(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
A major musical event this summer will be the simultaneous release of the first-ever documentary about the late Gram Parsons and a three-CD boxed set of all of Parsons’ Reprise recordings.
The Rhino box Gram Parsons: The Complete Reprise Sessions will hit retail on June 20, and the Rhino/WEA documentary DVD Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel will go to stores the same day, with screenings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Nashville, Chicago, Austin, Portland and New York scheduled in early June.
I think the argument can easily be made that Gram Parsons was to country-rock what Hank Williams was to mainstream country. Each simultaneously catapulted a musical genre light years ahead of what it had been, and each left a romantic image of a brilliant but doomed wastrel country poet who died young. Hank was 29 when he succumbed to too much dope and liquor in the back seat of his Cadillac, and Gram was 26 when an overdose of dope and liquor claimed his young life in a motel room in the California desert.
There are many other comparisons. Hank introduced flashy Nudie suits to Nashville, and Gram brought dope-depicting Nudie suits to alt-country and rock & roll. Each man remains the greatest lasting influence on his musical genre, inspiring hero worship and even near-sainthood status. Denigrate them in any barroom or club from Nashville to Austin and points beyond at your own risk.
Parsons was a founder of the hugely influential country-rock group, the Flying Burrito Brothers, a pivotal member of the Byrds and the guiding force behind their epochal Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a large influence on the Rolling Stones and pretty much introduced Emmylou Harris to the world. He himself called his music “cosmic American music.”
The boxed set includes 48 tracks, including 10 previously unreleased cuts. Several of those are interview snippets with Parsons. The first two discs include remastered versions of Parson’s solo albums GP and Grievous Angel. Disc three includes alternate takes and cover versions of Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts,” Joyce Allsup’s “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning,” Tom T. Hall’s “I Can’t Dance” and Harlan Howard and Tompall Glaser’s “Streets of Baltimore.” A 52-page booklet includes many photos and an introduction by Emmylou Harris.
The doc DVD traces Parsons’ life and career through old clips and stills and interviews with Emmylou Harris, Keith Richards, former Byrd and Burrito Brother Chris Hillman, Bernie Leadon, Dwight Yoakam, the tailor Manuel and family members.
In recent years, Parsons has turned into quite the cottage industry. Several books have been published, numerous bootleg recordings abound, and his life inspired the tribute DVD Return to Sin City and the goofy movie Grand Theft Parsons.
I have known young musicians who try to emulate Hank or Gram, or both, to the extent that they embrace the whole live-fast ethos and end up wrecking their health and their talent. A shame, because Gram and Hank’s musical worth endures despite their excesses, not because of them. Williams and Parsons were both classic American tragedies. As former bandmate Hillman said in Fallen Angel, Parsons’ life was “a classic Tennessee Williams play, about Southern money and alcoholism. Just a tragedy.”
Parsons’ life is a fascinating tale. He came from serious money in Florida, but his father committed suicide when Gram was 12. When he was 16, his family bought him a club to perform in and he announced that he was going to be a rock star — “like Elvis.” He went to Harvard and got away from his dysfunctional family, then dropped out of Harvard after one semester and plunged into music seriously with the International Submarine Band. But he got sidetracked along the way by drugs and alcohol.
Manuel, who made Parsons’ infamous dope-inspired Nudie suit, recalled that in discussing the design for the suit, Parsons told him the suit represented “the way he wanted to die, from the flames to the cross to the marijuana and pills and the girls.”
Gram Parsons had a genuine death wish, his road manager Phil “The Mangler” Kaufman said in the documentary. And Kaufman was the man who — as Parsons had wished — stole his body at the Los Angeles airport and burned it in the California desert at Joshua Tree. “If he was here today,” said Kaufman, “he’d still be dead. He was headed in that direction.”