Gram Parsons led one of those monkey’s-paw existences: Every blessing came with an equal or greater curse. Parsons was born into one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in the South—to a father nicknamed Coon Dog who committed suicide two days before Christmas 1958, and an alcoholic mother who died at 45 under circumstances shrouded in mystery and conjecture. He was accepted to Harvard—and dropped out after a few months. With the International Submarine Band, The Byrds, and The Flying Burrito Brothers, he pioneered a fusion of country and rock that would go on to win a wide audience and reap huge sales—for bands like The Eagles, whose music he derided as “plastic dry-fuck.”
Parson’s family fortune ensured that while his contemporaries struggled commercially, he had plenty of money—to buy the heroin, cocaine, morphine, and alcohol that led to his death at 26. He joined one of the most successful groups in rock history and led them to create a masterpiece in 1968’s Sweetheart Of The Rodeo—only to leave six months later. He had a deep bond with Keith Richards that helped establish the sound, aesthetic, and philosophy of Exile On Main Street—but it never led to recording for Rolling Stones Records, or partnering on the Richards-produced solo album Parsons desperately craved. Richards did manage to get The Flying Burrito Brothers a sweet-ass gig opening for The Rolling Stones—at a racetrack called Altamont. If that isn’t the very definition of a mixed blessing, I don't know what is.
Today’s Nashville Or Bust subject had a special genius for snatching defeat from the claws of victory. Parsons should have been the biggest star in the world. He had the looks, songs, talent, charisma, voice, and vision. He should have been Elvis. Instead, he was one of pop’s great martyrs.
There is not a goddamned reason in the world it should have taken me 32 years to listen to Gram Parsons. Now that Parsons’ words are dancing inside my head, I don’t know how I lived without him. He lived to bridge worlds. He preached the gospel of “Cosmic American Music,” a singular stew of country, gospel, soul, and rock ’n’ roll filtered through the idiosyncrasies of an androgynous rich boy obsessed with Nudie suits, Merle Haggard, UFOs, and the Stones.
Parson spent his life chasing—and sometimes catching—a sound that existed only in his mind. You can hear Parsons groping toward that sound on The International Submarine Band’s 1968’s Safe At Home, an album that’s more notable for its promise than its execution. Recorded for Lee Hazlewood’s tiny label LHI and just barely produced by Hazlewood’s neophyte girlfriend (Suzi Jane Hokom), Safe At Home feels more like a demo than a proper album. Parsons didn’t yet have the gravity or substance to pull off this hilariously unconvincing medley of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right.” Parsons sounds like a facile pretty boy flopping around in his dad’s outsized clothing. There are Kidz Bop versions of these songs that are sung with more authority.
Safe At Home went nowhere fast. Parsons didn’t seem to mind. Being a trust-fund baby, he didn’t worry about money. By the time Safe At Home slipped quietly into stores, Parson had jumped ship and landed with The Byrds following the departure of David Crosby and Gene Clark. Parsons was ostensibly recruited as a jazz pianist who would help Roger McGuinn realize his ambition of transforming the next Byrds album into a double concept album that would trace the history of western music in the 20th century, beginning with bluegrass, then progressing to jazz before ending with Moog-heavy space-age electronica, possibly with an assist from robots from the future, which McGuinn planned to recruit via a homemade time machine he was building in his garage.
It should be noted that McGuinn, like Willie Nelson when he came up with the idea for Phases And Stages, was smoking a shit-ton of weed. Smoking a shit-ton of weed is a major warning sign that a musician is planning to record a sketchy concept album. Other warning signs include:
1. Conspicuously reading and/or recommending Ayn Rand or J.R.R. Tolkien to bandmates.
2. Spending an unhealthy amount of time staring spacily at black-light posters.
3. Growing a wizard beard.
4. Ostentatiously stroking wizard beard in a thoughtful fashion.
McGuinn thought he was hiring a sideman. Show-business legend records that he got, in McGuinn’s own immortal words, “George Jones in a Nudie suit.” Along with future Flying Burrito Brother bandmate Chris Hillman, Parsons immediately began pushing the world’s preeminent folk-rockers in a country direction. McGuinn’s trippy retro-futuristic concept album became an extended valentine to country music recorded in Nashville and filled out with assists from some of the top studio musicians in the business.
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo makes me happy in ways I have difficulty putting into words. In an ineffable sort of way, it feels like home. There is a soothing instant familiarity to it. It’s an album obsessed with roots, a theme front and center in its very first track, a transcendent cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” “Strap yourself to a tree with roots / You ain’t goin’ nowhere” counsels McGuinn on the opening track, in a pitch-perfect imitation of Bob Dylan’s nasal whine.
