Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Gram Parsons made only a brief appearance on the American music scene, but his influence was enormous both during his career and after his tragic early death. Parsons was one of the first artists to introduce country vocal harmonies and country and bluegrass instrumentation to rock and roll. His work as a solo artist and with important folk-rock groups like the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers effectively bridged a gap between bluegrass, country, and rock. Parsons completed only two solo albums before his death, and his achievements are often judged more by their effect on other artists—both country and rock—than on their own merit. In Country Music U.S.A., Bill C. Malone wrote: “Although Parsons’ final resting place is obscure, his contributions to … music are much more strongly marked. His influence is still heard in the music of many young musicians, both unknown and professional.”
Despite his family’s wealth, Parsons did not have an easy life. He was born in Winter Haven, Florida, and given the name Cecil Ingram Connors. Brought up primarily in Waycross, Georgia, he began playing guitar in his early teens. Parsons’s father, a packing-plant owner, sang country music as a sideline under the name “Coon Dog” Connors. Like most youths growing up in the 1950s, however, Parsons gravitated toward rock and roll, especially the music of Elvis Presley. When Parsons was 13, his father fatally shot himself in the head. Soon thereafter his mother—an alcoholic who also died young—married a New Orleans businessman named Robert Parsons. Thus the teenage boy was adopted and given the name Gram Parsons.
Family life in both the Connors and Parsons households was full of upheaval and emotional turmoil. Gram attended expensive preparatory schools, but rebelled constantly, running away at 14 and drifting to New York City’s Greenwich Village at 16. In the early 1960s Parsons’s musical interests turned from rock to folk and country. He briefly played with a band called the Shilohs. He was persuaded to play country music during a brief stay at Harvard University, where some of the other students encouraged him to embrace his rural origins. The friendships Parsons forged at Harvard led to the formation of his first important group, the International Submarine Band.
After only four months at Harvard, Parsons dropped out and moved with his band to New York City. There the group played a unique form of rock—unique in that it included the pedal steel guitar work of J. D. Maness and a playlist of modern country songs. The International
For the Record…
Born Cecil Ingram Connors (named changed to Gram Parsons after adoption, c. 1960), November 5, 1946, in Winter Haven, FL; died September 19, 1973, in Joshua Tree, CA; cause of death attributed to excessive drug use; buried in New Orleans, LA; son of “Coon Dog” Connors (a packing-plant owner and part-time singer); was married; children: Polly (mother’s name, Nancy). Education: Attended Harvard University, c. 1965.
Singer, songwriter, guitarist, c. 1960-73. Folksinger in New York City, and with band the Shilohs, c. 1962; played mandolin with blugrass group the Hillmen; formed the International Submarine Band, c. 1966; member of the Byrds, c. 1966-68; with Chris Hillman, formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, 1968; solo artist, 1971-73.
Submarine Band cut one album—1966’s Safe at Home —for a small label before it dissolved in 1967. Country Music U.S.A.’s Malone noted that the recording—now a very rare collector’s item—was “well in advance of similar experiments made by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and other rock-oriented musicians.”
In 1968 Parsons joined the Byrds, a well-known folk-rock band, through the efforts of Byrd Chris Hillman. There Parsons and Hillman—another rocker who loved old-time country music and bluegrass—moved the Byrds in the direction of country. A 1969 Byrds album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, clearly displayed the influence of Parsons and Hillman; it contains pedal steel guitar, bluegrass riffs, and even a truck-driving song, but its best known cut is Parsons’s beautiful “Hickory Wind.” Their long hair and hippy clothes notwithstanding, the Byrds were invited to perform “Hickory Wind” at the revered Grand Ole Opry, the institution of country music.
After only three months with the Byrds, Parsons quit the band in 1968, refusing to accompany them on a tour of South Africa due to his opposition to that country’s racist government. With Hillman, Parsons drifted to California and found work at country bars on the coast. There, with the addition of steel guitarist Sneaky Pete Kleinow, they formed the Flying Burrito Brothers. According to Malone, the Flying Burrito Brothers—led by Parsons in a white cowboy suit emblazoned with marijuana leaves—“vividly illustrated the fusion of country music and youth-culture motifs.” With Parsons as a member the band cut two albums, The Gilded Palace of Sin and Burrito DeLuxe.
