As the Byrds prepared their 1968 landmark album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, an ambitious but not-yet-famous Gram Parsons once again found himself on the crest of music stardom. He’d started in a teen rock band in Winter Haven, Fla., then checked out the folk scenes in Cambridge, Mass., and New York City. Yet his move to Los Angeles proved to be a pivotal moment in his career.
After his International Submarine Band’s Safe at Home album had fizzled, Parsons accepted an invitation from Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman to join the Byrds — a journey that led to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and a British tour with the Rolling Stones.
In this excerpt from Grievous Angel: An Intimate Biography of Gram Parsons, author Jessica Hundley (with Polly Parsons, Gram’s daughter) describes the numerous setbacks and thrilling highlights during this intense time of Parsons’ pioneering, tumultuous history.
Almost immediately after meeting Roger [McGuinn] and Chris [Hillman], Gram took them to meet Nudie [the rodeo tailor], who decked them out in customized rhinestone and flash. The three spent long nights together smoking hash, hanging out and listening to tracks by George Jones and Hank Snow. Country became a new adventure, a door open to fresh air, and Chris and Roger were ready to breathe deeply, ready to shake the dust off their four years together and test out something new. Gram thickened his drawl and went to it, enthusing to his new bandmates on the revelatory nature of their upcoming experiment that would roll the Beatles and Hank Williams all into one, seducing two disparate audiences simultaneously.
Columbia Records was slightly wary of the concept, the label executives raising their brows at what amounted to a concept album, a time-travel journey encompassing Appalachian hoot and holler, defiant Dylanesque folk, sprawling space jams and urban-cowboy country. Nevertheless, the record company agreed on the basic creative plan and gave the go-ahead when the Byrds announced that they wanted to record in Nashville.
That spring, Gram returned to the South, swell-chested and triumphant. He brought on Jon Corneal as drummer for the upcoming album, along with Safe at Home alumni J.D. Maness [on steel guitar] and Earl Ball [on keyboards]. McGuinn and Hillman invited [guitarist] Clarence White, who had by then become an unofficial fourth member whose playing was thrilling and imaginative, an indispensable addition to the mix.
In early March, the band went into the studio and sat down to record two songs — Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and Gram’s “Hickory Wind.” With the guidance of producer Gary Usher and the skills of steel guitarist Lloyd Green and bassist Roy Huskey Jr., the Byrds did right by Dylan, beautifully revisualizing “Going Nowhere,” and they revamped Gram’s “Hickory Wind” until it was silken and swollen with emotion.
In the midst of recording the song, Gram looked around the room at Jon on drums, at McGuinn and Hillman carefully executing notes that he himself had written, and he went numb with pride and anticipation. It was finally happening, finally falling into place. Everything he had spent so much time building was emerging into a recognizable edifice.
The next night, the Byrds were invited to play on the sacrosanct stage of the Ryman Auditorium, the broadcast venue of the venerable Grand Ole Opry. Gram was ecstatic. The Ryman had originally been built as a place of worship, a tabernacle complete with wooden pews and sacred ground.
When the Byrds hit the stage for their half hour of preacherman glory, a palpable wave swept through the audience, a mixture of curiosity, bemusement, and a hint of hostility. The Byrds had opted for full regalia, Nudie suits catching the spotlights, colors vibrating, rhinestones glowing, their hair stroking their shoulders, their long-legged hippie-kid ease a spit in the face of Opry tradition and an utterly alien presence on the Ryman stage.
They started out easy, breezing through Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” the audience sighing with relief at the familiar chords and settling in to see what these California kids could do. The next song on the set list was another Haggard number, “Life in Prison,” but just as the weak applause was dwindling, Gram leaned forward into the microphone and coughed. He wasn’t sure exactly why, but something in the audience’s smug assessment made him angry, and defiance rose in his throat, tasting of bile and rebellion.
“This next song,” he said calmly, flashing a grit-teeth grin, “is for my grandmother, who used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry with me when I was little. It’s a song I wrote called ‘Hickory Wind.'”
Hillman and McGuinn exchanged looks, shrugged and started in on Gram’s number. The crowd was uncertain what to think, and the stage manager was furious. Gram gazed out into the vaulted, echoing hall and played like he was born to do it.
After wrapping up their Nashville session, the members of the newly revamped Byrds lineup did a short tour of colleges up and down the East Coast, refining their new songs and streamlining old Byrds numbers and favorite covers. When they got back to Los Angeles, they settled in to finish their new album, whose title Sweetheart of the Rodeo was a clear indication of the direction in which the band was headed.