McGuinn’s dream of making an album encompassing the whole of 20th-century American music comes closest to reaching fruition with a cover of Woody Guthrie’s populist bluegrass anthem “Pretty Boy Floyd,” the simultaneously rollicking and reverent “Life In Prison,” a glorious Merle Haggard prison song, and “You’re Still On My Mind,” a tear-in-your-beer jaunt through the George Jones classic.
Parsons contributed two originals, the spacey, psychedelic “One Hundred Years From Now” and “Hickory Wind,” a homesick country boy’s bittersweet remembrance of an idealized South. Parsons would have played a much bigger role on Sweetheart if his lead vocals for several tracks hadn’t been erased due to legal threats from Lee Hazlewood, who apparently still had Parsons under contract, and wasn’t too happy about his new gig.
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo is a masterpiece, but it would have been even more masterpiecey had Parsons been allowed to sing lead on more of the songs. McGuinn has said that his vocals on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo were little more than a parody of Parsons’ original versions. Parsons approached country from a place of deep reverence, but McGuinn treats the songs with a certain academic detachment. This proves ruinous on a woefully misguided cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life,” where McGuinn adopts a Dippety Dog cartoon drawl that coats the song’s deeply personal endorsement of faith at the cost of worldly pleasure in smug irony. McGuinn seems to be making fun of the Louvin Brothers, which you just don’t do. You don’t fuck with them, for they have a scary, take-no-prisoners, smite-humanity-just-to-prove-a-point deity behind them.
The Byrds approached country with a sense of sociological detachment, but Parsons never shied away from emotion. To Parsons, country was what film was to Sam Fuller: “a battleground. Love, hate, violence, action, death… in a word, emotion.”
As a person, Parsons could be aloof and distant. As a singer, he held nothing back. That naked embrace of emotion was realized spectacularly on his first project upon leaving The Byrds: The Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace Of Sin. Freed from the strictures of fitting into one of the biggest bands in the world, Parsons doggedly pursued his dream of bringing rock ’n’ roll attitude to traditional country.
Parsons united with fellow Byrds brother Chris Hillman for harmonies inspired by The Louvin Brothers and a loose, shaggy vibe that belied astonishing songcraft and a deep understanding of country storytelling. Nowhere is Parsons’ gift for breathtaking genius and maddening self-sabotage more apparent than on “Hot Burrito #1.” Leave it to Parsons to write and sing the most heartbreaking song in the world, then give it a stupid afterthought of a name that ensured it had no chance of getting played on the radio. Easily the most poignant song ever named after Mexican food, “Hot Burrito #1” is the sound of a man falling apart, an after-midnight howl of sadness and desperation. Parsons’ quivering, naked vocal is as far removed from the crisp professionalism of The Byrds as humanly possible.
Parsons bares his soul, his fragility, his pain. Audiences are willing to forgive a guy like that just about anything: off-key singing, shambling live performances, an insatiable appetite for self-destruction, and crappy production just for starters. In the best country tradition, Parsons’ gifts were irrevocably wrapped up in his vices. To Keith Richards, Parsons’ music embodied a state called “high lonesome,” a sort of “beautiful pain” rooted in the demons that drove Parsons to create and destroy.
Like the rest of Parsons’ oeuvre, Gilded Palace Of Sin is simultaneously timeless and rooted in a highly specific cultural context: The bittersweet spoken-word album-closer “Hippie Boy” and the smartass draft-card satire of “My Uncle” are as hopelessly ’60s as a “Keep On Trucking” poster.
Gram Parsons helped create something wonderful in The Flying Burrito Brothers, so he had no choice but to throw it all away with the group’s little-loved second album, Burrito Deluxe! Keith warned me that Burrito Deluxe! was something of a washout, but my expectations were lowered enough that its scruffy charms moderately won me over. The production is thin and tinny, and Parsons seems to inhabit a different world than the rest of his band, but there’s a half-assed spirit to it that I found winning. The closest the Burritos come to reclaiming the sad majesty of their debut is “Image Of Me,” a song about a man who corrupts all he touches.
Parsons was fired from The Flying Burrito Brothers not long after Burrito Deluxe! was released to a culture-wide tidal wave of indifference, but by that point, Parsons had already moved on in his mind. He would recover his focus for his final two masterpieces, which will be the focus of the next installment of Nashville Or Bust.
In keeping with the rest of his gloriously blessed and cursed, gifted and damned life, Parsons died semi-obscure, only to attain fame and widespread recognition posthumously. Parsons couldn’t even OD correctly. He died of a heroin overdose at 26, just a year shy of joining the 27 club alongside Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. Parsons’ zealously cultivated rock-star dreams went tragically unfulfilled during his lifetime, though his influence grows with each passing year. It took dying young to make Parsons immortal.
Up Next on Nashville or Bust:
Gram Parsons: The Reprise Years
Tom T. Hall
The Louvin Brothers