LOS ANGELES — Thirty years after a drug overdose claimed his life in 1973, Gram Parsons has become an icon. He’s forever frozen at 26 in a sexy grin and sparkly Nudie suit, a symbol of the freewheeling Southern California music scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Fans know the legend of his death — how road manager Phil Kaufman stole Parsons’ body from the L.A. airport and cremated it in the eerie stillness of the Joshua Tree desert. The story is also told in Grand Theft Parsons, a recent film starring Johnny Knoxville as Kaufman.
What some people aren’t as familiar with, however, is Parsons’ music. And that’s one thing his daughter is hoping to change. Polly Parsons, 37, is his only child, and she now controls her dad’s song catalog along with her stepmother, Gretchen.
“I hope to represent it with integrity and channel it to authentic projects that are worthy,” Polly told CMT News. “And I hope that musicians will know it’s available to cover. For so long we’ve looked at this catalog as, ’Ooh, you don’t touch that,’ but I think it’s important to perpetuate Gram’s music throughout the next generation and the generation following that.”
In his short career, the Florida-born Parsons made his mark by bringing country sounds to the rock scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s. He joined the Byrds and helped craft their landmark 1968 country album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. He left to form the Flying Burrito Brothers with former Byrds bassist Chris Hillman and then recorded the solo album GP with a backing band that included guitar great James Burton and a then-unknown Emmylou Harris. He finished Grievous Angel, his second and last solo album, shortly before his death and left behind a song catalog that includes stone country tunes like “Hickory Wind” and “She.” Parsons is now widely called the father of country rock, an ironic distinction since he was quoted as saying, “Country rock is neither.”
To mark the 30th anniversary of his passing, Polly decided to call some of her father’s friends and admirers to play two benefit concerts on the West Coast. It’s a testament to Gram’s legacy — and Polly’s determination — that she landed Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Norah Jones, Jim Lauderdale, Raul Malo, Lucinda Williams and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Before the June 10 show at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheater, the legendary rocker talked about the ways Gram influenced him and, in turn, the sound of the Stones.
“The finer points of country music he pointed out to me, like the difference between Nashville and Bakersfield, for example,” Richards told CMT News. “I didn’t know there was one.” Richards adds, “And he introduced me to an amazing new area of musicians — country pickers like James Burton and [steel guitarist] Al Perkins, who worked with the Stones on Exile on Main Street.”
Backstage at the tribute concert, the vibe was decidedly laid back as musicians and shakers in the L.A. alt.country scene dressed in their best hillbilly bling to share their love of Parsons and his unrestrained musical vision. Nashville-based newcomer Jedd Hughes was in the middle of the action, soaking it all in.
“I recorded one of Gram’s songs, ’Luxury Liner,’ on my record,” Hughes told CMT News. “I just find it really appealing. His writing, his melodies, they’re so memorable, so singable.”
Grammy winner Jones is also a recent Parsons convert. She said a friend gave her copies of the Flying Burrito Brothers and his solo work shortly after she moved to New York about four years ago.
“I think he was just one of the first people to do the kind of country music he did,” Jones said. “It just kind of makes me feel good. It makes me think of my childhood in Oklahoma.”
Sitting in her Los Angeles living room three days before the first tribute concert in Santa Barbara, Polly was a bundle of nerves as she dealt with last minute snags. But she was calm and focused when the topic turned to her dad and her precious few memories of him. She was only 7 years old when he died, and the loss has colored every aspect of her life.
“Dealing with the legend that surrounds his death was a real difficult thing for me to handle when I was little,” she said. “In the mind of a 7-year-old, all I knew was that my daddy’s body had been stolen off the tarmac at LAX and driven in a hearse to Joshua Tree and burned. But as I grew up and gained a little bit more emotional balance and understanding, I was like, ’Okay, This is kind of cool. I get this. This is what rock history’s made of.'”
Polly says her dad must have had a cosmic hand in helping her pull off the massive tribute concerts that were billed as Return to Sin City, a reference to one of his song titles. Money raised from the two-night stand and a silent auction will go to the Musicians Assistance Program (MAP) which helps musicians dealing with drug and alcohol problems. The shows were also shot for a DVD which will include documentary footage of Polly interviewing some of the famous musicians who cite her dad as inspiration.
“One of my favorite things is when people come up to me and say, ’Your father’s music got me through one of the toughest times in my entire life, and I couldn’t have made it without him and I just want to say thank you,'” Polly said. “I’m certainly not worthy of the position I’ve been put into, but I just hope to do it the justice that a daughter would do.”