Gram Parsons

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Gram Parsons
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Background information
Birth nameIngram Cecil Connor III
Born(1946-11-05)November 5, 1946
Winter Haven, Florida
Origin Waycross, Georgia
DiedSeptember 19, 1973(1973-09-19) (aged 26)
Joshua Tree, California
Genres Country, country rock, folk rock, Americana
Occupation(s)Singer-songwriter, guitarist, pianist
InstrumentsVocals, guitar, piano, organ
Years active1963–1973
Labels Reprise, A&M
Associated acts International Submarine Band
The Byrds
The Flying Burrito Brothers
Emmylou Harris

Ingram Cecil Connor III (November 5, 1946 – September 19, 1973), known professionally as Gram Parsons, was an American singer, songwriter, guitarist and pianist. Parsons is best known for his work with the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. He also popularized what he called "Cosmic American Music", a hybrid of country, rhythm and blues, soul, folk, and rock. [1] [2] He recorded as a solo artist and with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. His relatively short career was described by AllMusic as "enormously influential" for country and rock, "blending the two genres to the point that they became indistinguishable from each other." [3]

Rhythm and blues, commonly abbreviated as R&B, is a genre of popular music that originated in African American communities in the 1940s. The term was originally used by record companies to describe recordings marketed predominantly to urban African Americans, at a time when "urbane, rocking, jazz based music with a heavy, insistent beat" was becoming more popular. In the commercial rhythm and blues music typical of the 1950s through the 1970s, the bands usually consisted of piano, one or two guitars, bass, drums, one or more saxophones, and sometimes background vocalists. R&B lyrical themes often encapsulate the African-American experience of pain and the quest for freedom and joy, as well as triumphs and failures in terms of relationships, economics, and aspirations.

Soul music is a popular music genre that originated in the African American community in the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s. It combines elements of African-American gospel music, rhythm and blues and jazz. Soul music became popular for dancing and listening in the United States, where record labels such as Motown, Atlantic and Stax were influential during the Civil Rights Movement. Soul also became popular around the world, directly influencing rock music and the music of Africa.

Folk music Music of the people

Folk music includes traditional folk music and the genre that evolved from it during the 20th-century folk revival. Some types of folk music may be called world music. Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted orally, music with unknown composers, or music performed by custom over a long period of time. It has been contrasted with commercial and classical styles. The term originated in the 19th century, but folk music extends beyond that.


Parsons was born in Winter Haven, Florida and developed an interest in country music while attending Harvard University. He founded the International Submarine Band in 1966 and, after several months of delay, their debut album Safe at Home was released in 1968 (by which time the group had disbanded). Parsons joined The Byrds in early 1968 and played a pivotal role in the making of the seminal Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. After leaving the group in late 1968, Parsons and fellow Byrd Chris Hillman formed The Flying Burrito Brothers in 1969, releasing their debut, The Gilded Palace of Sin , the same year. The album was well received but failed commercially. After a sloppy cross-country tour, they hastily recorded Burrito Deluxe . Parsons was fired from the band before its release in early 1970. He soon signed with A&M Records but after several unproductive sessions he canceled his intended solo debut in early 1971. Parsons moved to France, where he lived for a short period at Villa Nellcôte with his friend Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. Returning to America, Parsons met Emmylou Harris through his friend and former bandmate Chris Hillman. She assisted him on vocals for his first solo record, GP , released in 1973. Although it received enthusiastic reviews, the release failed to chart. His next album, Grievous Angel , met with a similar reception and peaked at number 195 on the Billboard chart. His health deteriorated due to several years of drug abuse and he died in 1973 at the age of 26.

Winter Haven, Florida City in Florida, United States

Winter Haven is a city in Polk County, Florida, United States. It is fifty-one miles east of Tampa. The population was 33,874 at the 2010 census. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2015 estimates, this city had a population of 37,689, making it the second most populated city in Polk County. It is a principal city of the Lakeland-Winter Haven, Florida Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Harvard University Private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Harvard University is a private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with about 6,700 undergraduate students and about 15,250 postgraduate students. Established in 1636 and named for its first benefactor, clergyman John Harvard, Harvard is the United States' oldest institution of higher learning. Its history, influence, wealth, and academic reputation have made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world. It has often been cited as the world's top university by most publishers.

