Gram Parsons (November 5, 1946 – September 19, 1973) was an American singer, songwriter, guitarist and pianist. Parsons was a member of the International Submarine Band, The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. He was later a solo artist who recorded and performed duets with Emmylou Harris.
Parsons died of a drug overdose at the age of 26 in a hotel room in Joshua Tree, California. Since his death, his influential songwriting has been attributed to the birth of 1970s country rock and the early 1990s alt-country movement. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked him #87 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
As his family disintegrated around him, Parsons developed strong musical interests, particularly after seeing Elvis Presley perform in concert in 1957. Five years later, while barely in his teens, he played in rock and roll cover bands such as the Pacers and the Legends, headlining in clubs owned by his stepfather in the Winter Haven/Polk County area. By the age of 16 he graduated to folk music, and in 1963 he teamed with his first professional outfit, the Shilos. Heavily influenced by the Kingston Trio and the Journeymen, the band played hootenannies, coffee houses and high school auditoriums. Forays into New York City's Greenwich Village included appearances at The Bitter End.
After the band folded he attended Harvard University, studying theology but departing after a semester. Despite being from the South, he did not become serious about country music until his time in Boston, Massachusetts after hearing Merle Haggard for the first time. In 1966, he and others from the Boston folk scene formed the International Submarine Band. The band relocated to Los Angeles the following year, and in 1968 released the album Safe at Home, which contains one of his best-known songs, "Luxury Liner", as well as an early version of "Do You Know How It Feels", which he would reprise on the first Flying Burrito Brothers album. But Parsons had already moved on to bigger things by the time of the album's release.
During this period Parsons became friendly with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. It has been suggested that Parsons was mostly apolitical and merely took advantage of an opportunity to hang out with his idols, although he did refer to one of the younger African-American butlers in the Connor household as being "like a brother" to him in an interview and did not seem to exhibit racist behavior. While in England, Parsons developed a close kinship with Richards and reintroduced him to country music. Sitting around for hours, the twosome would play obscure records and trade off on various songs with their guitars. They even traveled together on a few occasions to Stonehenge (with Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn) in the English countryside of Wiltshire, where Richards had a house quite near to the ancient site.
Parsons was widely rumored to have been the author of "Honky Tonk Women" and added credence to this in interviews and in discussions with friends by claiming to have developed the acoustic guitar and fiddle dominated arrangement of the song included on Let It Bleed as "Country Honk". Nevertheless, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have always claimed that they conceived the traditional country arrangement while on holiday in Brazil in late 1968. As this vacation came on the heels of Parsons' initial visits with the Stones, it could be assumed that he was at least an indirect influence upon this new musical direction. Incidentally, partial authorship for the song has also been attributed to the likes of Ry Cooder (who introduced Richards to the trademark open five string tunings that would become nearly synonymous with his style) and the disintegrating Brian Jones.
Returning to Los Angeles, Parsons was soon joined by Hillman (both as rhythm guitarists), and the two formed the Flying Burrito Brothers with bassist Chris Ethridge and pedal steel player Sneaky Pete Kleinow. Their 1969 album The Gilded Palace Of Sin was a modernized version of the Bakersfield style of country music made popular by Buck Owens, and the band appeared on the album cover wearing Nudie suits emblazoned with all sorts of hippie accoutrements. Along with the Parsons-Hillman originals "Christine's Tune" and "Hot Burrito #2" were versions of the soul music classics "The Dark End of the Street" and "Do Right Woman", the latter featuring David Crosby on high harmony. Most of the songs on the album were composed by Hillman and Parsons in a creatively fertile period when the latter's drug intake noticeably decreased; the atypically pronounced (for Parsons) gospel soul influence likely comes from his frequent jamming with Delaney and Bonnie and Richards.
Though not a commercial success, Gilded was acclaimed by rock critic Robert Christgau as "an ominous, obsessive, tongue-in-cheek country-rock synthesis, absorbing rural and urban, traditional and contemporary, at point of impact." The album was recorded without a permanent drummer, but the group soon added original Byrd Michael Clarke on drums. Embarking on a cross-country tour via train, as Parsons suffered from periodic bouts of fear of flying, the group squandered most of their money in a perpetual poker game and received bewildered reactions in most cities. Parsons was frequently indulging in massive quantities of psilocybin and cocaine, so his performances were erratic at best, while much of the band's repertoire consisted of vintage honky tonk and soul standards with few originals. Perhaps the most successful appearance occurred in Philadelphia, where the group opened for the reconstituted Byrds. Midway through their set, Parsons joined the headline act and fronted his former group on renditions "Hickory Wind" and "You Don't Miss Your Water". The other Burritos surfaced with the exception of Clarke, and the joint aggregation played several songs. including "Long Black Veil" and "Goin' Back".