In their California studio, they recorded a Merle Haggard number, a classic Louvin Brothers piece, a traditional British murder ballad [“Pretty Polly”] and two of Gram’s songs, “One Hundred Years” and “Lazy Days,” the latter resuscitated from Gram’s rejected contribution to the film score of The Trip. Not only had Gram become a fully-functioning member of the band, but Hillman and McGuinn were also willing to let him play occasional front man, blending his high thin voice with McGuinn’s graceful harmonies. The tracks they recorded over the weeks of sessions affirmed the mutual chemistry they were all feeling.
Gram, however, in his haste to ingratiate himself with the Byrds, had swaggered out of his contract with [producer Lee Hazlewood’s label] LH1, feeling untouchable and a little too proud. Hazlewood was a hardened veteran of the industry with little patience for kids with swollen egos, and when he got wind of Gram’s involvement with the Byrds, he made a call to CBS, coolly reminding them that he still owned the rights to any and all of Gram’s vocal performances.
The bottom suddenly dropped out of everything. Gram deflated like a punctured balloon, bumped back into place by the threat of a lawsuit, and CBS execs were was quaking in their shoes. What might have been a strong and spectacular showcase for Gram’s talents, Sweetheart of the Rodeo became an exercise in careful erasure.
Gram’s voice was either stripped off songs entirely or left as pallid backup harmony, and there was nothing the band could do. Everyone was at the mercy of the label and its lawyers, all of whom unanimously agreed to back off after Hazlewood’s sly reminder.
The threat of pricey legal hassles proved to be far more persuasive than the desire to stand up and fight for the new kid in the group, a singer who had originally been enlisted as a hired hand.
McGuinn and Hillman were apologetic, but Gram was devastated, furious — the entanglement yet another obstacle in his pursuit of fame, another frustration meant to bleed him of his optimism. In spite of himself, he began to let paranoia affect him and black suspicions descend. Did McGuinn merely want the spotlight on himself? How hard had Hillman fought for Gram? How much did they really care about having him in the band at all?
Things at home were rocky as well. Gram’s relationship [with his pregnant girlfriend Nancy Ross] had suffered from his obvious fear of fatherhood and from the growing resentment that had begun to sour his interactions at home. He had proposed to Nancy, feeling a burden of responsibility, and she had accepted. But when the troubles with Hazlewood descended, Gram began to spend less and less time at the apartment, using any excuse to get away from home, all the while aching with guilt and wishing to recapture the energy that still existed between him and Nancy.
Somewhere inside himself there was a sick feeling, a feeling that perhaps his actions over the last year — his slow dissolution with Nancy, his fear of fatherhood, and his quick exit from the Sub Band — were coming back to haunt him, karmic retribution in action. He had become loosely enamored of Eastern thought. He had learned about Buddhism and Hinduism through his long talks with Jet [Rev. James Thomas, a close friend] at Harvard and had explored the embrace of Eastern mysticism and metaphysics with Nancy. His keen inquiry into the cosmic was not only his own long-held habit but part and parcel of the cultural clime.
Accordingly, he held onto a vague belief in the concept of past misdeeds coming back to affect the present. He had been unkind to Nancy and grievously self-absorbed in his dealings with his friends in ISB. That was certain. But, while he was smart enough to recognize his lack of honesty with himself, he did his best to avoid looking too closely, afraid to see things as they truly were. Had he been more gracious in his dealings with Hazlewood, less contemptuous, things might have turned out differently, and the truth of this, in particular, sat in Gram like a stone.
The news of an upcoming Byrds tour, however, acted as a balm. It would be Gram’s first trip abroad and would include a stop in Italy and then in England. Gram hoped the trip would give him some much-needed perspective, a little space between himself and the complications of his L.A. life.
The first week of May 1968, the Byrds packed their gear and took off from LAX, heading to Rome. Gram looked down at Los Angeles, at the maze of concrete and palm, watched as it slipped beneath him, giving way to the mountains that lined the bowl of the valley like a jagged backbone. He ordered a drink, winked at the stewardess, and settled in, feeling the impossible stretch of space between the plane’s belly and the ground.
Only a few hours after arriving in Rome, the Byrds found themselves playing to a packed crowd at the Piper House. The show was a hit despite the fact that most of the audience only had a vague idea of lyrical content and even less of a clue about the country roots the Byrds were referencing. Whatever the pretty, longhaired American boys were playing sounded all right to the Italians. The music was soothing and exotic, a bit of mythic California on display.
By the second week of May, the Byrds had arrived in England, welcomed by sold-out shows at Middle Earth, a Covent Garden hotspot and London’s answer to the Whiskey [the Los Angeles club]. Old friends had gathered to meet the band at the airport, a group that included Keith Richards, Marianne Faithful and Mick Jagger, the Stones playing host for the Byrds’ Brit stay.