<i>Safe at Home</i> 1968 studio album by The International Submarine Band

Safe at Home is a 1968 album by country rock group the International Submarine Band, led by the then-unknown 21-year-old Gram Parsons. The group's only album release, Safe at Home featured four of Parsons' original compositions rounded out by six covers of classic country and rock and roll songs made famous by the likes of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, and Hank Snow. Described as "hippie and hillbilly in equal measure", the album helped to forge the burgeoning country rock movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Since his death, Parsons has been credited with helping to found both country rock and alt-country. He did not consider his work "country rock" because he felt it should not be categorized in a single genre since it was a unique blend of many genres and styles of music with his own personal twang. [3]

Country rock is a subgenre of popular music, formed from the fusion of rock and country. It was developed by rock musicians who began to record country-flavored records in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These musicians recorded rock records using country themes, vocal styles, and additional instrumentation, most characteristically pedal steel guitars. Country rock began with artists like Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons and others, reaching its greatest popularity in the 1970s with artists such as Emmylou Harris, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Michael Nesmith, Poco and Pure Prairie League. Country rock also influenced artists in other genres, including the Band, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones, and George Harrison's solo work, as well as playing a part in the development of Southern rock.

In 1968, the Byrds appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and were met with a hostile crowd. They then appeared on Ralph Emery's WSM radio show and were shocked to find he would not play their latest single, "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" and was very hostile to the band and their hippy image. Parsons and Roger McGuinn wrote the song "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man" in response. [4] [5]

<i>Grand Ole Opry</i> United States historic place

The Grand Ole Opry is a weekly American country music stage concert in Nashville, Tennessee, founded on November 28, 1925, by George D. Hay as a one-hour radio "barn dance" on WSM. Currently owned and operated by Opry Entertainment, it is the longest running radio broadcast in US history. Dedicated to honoring country music and its history, the Opry showcases a mix of famous singers and contemporary chart-toppers performing country, bluegrass, Americana, folk, and gospel music as well as comedic performances and skits. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world and millions of radio and internet listeners.

Walter Ralph Emery is a country music disc jockey and television host from Nashville, Tennessee. He gained national fame hosting the syndicated television music series, Pop! Goes the Country, from 1974 to 1980 and the nightly Nashville Network television program, Nashville Now, from 1983 to 1993. From 2007 to 2015, Emery hosted the weekly program, Ralph Emery Live, on RFD-TV, a satellite and cable television channel devoted to rural American culture.

His posthumous honors include the Americana Music Association "President's Award" for 2003 and a ranking at No. 87 on Rolling Stone's list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time." [6]

Americana Music Association organization

The Americana Music Association (AMA) is a professional not-for-profit trade organization whose mission is to advocate for the authentic voice of American Roots Music around the world. Toward these ends the organization works with Americana artists, radio stations, record labels, publishers, and others to create networking opportunities and to develop an infrastructure that will assure visibility and economic viability. Additionally, the organization works to increase brand recognition of Americana music and its artists. The Association produces events throughout the year including the annual Americana Music Festival and Conference and the Americana Music Honors & Awards typically held together in the fall. The AMA also manages and publishes radio airplay charts. It publishes newsletters, conducts market research, and disseminates information about important events in the Americana community.

<i>Rolling Stone</i> American magazine focusing on popular culture, based in New York City

Rolling Stone is an American monthly magazine that focuses on popular culture. It was founded in San Francisco, California in 1967 by Jann Wenner, who is still the magazine's publisher, and the music critic Ralph J. Gleason. It was first known for its musical coverage and for political reporting by Hunter S. Thompson. In the 1990s, the magazine shifted focus to a younger readership interested in youth-oriented television shows, film actors, and popular music. In recent years, it has resumed its traditional mix of content, including music, entertainment, and politics.

Life and career

Early years (1946–67)

Ingram Cecil Connor III was born on November 5, 1946, in Winter Haven, Florida, to Ingram Cecil "Coon Dog" (1917–1959) and Avis (née Snively) Connor (1923–1965). [7] The Connors normally resided at their main residence in Waycross, Georgia, but Avis traveled to her hometown in Florida to give birth. [7] She was the daughter of citrus fruit magnate John A. Snively, who held extensive properties in Winter Haven and in Waycross. The senior Ingram Connor was a famous World War II flying ace, decorated with the Air Medal, who was present at the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. [8] Biographer David Meyer characterized these parents as loving; he wrote in Twenty Thousand Roads that they are "remembered as affectionate parents and a loving couple". [7]

Waycross, Georgia City in Georgia, United States

Waycross is the county seat of, and only incorporated city in, Ware County in the U.S. state of Georgia. The population was 14,725 at the 2010 Census.

