Gram Parsons: Bio Of Country-Rock's Messiah And Grievous Angel

Music | November 5, 2020

CHICAGO - MARCH 1969: Singer/Songwriter Gram Parsons plays acoustic guitar backstage in March 1969 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

When Gram Parsons died in 1973 he was only 26 years old. In the few years before his death he played a pivotal role in the crossover between country and rock, blending the genres until they were one in the same. As a member of The Byrds, Parsons changed the band at a genetic level, and with the Flying Burrito Brothers he created the template for the country-rock sound.

In spite of his lack of success while he was alive, Parsons' friendships with The Rolling Stones and Emmylou Harris were extremely influential on those artists. He didn't just make Harris a sought after singer, but he brought the Stones into their own as a rootsy rock band, and inspired "Wild Horses," one of their most beloved songs.

Parsons died young and never reached the heights of his friends, but his songs continue to echo through country and rock, so much so that you can still hear his influence today.

From prep school to country star

source: pitchfork

Ingram Cecil Connor III is hardly the name of the country-rock messiah, but in 1946 that was the name given to a newborn in Winter Haven, Florida. The grandson of John A. Snively, a citrus magnate whose crop was once responsible for one third of the Floria citrus crop, he started going by Gram at a young age (it's short for Ingram), and even though he had a good childhood his family was marred with depression and alcoholism.

Gram was drawn to music at a young age, and as a teenager he started playing in cover bands that played all around Florida while attended prep schools throughout the south. After his mother passed away from cirrhosis on the day that he graduated from prep school in 1965, Parsons set out on a folky journey that saw him playing in coffee houses and hootenannies with his group the Shilohs. In 1966, he started the International Submarine Band with a group of folkies from Boston before moving to New York and finally Los Angeles where he dropped the Submarine Band in favor of one of the most popular groups in the world.

He headed west to grow up with the country

source: People

In 1967, The Byrds were left high and dry by David Crosby and Michael Clarke, two of their founding members and songwriters. After meeting bassist Chris Hillman at a bank that year, Parsons auditioned for the group as their pianist but it was clear to everyone involved that he wasn't just a sideman. Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn has bristled at the idea that Parsons was an influence on the group, but anyone with ears can hear that the group's 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo is dripping with Parson's distinct style.

Initially, McGuinn conceived Sweetheart of the Rodeo as a double album that would encompass the entirety of western music, from bluegrass to electrified music. That didn't happen. Parsons worked his mojo over the group and convinced them to move to Nashville to record a straight up country record, jettisoning McGuinn's concept. But it wasn't totally the Gram Parsons show. Contractural obligations led McGuinn to re-record several of Parsons' vocals, something that drove Parsons crazy long after he was out of the band. In 1973 he told Cameron Crowe that McGuinn "erased it and did the vocals himself and f**ked it up."

Parsons left The Byrds during a tour of England, citing his worries over playing South Africa due to apartheid, although it's more likely that he was just done with the group. He later explained his apprehension about playing alongside McGuinn:

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.

Nudie suits and flying burritos

source: rolling stone

In 1968, the dueling worlds of country and rock came together when Gram Parsons and Keith Richards met on a trip to Stonehenge. After leaving The Byrds, Parsons moved in with Richards and the two developed a friendship that lasted the rest of Parsons' life and altered the trajectory of The Rolling Stones. After spending a few months playing obscure country albums and jamming with Richards, Parsons returned to Los Angeles where he got back in touch with Chris Hillman of the Byrds and started The Flying Burrito Brothers, a psychedelic country-rock outfit, complete with colorful Nudie suits that channeled their traditional Nashville and hippie influences.

Influenced by Buck Owens and the Bakersfield country sound (less polished recordings, more pronounced, straight forward drumming and rock influenced), the Burrito Brothers synthesized the country-rock genre (he called it "cosmic American music"), but sales of the group's first album were mediocre and Parsons wasn't keen on doing anything to promote the record.

At the time he was receiving between $30,000 and $100,000 a year from a trust fund. Something that allowed him to be as creative as he wanted without worrying about success -- he didn't need the money. But he also didn't need to push himself in the way that his friends in the Rolling Stones did throughout the '60s and early '70s. 

Parson dropped out of the gilded palace of sin

source: the guardian

Drugs and partying seeped into Parsons' life more and more as the '60s came to an end. The Flying Burrito Brothers scored a sweet spot at the Altamont festival as one of the openers (for once the openers on a festival line-up were the luckiest group), but Parsons spent much of his time partying with Keith Richards and living the good life.

