December 8, 2004


Gram Parsons: A Grievous Angel, a Busy Ghost (NEIL STRAUSS, 12/08/04, NY Times)
THERE is a ghost that hangs heavy over the town of Waycross, a railroad hub in southeastern Georgia that has fallen on hard times. Though most folks move through the streets oblivious to it, some people say they can actually see it. And they see it everywhere.

"Before me, gentlemen, Gram once walked down these streets, as sure as I did," said Billy Ray Herrin, a local songwriter who held a tribute to Parsons here last week. He was sitting in the passenger seat of a crowded rental car. "Take a right here," he said. "I'm going to show you the exact monkey bars that he used to swing on."

Gram is Gram Parsons, the patron saint of country-rock and, beyond it, the catch-all modern folk genre known as Americana. Raised in Waycross, which he left at the age of 12 after his father committed suicide, Parsons lived fast, died young and left a good-looking corpse, a good-sounding body of work and a good-size cult audience that is about to see his memory taken to new heights.

For someone who sabotaged himself so much — who often put the musicians he worked with second to his musical vision, who could be difficult to work with in the studio and who got so drunk and high that he exasperated those around him — Parsons still managed to be the force behind five of the greatest albums of the late 60's and early 70's. They were "Exile on Main Street," by the Rolling Stones, a record he influenced but didn't play on; "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," by the Byrds, though more than half of Parsons' vocals were replaced in the final version; "The Gilded Palace of Sin" by his band the Flying Burrito Brothers, and his two solo albums (with a then-unknown Emmylou Harris), "GP" and "Grievous Angel." Even the Eagles, to some extent, spun out of the Flying Burrito Brothers.

All this is quite a résumé for someone who didn't even live as long as Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison. Parsons died from taking too much morphine and drinking too much tequila in a motel near Joshua Tree State Park in California in 1973. He was 26. [...]

Parsons was a complex character, so winsome, charming and magnetic that singers in more popular bands often felt threatened by his presence, according to interviews with those who were there. At the same time, he was so irresponsible and irritating when he was intoxicated that even his friends often turned against him.

A large part of his personal problems came from his family: his father, Cecil (Coon Dog) Connor, shot himself in the head when Gram was 12; a few years later his mother, Avis, married Robert Parsons, who Parsons biographers believe was after her wealth. She died of alcohol poisoning on the day he graduated from high school. (Her fatal drink was given to her in the hospital by Robert Parsons.) Years after Parsons' death, his sister and one of her daughters were killed in a boating accident.

Though he was born in the South (in Winter Haven, Fla., in 1946), Mr. Parsons did not develop his passion for country music there. In his early years he worshiped Elvis Presley, covering his songs in his first band, the Pacers, in eighth grade; in high school his taste turned to the folk of Peter, Paul and Mary and, later, the Kingston Trio. It wasn't until he went north, attending Harvard for four months before dropping out and moving to New York, that his passion for country was ignited, thanks in part to his new International Submarine Band.

I THINK he got lonesome thinking about back home," said Mr. Corneal, a member of the band, which also included Brandon de Wilde (once a child star best known for his role in "Shane").

In 1968, the Byrds introduced Parsons' music to rock fans on the "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album. Though he had auditioned to be the Byrds' pianist, the strong-willed Parsons ended up practically taking over the group, often trying his bandmates' patience in his determination to refashion them into a country-rock group. "All of a sudden this guy comes out of the blue and appears in the Byrds," Mr. Egan recalled. "I was like, `This isn't the Byrds,' when I first heard the album. But then something about it touched me." [...]

With Chris Hillman of the Byrds, Parsons formed the Flying Burrito Brothers in 1968. The band's first album, "The Gilded Palace of Sin," remains the turning point of the fusion, drenching traditional country music in the sweat of rock 'n' roll to create, as Parsons called it, "cosmic American music." Around then, the iconic hippie-country image of Parsons took shape: standing tall with shaggy sun-streaked brown hair and a bare chest beneath a white suit made for him by the country-music fashion king Nudie the Rodeo Tailor, who embroidered marijuana leaves, pills and naked women onto the outfit. But, as usual, Parsons' unprofessional work habits and substance abuse, along with the record-label problems that plagued much of his career, wore the band down.

Every legend must have a lost album, and Parsons recorded his in 1970 with a strong back-up band that included Ry Cooder. The working tapes, last seen in his possession, have never been found. His two albums, "GP" and "Grievous Angel," were perhaps the music he wanted to make all his life, fusing his country taste with his early rock 'n' roll interest by hiring some of Presley's former sidemen. In addition, a 25-year-old Emmylou Harris provided what has become known as the sine qua non of back-up harmonies. Though Parsons' voice was never perfect, the emotional depth with which he delivered each song was, and one can hear the demons coming out to play in haunting songs like "Love Hurts," "In My Hour of Darkness" and "Return of the Grievous Angel."

By that time, Mr. Egan recalled, those who knew Mr. Parsons were already saying that he had a "Hank Williams death wish."

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 8, 2004 8:50 PM
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