Born Cecil Ingram Connor III, 5 November 1946, Winter Haven, Florida Died 19 September 1973, Joshua Tree, California
Gram Parsons has been called the father of country-rock, though he himself preferred to call his music "Cosmic American Music" (also the title of a CD anthology from Sundown). Hardly appreciated during his short life, he has been mentioned as an influence by artists as diverse as the Eagles, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, the Rolling Stones and Jim Lauderdale.
Brought up in an extremely wealthy Southern household, Parsons had every opportunity to devote himself to the things he liked, music being his principal interest. After his father's suicide in 1958 - money isn't everything - his mother married a man named Robert E. Parsons one year later, who adopted Gram and his sister Avis, legally changing his name to Gram Parsons.
His musical career began in high school as a member of the Pacers, a rock 'n' roll act which later gave way to the Legends, featuring Kent Lavoie, later known as Lobo. Parsons rediscovered country music during a brief stay at Harvard in 1965. There, in Cambridge, Mass., he formed the International Submarine Band, which, after moving to L.A. in 1966, made an album, "Safe At Home", produced by Lee Hazlewood. This excellent set is now rightly viewed as a landmark in the development of country rock, blending country standards with several first-rate Parsons' originals, like "Luxury Liner". However, by the time of its release (April 1968), the quartet had not only folded, but Gram had accepted an offer to join the Byrds. His induction resulted in "Sweetheart of the Rodeo", on which the newcomer determined the group's musical direction. I must confess that I completely over- looked the album at the time ; it is now one of my favourites, especially "You're Still On My Mind" (written and originally recorded by Jeff Daniels aka Luke McDaniel). However, within months Gram had left the Byrds in protest over a South African tour. With ex-Byrd Chris Hillman, "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow and Chris Ethridge, he formed the Flying Burrito Brothers in 1969. Their first album, "Gilded Palace Of Sin", was voted best pop album of all time by a group of prominent Dutch music critics a few years ago. It blends roots music with a rock & roll attitude and contains several classics, like "Hot Burrito # 1" and "Sin City". But in spite of excellent reviews, it didn't sell. The follow-up LP, "Burrito Deluxe" failed to scale the same heights, as internal problems undermined the group's potential. Gram's growing drug dependency exacerbated this estrangement and he was fired from the group in April 1970.
In late 1971, Parsons heard about Emmylou Harris, who was singing in folk clubs in the Washington D.C. area. He convinced her to join him for an album featuring back up by several ace musicians, like James Burton, Buddy Emmons and Glen D. Hardin. Their first album together, "GP" (recorded 1972, released early 1973) is somewhat overrated in my opinion. My impression is that Emmylou had little experience with harmony singing at the time and she often sounds uncertain. The strongest tracks are those where she is given a well-deserved moment of rest, like "She" and "Kiss the Children". "Cry One More Time", with Harold Battiste on saxophone, would have been perfect for Fats Domino. The second Parsons-Harris collaboration, "Grievous Angel" (recorded summer 1973, released January 1974), shows a much more confident Emmylou and the harmonies really come off this time. Their version of "Love Hurts" is at least as beautiful as the original by the Everly Bros and "$ 1000 Wedding" is another highlight.
Before the album could be released, Parsons was found dead of a mixture of alcohol and heroin in a motel room in the desert town of Joshua Tree, California, where he had often visited. The mysterious theft of his body after the funeral, whereupon his road manager, Philip Kaufman, tried to cremate the body in the desert, carrying out Gram's wishes, added to the singer's legend. Kaufman was later arrested, and Parsons's remains wound up in a cemetery in New Orleans. Although his records were not a commercial success during his lifetime, Parsons's influence on a generation of performers is a fitting testament to his talent.
Recommended listening: - International Submarine Band, Safe At Home (Sundown)
Biography: Ben Fong-Torres, Hickory Wind : The Life and Times of Gram Parsons. 2nd ed. New York : Griffin, 1998. Original edition Pocket Books, 1991.
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