NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Gram Parsons Revisited

Can the Pioneer Country-Rocker Make the Country Music Hall of Fame?

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

As a new biography demonstrates, the legend and cult of the late Gram Parsons, the “Cosmic American Music” pioneer continue to grow. Parsons’ career and life flamed beautifully across the skies of country music and rock music before being extinguished all too soon.

The young singer who was hugely responsible for the rise of country-rock — a label he despised — throughout his short career influenced talents ranging from Emmylou Harris to the Rolling Stones to the Byrds to Wilco and to the entire Americana movement.

About the same time that Parsons was working on his Cosmic American Music idea in Southern California and England, a young man named Michael Martin Murphey was developing a similar concept with his Cosmic Cowboy music in Austin. In both Parsons’ case and in Murphey’s — and the whole larger Austin musical experiment going on inside the walls of the Armadillo World Headquarters — the basic premise was to knock down musical walls and labels and make music with the free expression coming from many widely different music influences.

Parsons grew up in the South, listening to black and white gospel and blues and string bands and dance bands — everything, in short, that had combined to create both country music and rock ’n’ roll. So it was natural for him to draw from everything he had experienced. And then to later put that mixture into the music he created, as his vision of Cosmic American.

As Bob Kealing writes in his new Parsons biography, Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock (to be published Sept. 23), Gram’s star and musical presence continue, undiminished.

Kealing, an Orlando TV reporter whose last book was about Tupperware, has done an admirable and exhaustive research task of finding and recreating much of Parsons’ childhood, young adulthood and early career arc. He unearthed many previously-unpublished photographs and located many friends who had never before been interviewed. Kealing gets high marks for research diligence.

Aside from the narrative of reconstruction and telling the minute details of Parsons’ travels and travails, though, I am not so confident about Kealing’s musical judgment.

For example, I am not so sure Gram’s early guitar jamming with “Spiders and Snakes” artist Jim Stafford was an early experiment at creating Gram’s dream of Cosmic American Music, merely because Stafford was a kid from a working class home and Parsons’ family was wealthy, and they each liked different music. I am also always wary of portentous, chapter-ending sentences like this one: “The dawning of Florida’s great garage band era was drawing near.” Or this one: “Meeting the Rolling Stones may have been the worst thing that ever happened to Gram Parsons.” Or this one: “The summer of 1965 would be a decisive turning point.”

And to hint that Parsons anointed Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters with his special brand of music amalgamation stardust just by performing there once is a real stretch. The Armadillo incubated that one-world mixture of country and rock and folk before and quite independently of Gram’s then social and musical circle.

Bruce Springsteen also played the Armadillo once. So did Fats Domino and Freddie King and many others. Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker and their like hit that stage many times. My point is that when there is a musical movement brewing, it often manifests itself in many artists and in many places. That’s not to belittle Parsons’ contributions, but it’s a fact that many carpenters are required for any large building.

These days, Parsons’ heritage is still being discussed. It both amuses and infuriates me when I hear critics attempt to dismiss Parsons as a mere passing blip on the music radar. He remains a major talent and a true innovator. I wish he could have lived long enough to fulfill all of his musical visions.

If you have not had the pleasure of listening to Parsons’ music, I would recommend The Complete Reprise Sessions, a three-CD package which contains much essential music, including his final two albums, GP and Grievous Angel, plus some essential outtakes.

What are the chances, as many Gram devotees fervently wish, of Parsons being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame? I can tell you flatly that it won’t happen in my lifetime. Not that I’m all that old, but the powers that be in Nashville are not ready for Gram. The memory of his appearance with the Byrds on the Grand Ole Opry still rankles many living Nashville power brokers. Gram’s sin? Performing an original song (“Hickory Wind,” which he dedicated to his grandmother in the audience) after being told not to by the Opry brass.

I can tell you confidently that Ray Charles will make it into the Country Hall before Gram Parsons will, and I think that’s a good thing because Charles worked magic on country in the ’50s and ’60s, and he had a greater influence. Even so, it will be some years before either one has a real chance.

The important thing to remember about Gram is that he made some things possible in music that would have seemed impossible before. He helped give voice to what Emmylou Harris became. He made the Stones recognize country. He helped popularize and legitimize what is now considered Americana and roots music. And, perhaps as important, he helped a lot of country artists stay a little more musically honest than they otherwise might have.