Georgia (U.S. state) U.S. state in the United States

Georgia is a state located in the southeastern region of the United States. Georgia is the 24th largest in area and 8th-most populous of the 50 United States. Georgia is bordered to the north by Tennessee and North Carolina, to the northeast by South Carolina, to the southeast by the Atlantic Ocean, to the south by Florida, and to the west by Alabama. The state's nicknames include the Peach State and the Empire State of the South. Atlanta, a "beta(+)" global city, is both the state's capital and largest city. The Atlanta metropolitan area, with an estimated population of 5,949,951 in 2018, is the 9th most populous metropolitan area in the United States and contains about 60% of the entire state population.

John A. Snively American businessman

John Andrew Snively was a pioneering citrus grower in Florida and Georgia, USA. At his height, his companies were responsible for one-third of the Florida citrus crop.

However, he also notes that "unhappiness was eating away at the Connor family": Avis suffered from depression, and both parents were alcoholics. [9] Ingram Connor committed suicide two days before Christmas in 1958, devastating the 12-year-old Gram and his younger sister, also named Avis. [10] Avis subsequently married Robert Parsons, who adopted Gram and his sister; they took his surname.

Gram Parsons briefly attended the prestigious Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida before transferring to the public Winter Haven High School; after failing his junior year, he returned to Bolles (which had converted from a military to a liberal arts curriculum amid the incipient Vietnam War). For a time, the family found a stability of sorts. They were torn apart in early 1965, when Robert became embroiled in an extramarital affair and Avis' heavy drinking led to her death from cirrhosis on June 5, 1965, the day of Gram's graduation from Bolles. [11]

As his family disintegrated around him, Parsons developed strong musical interests, particularly after seeing Elvis Presley perform in concert on February 22, 1956, in Waycross. [12] 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, in Greenville, South Carolina. Heavily influenced by The Kingston Trio and The Journeymen, [13] the band played hootenannies, coffee houses and high school auditoriums; as Parsons was still enrolled in prep school, he only performed with the group in select engagements. Forays into New York City (where Parsons briefly lived with a female folk singer in a loft on Houston Street) included a performance at Florida's exhibition in the 1964 New York World's Fair and regular appearances at the Café Rafio on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1964. Although John Phillips (an acquaintance of Shilo George Wrigley) arranged an exploratory meeting with Albert Grossman, the impresario balked at booking the group for a Christmas engagement at The Bitter End when he discovered that the Shilos were high school students. [14] Following a recording session at the radio station of Bob Jones University, the group—encumbered by a creative impasse amid the emergence of folk rock—dissolved in the spring of 1965.

Despite his middling grades and test scores, Parsons was admitted to Harvard University's class of 1969 on the basis of a strong admissions essay. Although he claimed to have studied theology (an oblique reference to his close friendship with his residential tutor, Harvard Divinity School graduate student Jet Thomas) in subsequent interviews, Parsons seldom attended his general education courses before departing in early 1966 after one semester. He did not become seriously interested in country music until his time at Harvard, where he heard Merle Haggard for the first time.

In 1966, he and other musicians from the Boston folk scene formed a group called the International Submarine Band. After briefly residing in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, they relocated to Los Angeles the following year. Following several lineup changes, the band signed to Lee Hazlewood's LHI Records, where they spent late 1967 recording Safe at Home . The album contains one of Parsons' best-known songs, "Luxury Liner", and an early version of "Do You Know How It Feels", which he revised later in his career. Safe at Home would remain unreleased until mid-1968, by which time the International Submarine Band had broken up.

The Byrds (1968)

By 1968, Parsons had come to the attention of The Byrds' bassist, Chris Hillman, via business manager Larry Spector as a possible replacement band member following the departures of David Crosby and Michael Clarke from the group in late 1967. [15] [16] Parsons had been acquainted with Hillman since the pair had met in a bank during 1967 and in February 1968 he passed an audition for the band, being initially recruited as a jazz pianist but soon switching to rhythm guitar and vocals. [15] [17]

Although Parsons was an equal contributor to the band, he was not regarded as a full member of The Byrds by the band's record label, Columbia Records. [18] Consequently, when the Byrds' Columbia recording contract was renewed on February 29, 1968, it was only original members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman who signed it. [18] Parsons, like fellow new recruit Kevin Kelley, was hired as a sideman and received a salary from McGuinn and Hillman. [19] In later years, this led Hillman to state, "Gram was hired. He was not a member of The Byrds, ever. He was on salary, that was the only way we could get him to turn up." [20] However, these comments overlook the fact that Parsons, like Kelley, was considered a bona fide member of the band during 1968 and, as such, was given equal billing alongside McGuinn, Hillman, and Kelley on the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album and in contemporary press coverage of the band. [21]

"Being with The Byrds confused me a little. I couldn't find my place. I didn't have enough say-so. I really wasn't one of The Byrds. I was originally hired because they wanted a keyboard player. But I had experience being a frontman and that came out immediately. And [Roger McGuinn] being a very perceptive fellow saw that it would help the act, and he started sticking me out front."