After returning to Los Angeles the group recorded "The Train Song", written during an increasingly infrequent songwriting session on the train and produced by 1950s R&B legends Larry Williams and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. Despite a request from the Burritos that the remnants of their publicity budget be diverted to promotion of the single, it also flopped. Ethridge, who lacked total commitment to Parsons' musical vision and often indulged in drugs and drink on a level surpassing the guitarist, departed shortly thereafter. He was replaced by lead guitarist Bernie Leadon, while Hillman reverted to bass.
By this time, Parsons's own use of drugs had increased to the extent that new songs were rare and much of his time was diverted to partying with the Stones, who briefly relocated to America in the summer of 1969 to finish their forthcoming Let It Bleed and prepare for an autumn cross country tour, their first series of regular live engagements since 1967. As they prepared to play the nation's largest sports arenas, the Burritos played to dwindling nightclub audiences; one night Jagger had to literally order Parsons to fulfill an obligation with his group.
The singer's dedication to the Rolling Stones was rewarded when the Burrito Brothers were booked as the opening act of the infamous Altamont Music Festival. Playing a short set including "Six Days on the Road" and "Bony Moronie", Parsons left on one of the final helicopters and attempted to pick up Michelle Phillips. "Six Days..." was included in Gimme Shelter, a documentary of the event.
With mounting debt incurred, A&M hoped to recoup some of their losses by marketing the Burritos as a straight country group. To this end, manager Jim Dickinson instigated a loose session where the band recorded several honky tonk staples from their live act, contemporary pop covers in a countrified vein ("To Love Somebody", "Lodi", "I Shall Be Released", "Honky Tonk Women"), and Larry William's "Bony Moronie". This was soon scrapped in favor of a second album of originals on an extremely reduced budget. Faced with a dearth of new material, most of the material was hastily written in the studio by Leadon, Hillman, and Parsons, with two Gilded Palace of Sin outtakes thrown into the mix. The resulting album, entitled Burrito Deluxe, was released in April 1970.
The album is considered less inspired than its predecessor, but it is notable for the Parsons-Hillman-Leadon song "Older Guys" and for its take on Jagger and Richards' "Wild Horses"—the first recording released of this famous song. Parsons was inspired to cover the song after hearing an advance tape of the Sticky Fingers sent to Kleinow, who was scheduled to overdub a part on the song. Jagger consented to the cover version, so long as the Flying Burrito Brothers did not issue it as a single.
Burrito Deluxe, like its predecessor, underperformed commercially but faced the double whammy of being lambasted by critics. Disenchanted with the band, he left the Burritos in mutual agreement with Hillman, at his wits' end after two years of babysitting Parsons. Under his direction, the group recorded two more LPs.
After leaving the Stones' camp, Parsons married in 1971, for the first and only time, to Burrell at his stepfather's New Orleans estate. Allegedly, the relationship was far from stable, with Burrell cutting a needy and jealous figure while Parsons castrated her burgeoning film career. Many of the singer's closest associates and friends claim that Parsons was preparing to commence divorce proceedings at the time of his death; the couple had already separated by this point.
He 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 Los Angeles for another attempt to record his first solo album.
Having gained thirty pounds since his Burrito days from Southern food and excessive alcohol consumption, it came as a surprise to many when Parsons was enthusiastically signed to Reprise Records by Mo Ostin in mid-1972. GP, released in 1973, utilized the guitar-playing of James Burton (sideman to Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson), and featured new songs from a creatively revitalized Parsons such as "Big Mouth Blues" and "Kiss the Children," as well as a superb cover of Tompall Glaser's "Streets of Baltimore."
Parsons, by now featuring Harris as his duet partner, played dates across the United States as Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels. Unable to afford the services of the Elvis band for a month, the band featured the talents of obscure Colorado-based rock guitarist Jock Bartley (soon to skyrocket to fame with Firefall), veteran Nashville sideman Neil Flanz on pedal steel, Kyle Tullis on bass and former Mountain drummer N.D. Smart (once described by Canadian folksinger Ian Tyson as "a psychotic redneck"). The touring party also included Gretchen Parsons—by this point extremely envious of Harris—and Harris' young daughter. Coordinating the spectacle as road manager was Phil Kaufman, who had served time with Charles Manson on Terminal Island in the mid-sixties and first met Parsons while working for the Stones in 1968. Kaufman ensured that the performer stayed away from substance abuse, limiting his alcohol intake during shows and throwing out any drugs smuggled into hotel rooms. At first, the band was under-rehearsed and played poorly, but improved markedly with steady gigging and received rapturous responses at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas and at a filmed concert at Liberty Hall in Houston (with Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt sitting in) and Max's Kansas City in New York City. According to a number of sources, it was Emmylou who forced the band to practice and work up an actual set list. Nevertheless, the tour did absolutely nothing for record sales. While he had been in the vanguard with The Byrds and the Burrito Brothers, Parsons was now perceived as being too authentic and traditional in an era dominated by the stylings of The Eagles, whose sound Parsons disdained (although he did maintain cordial relations with Leadon, now an Eagle).
