his Georgia-Florida milieu, but that Parsons would have become an avid fan and made country his own was a touch unlikely in a time when folkies and hippies dismissed country and its beehive-hair, spangled-suit aesthetic as "so ridiculous as to be otherworldly."
Perhaps it was just orneriness, contrariness, but whatever the case, Parsons found in the sound a workingman's poetry and a sparse purity, and he made them his own.
So it was that, after an unsuccessful stint at Harvard, he drifted west and aligned himself with the country-fried hippies of Southern California, whose own aesthetic the country folk found ridiculous, too. Against the constant threat of parking lot beatings, Parsons took his long-haired, cosmic-cowboy players into the roughest bars around. They survived, barely, and morphed into various configurations that are now legendary.
One, the International Submarine Band, signed to country legend Lee Hazlewood's label. The group had a following in the region but didn't make much of an impression outside of Los Angeles, and Parsons jumped at the chance to join the Byrds.
"Gram used the ISB as a stepping stone," said a band member. "That was the bad side of Gram - he didn't think of the rest of the band." Shielded by his family's money from the punishing breach-of-contract deal that Hazlewood forced, Parsons didn't have to.
For a time, he succeeded in turning the definitively folk-rock Byrds into a country outfit, highlighted by an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry that did little to bridge the gulf between the beaded and the beehived. "At the time the gig was nothing more than a curiosity," writes Meyer, though now the Opry lists it among the greatest moments in its history.
For their parts, the other Byrds seem to have delighted in conspiring to minimize Parsons' presence, removing most of his vocals, for instance, from Sweetheart of the Rodeo, that definite wedding of the hippie ethos to country.
Sweetheart was ground zero for the movement that would spawn Poco, Pure Prairie League, Marshall Tucker Band and a thousand other country-rock bands, the most successful among them the Eagles, an inauthentic cabal whom Parsons rightly despised.
By that time, though, he was on to other things, making three albums with the Flying Burrito Brothers, recruiting a very young Emmylou Harris to sing duets with him, and giving the Rolling Stones lessons in how to play country - and, scarily, outdoing Keith Richards in the consumption of various illicit and harmful substances.
In the end, as is well known, that diet did Gram Parsons in, dead just shy of 27 years old, in 1973. That much-too-premature but not-at-all-surprising death sealed his legend: Gram Parsons really did have it all, including dying before he got old.
The legend is shrouded and misty and well-worn, but Meyer bravely plunges into the fog. Even longtime Parsons watchers will find news in his pages, while those who are new to what the singer called his "cosmic American music" will learn much about a sound that we now take for granted, but that came at considerable cost.
Gregory McNamee writes about music, film, and other aspects of pop culture for several publications, among them the Encyclopaedia Britannica.