—Gram Parsons reflecting on his time with The Byrds [22]

Sweetheart of the Rodeo was originally conceived by band leader Roger McGuinn as a sprawling, double album history of American popular music. [23] It was to begin with bluegrass music, then move through country and western, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock music, before finally ending with the most advanced (for the time) form of electronic music. [17] However, as recording plans were made, Parsons exerted a controlling influence over the group, persuading the other members to leave Los Angeles and record the album in Nashville, Tennessee. [18] Along the way, McGuinn's original album concept was jettisoned in favor of a fully fledged country project, which included Parsons' songs such as "One Hundred Years from Now" and "Hickory Wind", along with compositions by Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, and others. [24]

Recording sessions for Sweetheart of the Rodeo commenced at Columbia Records' recording studios in the Music Row area of Nashville on March 9, 1968. [17] Midway through, the sessions moved to Columbia Studios, Hollywood, Los Angeles. They finally came to a close on May 27, 1968. [17] [25] However, Parsons was still under contract to LHI Records and consequently, Hazlewood contested Parsons' appearance on the album and threatened legal action. [23] As a result, McGuinn ended up replacing three of Parsons' lead vocals with his own singing on the finished album, a move that still rankled Parsons as late as 1973, when he told Cameron Crowe in an interview that McGuinn "erased it and did the vocals himself and fucked it up." [26] However, Parsons is still featured as lead vocalist on the songs "You're Still on My Mind", "Life in Prison", and "Hickory Wind". [24]

While in England with The Byrds in the summer of 1968, Parsons left the band due to his concerns over a planned concert tour of South Africa, and after speaking to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards about the tour, he cited opposition to that country's apartheid policies. [17] There has been some doubt expressed by Hillman over the sincerity of Parsons' protest. [27] It appears that Parsons was mostly apolitical, 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.[ citation needed ] During this period Parsons became acquainted with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. [28] Before Parsons' departure from The Byrds, he had accompanied the two Rolling Stones to Stonehenge (along with McGuinn and Hillman) in the English county of Wiltshire. [29] Immediately after leaving the band, Parsons stayed at Richards' house and the pair developed a close friendship over the next few years, with Parsons reintroducing the guitarist to country music. [30] According to Stones' confidant and close friend of Parsons, Phil Kaufman, the two would sit around for hours playing obscure country records and trading off on various songs with their guitars. [31]

The Flying Burrito Brothers (1969–70)

Parsons's Nudie suit in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville Country Music Hall of Fame (5981921715).jpg
Parsons's Nudie suit in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville

Returning to Los Angeles, Parsons sought out Hillman, 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 marked the culmination of Parsons' post-1966 musical vision: a modernized variant of the Bakersfield sound that was popularized by Buck Owens amalgamated with strands of soul and psychedelic rock. The band appeared on the album cover wearing Nudie suits emblazoned with all sorts of hippie accoutrements, including marijuana, Tuinal and Seconal-inspired patches on Parsons' suit. Along with the Parsons-Hillman originals "Christine's Tune" and "Sin City" 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. The album's original songs were the result of a very productive songwriting partnership between Parsons and Hillman, who were sharing a bachelor pad in the San Fernando Valley during this period. The atypically pronounced (for Parsons) gospel-soul influence on this album likely evolved from the ecumenical tastes of bassist Chris Ethridge (who co-wrote "Hot Burrito No. 1 [I'm Your Toy]" and "Hot Burrito No. 2" with Parsons) and frequent jamming with Delaney & Bonnie and Richards during the album's gestation.

