He lived a short, intense life, but the music he made has had a ripple effect on scores of artists during the past 25 years. To honor the man who has been called the Father of Country-Rock, Almo Sounds is releasing Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons on July 13. Artists contributing to the album include Parsons’ fellow band member Chris Hillman with Steve Earle, The Pretenders, Beck, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams with David Crosby and the Cowboy Junkies, among others. Emmylou Harris, Parsons’ protégé and keeper of the flame, serves as one of the co-executive producers for the project and contributes background vocals on three of Parson’s songs, “She,” “Sin City” and “Juanita.”
Parsons, born in Georgia and raised in Florida, founded musical acts the International Submarine Band and the Flying Burrito Brothers. He was also instrumental, along with Hillman, in influencing Roger McGuinn of the popular rock group the Byrds to record their foray into country-rock, the 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. He left the Byrds after the album and recorded two solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel, which introduced Harris as his singing partner, before his untimely death at the age of 26.
Barry Tashian, an original member of the Flying Burrito Brothers who played guitar and sang with Parsons on his 1973 album GP, became acquainted with Gram early on. He was in a rock ‘n’ roll band, the Remains, at the time (1964), and his bandmates were friendly with Parsons and the other members of the International Submarine Band. “A couple of guys in my band used to go out to their big house in the Bronx (New York) where they had a rehearsal room up in the attic that was all lined with egg cartons and crates for soundproofing,” he remembers. “It was there that I first heard them play this country music. I was a rock ‘n’ roller and I loved it. I had kind of heard it because I listened to Jerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers. I thought it was rock ‘n’ roll, but it was really country music.
“That’s when I began to hear George Jones, and it was because of Gram. He had all these records, and he had grown up steeped in this music down in Florida and Georgia. He’d gone to school in the Carolinas.”
The two bands later relocated to California, with Parsons’ band ending up in Los Angeles. That’s where Tashian got his first taste of the songwriting talents of his friend. “There was something about the way he played, the rhythm and spirit of his singing that were remarkable to me. It impressed me a lot. I remember when he walked in one morning (to Tashian’s house) and said ‘listen to this song I wrote last night,’ and he played ‘Luxury Liner,’ which is one of his big songs that Emmylou also recorded. It was a very slow country song at that point. Another morning, he came in and played ‘Hickory Wind.’ He had a way with words and melodies,” Tashian reminisces. “He had an incredible spirit, and obviously felt music very deeply, and these songs he wrote — he was obviously a very talented songsmith.”
Parsons would later introduce country music to legendary rock band the Rolling Stones. Phil Kaufman, who was working for the Stones at the time, first met Gram in 1968 when Keith Richards and Parsons flew over to the United States from the south of France. The Stones were working on the Beggars Banquet album, and Parsons had been hanging out with Richards. “I was with them and Gram taught them,” Kaufman says. “He went out and I drove, we got stacks of records — country records — we went home and I played DJ. Gram would tell me what to play. ‘Put this on, put this Merle on, put this George Jones on,’ you know, whatever it was. And they would play it back and front, listen to the lyric, and listen to the guitar licks. He was actually their teacher. And they did ‘Country Honk.’”
As a thank you to their friend and teacher, when the Rolling Stones wrote their song “Wild Horses,” they allowed Parsons to record it first; it appears on the Flying Burrito Brothers album Burrito Deluxe.
Kaufman (who later was dubbed the “Road Mangler” by his cohorts) became the road manager for Parsons and the Burritos a short time later. “When the Stones went back (to England), he called me and asked me to be his road manager. I said, ‘I don’t know what the hell that is. How do you do that?’ He said, ‘It’s the same thing you do with Mick and Keith, but you take it on the road.’ We got to be good friends then.”
He vividly remembers Parsons trying to take country-rock to the masses. “Gram would do things like go to the biggest redneck bar you could find in California, I mean scary. The parking lot was scary. The vehicles were intimidating, but the people inside! He’d go in there in crushed velour pants and flowing blouses and get up on stage and sing and win their hearts,” he exclaims with a hearty laugh. “It was a little edgy at first, so we got to know that he really could sing. Hippies and rednecks didn’t get along, but now there’s no line. All the Southern boys have real long hair, and the other Southern rockers came along. At the time, it was pretty dangerous out there; even truckstops were scary places!”
Parsons rebelled against the term “country-rock” to describe the marriage of both elements in his music, preferring instead to call it “cosmic American music.” Tashian explains what he feels his friend might have meant by that moniker. “Music is an artform. Any artform is trying to draw messages out of your soul. When it successfully does that, it makes you suddenly feel something, a message that tells a great truth about your life or your purpose in life. I think that by saying ‘cosmic,’ that’s what he was talking about, it’s alluding to the soul aspect,” he says.
“It was such a great song, ‘The Return of the Grievous Angel.’ It kind of became an anthem for the kind of alternative — as it was at the time, today it’s called insurgent or No Depression or whatever — back then it was kind of the hippie-looking people playing these country songs. Playing it with a different attitude, with more of a rock attitude. The long hair and heavier rhythms, heavier drums, more like R&B. Doing some R&B and rock and roll songs, but with a steel guitar and a lot of fuzz tone,” he explains. “He’d take that deep gospel feeling and sing a love song with that feeling. Literally, I remember sitting there listening to him, just the two of us, he’d be strumming a slow song, and it was so sad and mournful we were both crying. It was a mood he could create. That’s where the grievous part comes in.”
Sadly, Parsons died of an overdose of alcohol and heroin on September 19, 1973, in a motel room at the Joshua Tree Inn, about 50 miles east of L.A. Fulfilling a legendary pact, Kaufman and another of Parsons’ friends, Michael Martin, snatched the body from the Los Angeles airport, where it was en route to New Orleans for burial. Parsons had previously said that, in the event of this death, he wanted to be taken to Joshua Tree National Monument, one of his favorite places, and burned. Honoring their pact, Kaufman and Martin drove his body out into the desert near a place called Cap Rock and fulfilled his final wishes.
Kaufman sometimes muses about Parsons. “He could have been great, or he could have been dead, we’ll never know. If you follow the progression, the way he was going, like writing, he probably would have been great. A poet. A lot of his music is very hard to understand even, for country. Songs like ‘$1000 Wedding’ and ‘The New Soft Shoe,’ they weren’t your classic country songs. I don’t think he used a pickup truck in any of his songs. He was writing about things, the cosmic if you will, once again, cosmic country. Maybe it does apply. He was applying it with a country voice, insight.”
A portion of the proceeds from Return of the Grievous Angel will go to benefit the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation’s “Campaign for a Landmine Free World,” a cause that Harris has been extremely active in. The campaign’s directives include removing land mines from the ground, providing limbs, wheelchairs and rehabilitation to land mine victims, and educating the American public about the global land mine crisis.
To read more about Gram Parsons, see the article “Hippie Hootenanny” in the Journal of Country Music.