Gram was in heaven. The brick and stone of London reminded him of Boston, and he was ecstatic at the proximity of the Rolling Stones, although he was careful to bury his excitement under a veneer of nonchalance. He was a rare bird in London, a child of the Confederacy, an authentic Southern gentleman, complete with a lazy drawl and a history worthy of a Tennessee Williams play. The Stones had recorded a cover of a track by Grand Ole Opry star Hank Snow back in 1964, and Richards was an avowed Roy Rogers fan. The members of the band, particularly Keith, were immediately intrigued by the Byrds’ new member, plying him with questions about country music and Southern living.
The Byrds concerts were an immediate success and were attended by enthusiastic audiences that included friends, peers, artists and musicians — the cream of the swingin’ London crop. For Gram, it was one of those rare lightning-strike moments when you realize that you have stumbled into exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
After the last show at Middle Earth, in the hash smoke and sweat of backstage, Keith, his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, Mick and Marianne made their way to the Byrds’ dressing room. Within moments, the entire crew had relocated to the plush interiors of two shiny Rolls Royce automobiles, each one carrying a substantial supply of weed and liquor, fully stocked for a trip to the countryside for an impromptu visit to Stonehenge.
For Gram, this was confirmation that he was heading for something big. Here he was, 21 years old, high as a kite, Johnnie Walker warming his skin, and he was sharing a Rolls with the better half of the Rolling Stones. It was something out of his adolescent dreams, a moment to write home about, to regale his little sister and Winter Haven pals with — Gram Parsons and Keith Richards bonding over Roy Rogers ballads with the English hills, green and wet, roaring past in soft spring darkness.
By the time they arrived at Stonehenge, it was a pink and orange dawn, and Gram and his friends were floating on deep-cushioned clouds of Mary Jane, tongues thick with booze and talk and sleeplessness. The vast stone structure loomed ahead, massive and mysterious, the grass around it soaked with beaded dew. The edges of Gram’s blue jeans went black with it, his boots seeping.
As he staggered behind the crowd, he paused for a moment to take in the slice of yellow sunrise, the moon still lingering in the sky, the girls’ hair swinging and blond, and Keith, Mick, Chris and Roger looking like strange medieval balladeers or court jesters, all patchwork color and crushed velvet, their silk scarves catching the early morning breeze. Gram paused there in front of Stonehenge, tasted dope smoke and the sharp echo of Scotch whiskey and smiled so wide it hurt his cheeks.
The Byrds arrived back in L.A. when Sweetheart was finally about to be pressed, Gram’s vocals appearing and reappearing on the album like a ghost, a distant echo buried in the background, his traditional phrasing loping just under McGuinn’s more contemporary country take. Gram’s songs still were intact, Hillman and McGuinn adding their own vision, a sound they had developed years before and refined. Although the new country twang was a slight deviation from the norm, there was still enough of the classic Byrds sound on Sweetheart to make the fans feel like they were on familiar ground.
Still, Gram felt despondent. He clung to the idea that the album had not been mixed as they had wanted, that the country rock message, the blend they were striving for, had been watered down so as not to alienate fans on either side. He felt the album didn’t stray far enough, didn’t push any boundaries, that in the end it was just another Byrds album, containing some pleasant country-inflected numbers, yes, but none of the revolutionary sound they had been after.
Three tracks had been cut entirely from the album, including Gram’s “Lazy Days,” on which he had sung lead vocals, and “Pretty Polly,” which he had selected as a tribute to his newborn daughter. Even though CBS and Hazlewood had settled amicably, the record execs had decided that it was better to keep Gram’s involvement in the album as far in the background as possible. It was a blow to his ego. Worse still, there remained the persistent doubt that perhaps he had been partially at fault for the state of things, his own pride and insensitivity equaling obstacles to his success.
And then there was Nancy. Gram had felt a weight lift with his trip abroad, with the space he’d put between himself and Nancy. Everything … growing more nervous and strained, but the baby was beautiful and growing, a silver chain that bound Gram and Nancy tight to one another.
Gram didn’t have the strength to cut himself loose. But it was obvious to both him and Nancy that their love had become a small sad thing between them, fading into nothing as they watched, each of them helpless to stop its diminishing. One night in bed, Nancy turned, her arms outstretched to hold Gram, and he flinched when she touched him, his skin pulling away from the warmth of her hand. In that moment, that last loose link between them snapped, and Nancy knew with cold clarity that it was over between them, that Gram didn’t love her anymore.