Original drummer Eddie Hoh (best known for his work with The Monkees and Al Kooper) proved to be unable to perform adequate takes due to an incipient substance abuse problem and was dismissed after two songs, leading the group to record the remainder of the album with a variety of session drummers, including former International Submarine Band drummer Jon Corneal (who briefly joined the group as an official member, appearing on a plurality of the tracks) and Popeye Phillips of Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show. Before commencing live performances, the group ultimately settled upon original Byrds drummer Michael Clarke. Technically maladroit in comparison to his predecessors, Clarke's striking physical appearance proved to be the primary criterion in this decision; an associate of the band would later recall that "the Burritos had to be pretty" and "Corneal didn't fit" from that standpoint. [32]

While unsuccessful from a commercial standpoint, the album was measured 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." 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 of "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".

The Flying Burrito Brothers appeared at the Sky River Rock Festival in Tenino, Washington, at the end of August. [33] [34] [35]

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. During this period, Ethridge realized that he did not share Parsons' and Hillman's affinity for country music, precipitating his departure 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 so much 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 album and prepare for an autumn cross-country tour, their first series of regular live engagements in over two years. As they prepared to play the nation's largest basketball arenas and early stadium concerts, the Burritos played to dwindling nightclub audiences; on one occasion, Jagger had to beseech Parsons to fulfill an obligation to his group. As Parsons "became a trust-fund baby when he came of age," he was still receiving about $30,000 per year (equivalent to $210,000 in 2018) [36] from his family trust during this period, "distinguishing him from his many hungry, hard-scrabble peers." [37]

However, the singer's dedication to the Rolling Stones was rewarded when the Burrito Brothers were booked as one of the acts at 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 seduce 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 Dickson 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 Williams' "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 album 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. Although it is considered less inspired than its predecessor, 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 track sent to Kleinow, who was scheduled to overdub a pedal steel part; although Kleinow's part was not included on the released Rolling Stones version, it is available on bootlegs. [38] Ultimately—and to the chagrin of Hillman, who was not keen on the song amid the band's creative malaise—Jagger and Richards consented to the cover version. [39]

Like its predecessor, Burrito Deluxe underperformed commercially but also failed to carry the critical cachet of the debut. Disenchanted with the band, Parsons left the Burritos in mutual agreement with Hillman, who was long fatigued by his friend's unprofessionalism. Under Hillman's direction, the group recorded one more studio album before dissolving in the autumn of 1971.

In a recent interview with American Songwriter Chris Hillman explained that "[t]he greatest legacy of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram is we were the alternative country band. We couldn't get on country radio and we couldn't get on rock radio! We were the outlaw country band for a brief period." [40]

Solo career and touring with Emmylou Harris (1970–73)

Parsons signed a solo deal with A&M Records and moved in with producer Terry Melcher in early 1970. [41] Melcher, who had worked with The Byrds and The Beach Boys and had rejected producing unknown singer-songwriter Charles Manson, was a member of the successful duo Bruce & Terry, also known as The Rip Chords. The two shared a mutual penchant for cocaine and heroin, and as a result, the sessions were largely unproductive, with Parsons eventually losing interest in the project. "Terry loved Gram and wanted to produce him ... But neither of them could get anything done," recalled writer and mutual friend Eve Babitz. [42] "Long lost, the tapes from this session have gathered a legendary patina," writes David Meyer. [43] The recording stalled, and the master tapes were checked out, but there is conflict as to whether "Gram ... or Melcher took them". [44]

He then accompanied the Rolling Stones on their 1971 U.K. tour in the hope of being signed to the newly formed Rolling Stones Records; by this juncture, Parsons and Richards had mulled the possibility of recording a duo album. Moving into Villa Nellcôte with the guitarist during the sessions for Exile on Main Street that commenced thereafter, Parsons remained in a consistently incapacitated state and frequently quarreled with his much younger girlfriend, aspiring actress Gretchen Burrell. Eventually, Parsons was asked to leave by Anita Pallenberg, Richards' longtime domestic partner. Decades later, Richards suggested in his memoir that Jagger may have been the impetus for Parsons' departure because Richards was spending so much time playing music with Parsons. Rumors have persisted that he appears somewhere on the legendary album, and while Richards concedes that it is very likely he is among the chorus of singers on "Sweet Virginia", this has never been substantiated. Parsons attempted to rekindle his relationship with the band on their 1972 American tour to no avail.

After leaving the Stones' camp, Parsons married Burrell in 1971 at his stepfather's New Orleans estate. Allegedly, the relationship was far from stable, with Burrell cutting a needy and jealous figure while Parsons quashed 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.