Malone also noted that the Flying Burrito Brothers “were strongly rock-flavored, but they also borrowed songs from the Louvin Brothers, George Jones, Merle Haggard, and other hard-core country singers. Burrito instrumentation was similarly mixed, the steel-guitar stylings of Sneaky Pete gave the group a distinctive honky-tonk flavor. The Burrito Brothers’ most compelling songs were those written by Parsons and Hillman, especially the frequently performed ‘Sin City’ and ‘Wheels,’ and they were rendered by these two singers in a sweet, clear duet harmony reminiscent of the Everly Brothers.” In his book Who’s Who in New Country Music, Andrew Vaughan noted that the Burrito Brothers offered “a new kind of country music, certainly more Hank Williams than Jim Reeves. And if hip rock stars could like country music then maybe it wasn’t parents’ music after all.” In the time-honored country tradition—and, it seems, from personal experience—Parsons, backed by the Brothers, could also sing the blues. Recalled author Pamela Des Barres in Rolling Stone, “Gram could hurt through his voice better than anybody I’ve ever heard. He hurt so damn good, he made a pitiful broken heart feel beautiful and profound.”
While recuperating from a motorcycle accident in early 1970, Parsons met and befriended Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, whose work he would significantly influence. He left the Flying Burrito Brothers in the spring of 1970 to pursue a solo career, still determined to bring country music to rock audiences; alone, he recorded two albums: the debut GP, and the posthumously released Grievous Angel. Both works feature background vocals by country giant Emmylou Harris, who was singing folk in an obscure Washington, D.C. bar before she met Parsons.
“Working with Gram was a wonderful experience,” Harris told Andrew Vaughan. “He was wildly misunderstood, too country for the rockers and too weird for the Nashville establishment. But he had a vision and a love for those old Louvins harmonies that was intense and powerful.” As her own star rose in Nashville, Harris never missed an opportunity to praise Parsons for daring to work within his country roots. “I had no fire in me until Gram died,” she said in Who’s Who in New Country Music. “But afterwards I felt strongly that I had to continue his work. It was hard going solo but my attitude was always, ‘How would Gram do this?’ and somehow my sound evolved.”
By 1971 Parsons—with the help of a hefty trust fund—was indulging in a jet-set lifestyle, taking drugs, and hopping from one continent to another. While staying at a desert retreat near the Joshua Tree National Monument in California, Parsons died, on September 19, 1973. He was 26. According to The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, traces of morphine, cocaine, amphetamine, and alcohol were found in his blood, though the autopsy report was inconclusive as to the actual cause of death. Then, in a bizarre twist, a few days after his death, while Parsons’s body was on its way to burial in New Orleans, his remains were commandeered by his manager Phil Kaufman, taken back to Joshua Tree, and set on fire. The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia reported that Parsons had made it clear that he would like to be cremated when he died.
Parsons’s body finally came to rest in a modestly marked plot in New Orleans. Like Hank Williams, who also died young, Parsons has wielded greater power from the grave than he did while alive. His influence can be heard distinctly on the Rolling Stones releases Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. In a Rolling Stone review of Hickory Wind, a biography of Parsons, Keith Richards is quoted as having said in the book, “[Gram] kind of redefined the possibilities of country music for me, personally. If he had lived, he probably would have redefined if for everybody.” Parsons gave Emmylou Harris the courage to pursue traditional country balladry at a time when slick pop arrangements were in vogue. And his spirit lives on today in California-based country-rock bands like the Desert Rose Band, a group powered by his former colleagues Chris Hillman and J. D. Maness.
“There was a time when country became very boring,” Harris told Vaughan. “Those were very frustrating times for those of us playing a rootsy acoustic style.… It was the old-time sound… that first drew me to country music. And when I worked with Gram Parsons it was that feel that inspired us.” That “feel” has energized a whole new generation of country performers, many of whom owe a huge debt to the artistic direction initiated by the late Gram Parsons.
With the Byrds
Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Columbia, 1968.
With the Flying Burrito Brothers
The Gilded Palace of Sin, A&M, 1969.
Burrito Deluxe, A&M, 1970.
GP, Warner Bros., 1972.
Grievous Angel, Warner Bros., 1973.
Sleepless Nights, A&M, 1976.
Gram Parsons —The Early Years, Volume 1, Sierra/Briar Records, 1979.
Also recorded Safe at Home, 1967, with the International Submarine Band.
Brown, Charles T., Music U.S.A.: America’s Country and Western Tradition, Prentice-Hall, 1986.
Des Barres, Pamela, I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, Jove, 1987.
Fong-Torres, Ben, Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons, Pocket Books, 1991.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
Malone, Bill C, Country Music U.S.A., University of Texas Press, 1985.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Vaughan, Andrew, Who’s Who in New Country Music, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Rolling Stone, October 3, 1991.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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