For his next and final album, 1974's Grievous Angel, he again used Harris and Burton. The record, which was released after his death, received even more enthusiastic reviews than had GP, and has since attained classic status. Among its most celebrated songs is "$1000 Wedding", a holdover from the Burrito Brothers era which was covered by one of the many groups influenced by Parsons, the Mekons, and "Brass Buttons", a 1965 opus which addresses his mother's alcoholism. Also included was a new version of "Hickory Wind" and "Ooh Las Vegas", co-written with Grech and dating from the G.P. sessions. Despite the fact that Parsons only contributed two new songs to the album ("In My Hour of Darkness", "Return of the Grievous Angel"), Parsons was highly enthused with his new sound and seemed to have finally adopted a serious, diligent mindset to his musical career, eschewing most drugs and alcohol during the sessions.
Before recording, Parsons and Harris played a preliminary three show mini tour as the headline act in a Warner Brothers country-rock package. The backing band included Clarence White, Pete Kleinow, and Chris Etheridge. On July 14, 1973, the legendary White was killed by a drunk driver while loading equipment in his car for a concert with the New Kentucky Colonels. At White's funeral, Parsons and Bernie Leadon launched into an impromptu touching rendition of "Farther Along"; that night, the distraught and drunken musician reportedly informed Phil Kaufman of his final wish: to be cremated in Joshua Tree. Despite the almost insurmountable setback, Parsons, Harris, and the other musicians decided to continue with plans for a fall tour.
In the summer of 1973 Parsons' Topanga Canyon home burned to the ground, the result of a stray cigarette. Nearly all of his possessions were destroyed with the exception of a guitar and a prized Jaguar automobile. The fire proved to be the last straw in the relationship between Burrell and Parsons, who moved into a spare room in Kaufman's house. While not recording, he frequently hung out and jammed with members of New Jersey-based country rockers Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends (whose members included Tony Bennett's sons, Danny and Dae Bennett as well as future Dylan sideman and member of the Alpha Band, multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield) and the proto-punk Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, who were being managed by Kaufman. Richman credits Parsons with introducing him to acoustic-based music. Parsons is credited as producer on Quacky Duck's only album, Media Push, released by Warner Bros. in 1974. According to the road manager of Quacky Duck, Parsons was, despite being frequently drunk, a kind soul who provided business and musical guidance to the younger band.
Before formally breaking up with Burrell, Parsons already had a woman waiting in the wings. While recording, he saw a photo of a beautiful woman at a friend's home and was instantly smitten. The woman turned out to be Margaret Fisher, a high school sweetheart of the singer from his Waycross, Georgia days. Like Parsons, Fisher had drifted west and became established in the Bay Area rock scene. A meeting was arranged and the two instantly rekindled their relationship, with Fisher dividing her weeks between Los Angeles and San Francisco at Parsons' expense.
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. Prior to his death, Parsons stated that he wanted his body cremated at Joshua Tree and his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there. However, Parson's stepfather arranged for a private ceremony back in New Orleans and neglected to invite any of his friends from the music industry.
Maintaining his alleged promise, Kaufman and a friend managed to steal Parsons' body from the airport and, in a borrowed hearse, drove Parsons' body to Joshua Tree where they attempted to cremate it, by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin, and throwing a lit match inside. What resulted was an enormous fireball. Police chased them, but, according to one account, "were encumbered by sobriety". The two were arrested several days later, but since there was no law against stealing a dead body, were only fined $750 (or $700) for stealing the coffin. The burned remains were eventually returned to Parsons' stepfather and interred in New Orleans. In the 2004 documentary film Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel, Parsons' family alleged that Kaufman's cremation attempt was little more than a drunken hatchet job, which succeeded only in mutilating roughly 60 percent of the corpse. Parsons' friends and family were upset to find out that Kaufman left 35 pounds of his charred body in the desert.
The Gram Parsons Petition Project was begun in 2007 in an attempt to induct Gram Parsons into the Country Music Hall of Fame, based on his contribution to the evolution of country music. Backed by many friends and admirers who have signed and left comments from around the world, it is targeting the Country Music Association (CMA) and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Within four months to the day, it had hit its target of 1,000 signers; with more signing every day, the total is now over 2,200. On the 35th anniversary of Parsons' death on September 19, 2008, it was presented to the CMA and Hall as a "List of Supporters" together with the official Nomination Proposal based on the criteria set forth by the CMA for Candidate Criteria for Induction Into the Country Music Hall of Fame. A concert with nine bands inspired by Mr. Parsons was also held that day in Nashville in honor of the Nomination Proposal and the 35th anniversary of Gram's death. The petition will continue to be available to signers until his actual induction into the Hall occurs. In February 2008, Gram's protégée, Emmylou Harris, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.