Parsons in 1972 Gram Parsons.jpg
Parsons in 1972

Parsons and Burrell enjoyed the most idyllic time of their relationship in the second half of 1971, visiting old cohorts like Ian Dunlop and Family/Blind Faith/Traffic member Ric Grech in England. With the assistance of Grech and one of the bassist's friends, a doctor who also dabbled in country music and is now known as Hank Wangford, [45] Parsons eventually stopped taking heroin; a previous treatment suggested by William Burroughs proved unsuccessful.

He returned to the US for a one-off concert with the Burritos, and at Hillman's request went to hear Emmylou Harris sing in a small club in Washington, D.C. They befriended each other and, within a year, he asked her to join him in Los Angeles for another attempt to record his first solo album. It came as a surprise to many when Parsons was enthusiastically signed to Reprise Records by Mo Ostin in mid-1972. The ensuing GP (1973) featured several members of Elvis Presley's TCB Band, led by lead guitarist James Burton. It included six new songs from a creatively revitalized Parsons alongside several country covers, including Tompall Glaser's "Streets of Baltimore" and George Jones' "That's All It Took".

Parsons, by now featuring Harris as his duet partner, toured across the United States as Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels in February–March 1973. Unable to afford the services of the TCB Band for a month, the group featured the talents of Colorado-based rock guitarist Jock Bartley (soon to climb to fame with Firefall), veteran Nashville session musician Neil Flanz on pedal steel, eclectic bassist Kyle Tullis (best known for his work with Dolly Parton and Larry Coryell) and former Mountain drummer N.D. Smart. 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; however, they improved markedly with steady gigging and received rapturous responses at several leading countercultural venues, including Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas, Max's Kansas City in New York City, and Liberty Hall in Houston, Texas (where Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt sat in for a filmed performance). According to a number of sources, it was Harris who forced the band to practice and work up an actual set list. Nevertheless, the tour failed to galvanize sales of GP, which never charted in the Billboard 200. [46]

For his next and final album, 1974's posthumously released Grievous Angel , he again used Harris and members of the TCB Band for the sessions. The record received even more enthusiastic reviews than had GP, and has since attained classic status. Its most celebrated song is a Parsons-Harris duet cover of "Love Hurts," a song that remains in Harris' solo repertoire. Notable Parsons-penned songs included "$1000 Wedding," a holdover from the Burrito Brothers era, and "Brass Buttons," a 1965 opus that addressed his mother's alcoholism. A new version of "Hickory Wind" was included, while "Ooh Las Vegas," co-written with Grech, dated from the GP sessions. Although Parsons only contributed two new songs to the album ("In My Hour of Darkness" and "Return of the Grievous Angel"), he was highly enthused with his new sound and seemed to have finally adopted a diligent mindset to his musical career, limiting his intake of alcohol and opiates during most of the sessions.

Before recording, Parsons and Harris played a preliminary four-show mini-tour as the headline act in a June 1973 Warner Brothers country rock package with the New Kentucky Colonels and Country Gazette. A shared backing band included former Byrds lead guitarist and Kentucky Colonel Clarence White, Pete Kleinow, and Chris Ethridge. On July 14, 1973, White was killed by a drunk driver in Palmdale, California 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 evening, Parsons 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 and the proto-punk Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, who were represented by former Byrds manager Eddie Tickner.

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 the late 1960s, Parsons became enamored of and began to vacation at Joshua Tree National Monument in southeastern California, where he frequently partook in psychedelics and reportedly experienced several UFO sightings. After splitting from Burrell, Parsons often spent his weekends in the area with Margaret Fisher and Phil Kaufman, with whom he had been living. Scheduled to resume touring in October 1973, Parsons decided to go on another recuperative excursion on September 17. Accompanying him were Fisher, personal assistant Michael Martin, and Dale McElroy, Martin's girlfriend. Kaufman later declared that Parsons' attorney was preparing divorce papers for him to serve to Burrell while the singer remained in Joshua Tree on September 20. [47]

During the trip, Parsons often retreated to the desert, while the group visited bars in the nearby hamlet of Yucca Valley, California on both nights of their stay. Parsons consumed large amounts of alcohol and barbiturates. On September 18, Martin drove back to Los Angeles to resupply the group with marijuana. That night, after challenging Fisher and McElroy to drink with him (Fisher didn't like alcohol and McElroy was recovering from a bout of hepatitis C), he said, "I'll drink for the three of us," and proceeded to drink six double tequilas. They then returned to the Joshua Tree Inn, where Parsons purchased morphine from an unknown young woman. After being injected by her in room #8, he overdosed. Fisher gave Parsons an ice-cube suppository, and later on a cold shower. Instead of moving Parsons around the room, she put him to bed and went out to buy coffee in the hope of reviving him, leaving McElroy to stand watch. As his respiration became irregular and later ceased, McElroy attempted resuscitation. Her efforts failed and Fisher, watching from outside, was visibly alarmed. After further failed attempts, they decided to call an ambulance. Parsons was declared dead on his arrival at High Desert Memorial Hospital at 12:15 a.m. on September 19, 1973 in Yucca Valley. The official cause of death was an overdose of morphine and alcohol. [48] [49]