The Burritos' first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969), peaked at #164 on the Billboard 200 and then disappeared without Parsons going out of his way to promote the record. One year later the band released Burrito Deluxe, an album that's most notable for featuring the first recording of "Wild Horses" by Parsons' buddies in the Stones. Parsons left the band shortly after the album's release and once again set out on his own.

Gram Parsons in exile

source: Morrison Hotel

While still in Los Angeles, Parsons started recording what would have been his solo debut with producer Terry Melcher. Nothing's ever come from the sessions because of the duo's shared love of cocaine and heroin. Parsons and Melcher gave up on the project, and the master tapes disappeared.

Parsons ducked out of the country and went on tour with the Rolling Stones in 1971, which then turned into a longterm residence at Villa Nellcôte with Keith Richards while the Stones recorded Exile on Main Street. Parsons was so messed up during his time at the Villa that if he appears anywhere on the album it's in the chorus on "Sweet Virginia," but no one can recall if he ever made it into the actual studio. He was finally asked to leave the villa by Anita Pallenberg, although it's believed that Mick Jagger had something to do with asking the wayward country star to leave the band alone.

Out with the truckers, and the kickers, and the cowboy angels

source: pinterest

After returning to the States in 1971, Parsons heard Emmylou Harris sing at a club in Washington D.C. and invited her out to Los Angeles to help him record his first solo album, GP. Released in 1973, the album never charted but was critically adored. And for the first time in his career Parsons was driven to do something and not just let success happen. While touring with the Fallen Angels, Gram and the band were pushed to rehearse by Harris, who was understandably tired of performing rushed sets to annoyed crowds.

Seemingly revitalized by his time touring with Harris and the Fallen Angels, Parsons kept his drug and alcohol intake to a minimum while working on his follow up, 1974's Grievous Angel. Many of the songs on the album were rewritten versions of songs from previous sessions, but the new songs written for the album are some of Parsons' best. "Return of the Grievous Angel" is a driving country rock track that's perfect for going on a road trip, and "In My Hour of Darkness" shows the depths of Parsons' soul that were only peeking out on previous albums.

Parsons never lived to see Grievous Angel released. After accidentally burning down his house with a stray cigarette he broke things off with his wife Gretchen Burrell and took a trip to Joshua Tree National Park to have some time to himself before going back on tour.

Grand Theft Parsons

source: desertUSA

After the recording of Grievous Angel, Parsons drove to Joshua Tree in September 1973 and fell back into his old drinking and heroin habits. On the night of September 18, Parsons injected himself with liquid morphine and overdosed in a motel room while his old girlfriend, Margaret Fisher, his assistant Michael Martin, and Martin's girlfriend attempted to revive him instead of calling an ambulance. When they finally did call 911, Parsons was declared dead on arrival at High Desert Memorial Hospital at 12:15 A.M. on September 19, 1973.

Parsons' family made arrangement for his body to be brought to New Orleans for burial, but his road manager Phil Kaufman knew that a family burial was the last thing his friend wanted. Parsons longed to have his ashes scattered in Joshua Tree National Park, so Kaufman did what any of us would do -- and he stole Parsons' body from LAX.

Driving a 1953 Cadillac hearse loaned to him Michael Martin's girlfriend, Kaufman convinced the crew at Western Airlines that he employed by Parsons' family, signed release papers for the body as "Jeremy Nobody," and then ran the hearse directly into a wall right in front a policeman who helped him load Parsons' casket into the car. After finally getting on the road, Kaufman was too drunk to drive so he stopped to sleep off the beer they'd been guzzling before hitting the road for Joshua Tree.

Once Kaufman and Martin woke they had to take the hearse in for repairs because it wouldn't start. The comedy of errors continued as they ended up in a pile up on the highway, nearly arrested for rear-ending a car, and pushing the casket into the desert and setting it on fire before speeding away. Kaufman and Martin were arrested and fined $300 for misdemeanor theft and charged $708 for funeral home expenses. At least 30% of Parsons' body remained, and it was shipped to New Orleans for burial.

Parsons was buried in a small service at the Memorial Lawn Cemetery in New Orleans. His headstone reads, "God's Own Singer."

Tags: Country Rock | Gram Parsons | The Byrds | The Flying Burrito Brothers

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.