According to Fisher in the 2005 biography Grievous Angel: An Intimate Biography of Gram Parsons, the amount of morphine consumed by Parsons would be lethal to three regular users; thus, he had likely overestimated his tolerance in light of his diminished intake despite his extensive experience with opiates. Keith Richards stated in the 2004 documentary film Fallen Angel that Parsons understood the danger of combining opiates and alcohol and should have known better. Upon Parsons' death, Fisher and McElroy were returned to Los Angeles by Kaufman, who dispersed the remnants of Parsons' drugs in the desert.

Before 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, Parsons' stepfather Bob organized a private ceremony back in New Orleans and neglected to invite any of his friends from the music industry. [49] Two accounts state that Bob Parsons stood to inherit Gram's share of his grandfather's estate if he could prove that Gram was a resident of Louisiana, explaining his eagerness to have him buried there. [50] [51]

Parsons' makeshift memorial in Joshua Tree, California Gram Parsons Memorial.jpg
Parsons' makeshift memorial in Joshua Tree, California

To fulfill Parsons' funeral wishes, Kaufman and a friend stole his body from Los Angeles International Airport and in a borrowed hearse, they drove it to Joshua Tree. Upon reaching the Cap Rock section of the park, they attempted to cremate Parsons' body by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin and throwing a lit match inside. What resulted was an enormous fireball. The police gave chase but, as one account puts it, the men "were unencumbered by sobriety," and they escaped. [49]

The two were arrested several days later. Since there was no law against stealing a dead body, they were only fined $750 [52] for stealing the coffin and were not prosecuted for leaving 35 pounds (16 kg) of his charred remains in the desert. What remained of Parson's body, was eventually buried in Garden of Memories Cemetery in Metairie, Louisiana.

The site of Parsons' cremation was marked by a small concrete slab and was presided over by a large rock flake known to rock climbers as The Gram Parsons Memorial Hand Traverse. [53] The slab has since been removed by the U.S. National Park Service, and relocated to the Joshua Tree Inn. There is no monument at Cap Rock noting Parsons' cremation at the site. [54] Joshua Tree park guides are given the option to tell the story of Parsons' cremation during tours, but there is no mention of the act in official maps or brochures. [54] Fans regularly assemble simple rock structures and writings on the rock, which the park service periodically sand blasts to remove. [54]


Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic describes Parsons as "enormously influential" for both country and rock, "blending the two genres to the point that they became indistinguishable from each other. ... His influence could still be heard well into the next millennium." [3] In his essay on Parsons for Rolling Stone magazine's "100 Greatest Artist" list, Keith Richards notes that Parsons' recorded music output was "pretty minimal." But nevertheless, Richards claims that Parsons' "effect on country music is enormous[, t]his is why we're talking about him now." [6]

The 2003 film Grand Theft Parsons stars Johnny Knoxville as Phil Kaufman and chronicles a farcical version of the theft of Parsons' corpse. In 2006, the Gandulf Hennig-directed documentary film titled Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel was released.

Emmylou Harris has continued to champion Parsons' work throughout her career, covering a number of his songs over the years, including "Hickory Wind", "Wheels", "Sin City", "Luxury Liner", and "Hot Burrito No. 2". Harris's songs "Boulder to Birmingham", from her 1975 album Pieces of the Sky , and "The Road", from her 2011 album Hard Bargain , are tributes to Parsons. [55] In addition, her 1985 album The Ballad of Sally Rose is an original concept album that includes many allusions to Parsons in its narrative. [56] The song "My Man", written by Bernie Leadon and performed by the Eagles on their album On the Border , is a tribute to Gram Parsons. [57] Both Leadon and Parsons were members of the Flying Burrito Brothers during the late 1960s and early 1970s. [58]

The 1973 album Crazy Eyes by Poco pays homage to Parsons, as Richie Furay composed the title track in honor of him, and sings one of Parsons' own compositions, "Brass Buttons." The album was released four days before Parsons died.

A music festival called Gram Fest or the Cosmic American Music Festival was held annually in honor of Parsons in Joshua Tree, California, between 1996 and 2006. The show featured tunes written by Gram Parsons and Gene Clark as well as influential songs and musical styles from other artists that were part of that era. Performers were also encouraged to showcase their own material. The underlying theme of the event is to inspire the performers to take these musical styles to the next level of the creative process. Past concerts have featured such notable artists as Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Chris Ethridge, Spooner Oldham, John Molo, Jack Royerton, Gib Guilbeau, Counting Crows, Bob Warford, Rosie Flores, David Lowery, Barry and Holly Tashian, George Tomsco, Jann Browne, Lucinda Williams, Polly Parsons, The "Road Mangler" Phil Kaufman, Ben Fong-Torres, Victoria Williams, Mark Olson, and Sid Griffin, as well as a variety of many other bands that had played over the two or three day event. In addition, the Gram Parsons Tribute, in Waycross, Georgia, is a music festival remembering Parsons in the town in which he grew up. Additional tributes spring up every year, the latest being the Southern California "Gram On!" celebration by The Rickenbastards in July, 2013, celebrating the life and legacy of a simple country boy with a dream, Gram Parsons.

In February 2008, Gram's protégée, Emmylou Harris, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Despite his influence, however, Parsons has yet to be inducted. Radley Balko has written that "Parsons may be the most influential artist yet to be inducted to either the Rock and Roll or Country Music Hall(s) of Fame. And it's a damned shame." [59] The Gram Parsons Petition Project (now Gram ParsonsInterNational) [60] was begun in May 2008 in support of an ongoing drive to induct Parsons into the Country Music Hall of Fame. On September 19, 2008, the 35th anniversary of Parsons' death, it was first presented to the Country Music Association (CMA) and Hall as a "List of Supporters" together with the official Nomination Proposal. [61] The online List of Supporters reached 10,000 on the 40th anniversary of his death, with more than 13,000 currently listed. Annual Gram Parsons InterNational concerts in Nashville and various other cities, now in the 11th year, support the petition cause as do other tribute events.

In November 2009, the musical theatre production Grievous Angel: The Legend of Gram Parsons premiered, starring Anders Drerup as Gram Parsons and Kelly Prescott as Emmylou Harris. [62] Directed by Michael Bate and co-written by Bate and David McDonald, the production was inspired by a March 1973 interview that Bate conducted with Parsons, which became Parsons' last recorded conversation. [63]

In 2012, Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit released the single "Emmylou" from the album The Lion's Roar . The song's chorus is a lyrical acknowledgment of the Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris singing partnership, [64] and to the romantic relationship between them that never fully developed before his death. [65] [66]

In the fall of 2012 Florida festival promoter and musician Randy Judy presented his bio-musical Farther Along – The Music and Life of Gram Parsons at Magnoliafest at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. [67]

A Cleveland, Ohio area band, New Soft Shoe, performs as a tribute band to Parsons' music. [68]

A St. Paul, Minnesota band, The Gilded Palace Sinners, [69] is another Parsons' tribute group. [70]


YearAlbumLabelChart Positions [3]
US US Country
1968 Safe at Home (International Submarine Band) LHI Records
Sweetheart of the Rodeo (The Byrds) Columbia 77
1969 The Gilded Palace of Sin (Flying Burrito Brothers) A&M 164
1970 Burrito Deluxe (Flying Burrito Brothers)A&M
1973 GP Reprise
1974 Grievous Angel Reprise195
1976 Sleepless Nights (Gram Parsons & the Flying Burrito Brothers)A&M185
1979The Early Years (1963–1965) Sierra
1982 Live 1973 (Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels)Sierra
1987Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud Loud Music(Flying Burrito Brothers)Edsel
1995Cosmic American Music: The Rehearsal Tapes 1972Magnum America
2001 Another Side of This Life: The Lost Recordings of Gram Parsons Sundazed
2001 Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology Rhino
2006 The Complete Reprise Sessions Reprise
2007 Gram Parsons Archives Vol.1: Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969
(Gram Parsons with the Flying Burrito Brothers)
Amoeba 45
2014Gram Parson Live In New York 1973
(Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris)
Plastic Soho
2018The Solo YearsRhino UK
"—" denotes the release failed to chart.

Tribute albums


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Preceded by
Doug Sahm
AMA Presidents Award
Succeeded by
Carter Family