Apr 6, 2014

If You Don't Like Gram Parsons Then Fuck You

Gram Parsons

Much as with The Jesus & Mary Chain and Curtis Mayfield, Gram Parsons' impact on music spawned a legion of imitators. It is a testament to the quality of the work that it remains inspiring even when filtered through copycats. What's unfortunate is that, even tonight, some first-timer will carry their guitar up onto a stage built by Gram, without ever having heard his name. For every thousand fans The Rolling Stones have, maybe seventy-five have heard of Gram, despite his role in diverting Keith Richards' musical obsessions from Chicago blues to Tennessee twang.

In a way, his ability to kindle interest in the hearts of others may have been Gram's greatest gift to American music. His library of studio recordings is rather slim, an International Submarine Band album here, a Byrds album there, some Flying Burrito Bros. sessions... Most of it great, yes. However, he's known as the Godfather of Country-Rock not exclusively due to these recordings, but also because of the lasting impact the time spent with him would have in the lives and careers of the people he brought together to make that music. Not that he really was some kind of grievous angel...

a young Gram Parsons

There is a degree of fetishization introduced when an artist of any level of celebrity dies, particularly when young, and, seemingly, more-so when drugs were involved. (Possibly due to the was it/wasn't it an intentional overdose question. Though, really, all heavy substance abuse is centered in a death wish, even if only ego-death.) Let us not make that mistake here. Depending upon whose word you take for truth, Gram Parsons was a womanizing opportunist with a shit work ethic and a great talent for dispensing blame towards anyone save himself. Who knows? Who cares?

Cecil Ingram (Gram) Connor III was born to a family of depressed alcoholics in Florida. His father killed himself just as Gram was about to enter his teens, his mother remarried and Gram took his stepfather's last name, Parsons. Gram and Robert Parsons got along well, don't worry. The mom, though, she kept drinking, heavily, probably driving Robert into the arms of another woman and definitely inflicting cirrhosis of the liver upon herself, from which she died on the day of Gram's high school graduation.

Sounds like a fucking country song, yeah? Well, hang on. That graduation was from a prestigious private school. And, afterwards, Gram attended Harvard. This family wasn't poor, at all. Gram never had to worry about money. In the biographies, his bandmates are perpetually hungry for the next paying gig while Gram is hanging out with actors and waiting for a moneygram from back East. This isn't to say that Gram Parsons didn't understand suffering, merely that his tortures were of an internal kind. This is also suggested by multiple eyewitness accounts of intensely upsetting psychedelic episodes or "bad trips" experienced by Gram.

Fortunately, Gram met John Nuese while he was up at Harvard. Nuese was deeply infatuated with listening to and playing country music. One of the biographies (I'm forced to keep saying this, as I don't remember which details I read in which book.) tells of Gram's transformation from a folk-loving coffeeshop cliché into a diehard fan of hardcore country. This is a remarkable shift in lifestyle because nothing was less hip than country music at the time and, it seems, Neuse should receive the credit for taking hold of Gram's ear, shoving it full of steel guitar sounds and convincing him to start a traditional country band. They did, The International Submarine Band. Maybe the dumbest name for a country band ever.

Timelines get pretty fuzzy. Gram was a social butterfly, to say the least, and it wasn't unusual for members of his bands to find out that Gram had a different band waiting for him on the other side of the country, recording sessions be damned, there goes the band and there goes Gram. So, by the time ISB's album finally saw the light of day, Gram had already recorded one album with his new band and was working on a second. Well, it wasn't really his band but he had designs on taking the lead role. Or, at least, Roger McGuinn sure thought so. It's hard to say what made The Byrds want to get rid of their phaser pedals and make a traditional country album but I'd chalk it up to Gram's contagious enthusiasm for the genre. Sure, The Byrds were clearly influenced by country and folk music before but this was whole different shooting match...

"Hickory Wind" is one of only three songs from Sweetheart of the Rodeo to feature Gram Parsons' vocals at the front of the mix, partly due to his prior contractual obligations with Lee Hazlewood and ISB, but (probably) mostly due to Roger McGuinn's fear that Gram was taking his band away from him. The song is central to Gram's legacy. His vocals here aren't his best, though, superficially, they could never be called "strong." There is, albeit, a quality of his vocals, in which is embodied the entire spirit of country music, an indefinable subset of emotion. This is why if you don't like Gram Parson then fuck you. It isn't an aggressive "fuck you." It's dismissive: "Oh, you don't understand this. Okay, well you go fuck off somewhere else then and I'll be here."

image of The Byrds while Gram Parsons was a member

Another reason this song is so important to discuss here, pertains to The Byrd's legendary performance at The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, TN. If the hippies of the time were (hypocritically) close-minded towards traditional country music sounds, then the people who were listening to country music were downright militant in their hatred of anything to do with "longhairs." The Byrds all cut their hair shorter than they typically wore it in an effort to placate the conservative Opry audience, but it was for nothing. Judgements had been made and were vocalized, loudly. (I've never read this anywhere but I've also heard the rumor that the band had their amplifiers turned up louder than anyone who'd played the Opry before.) So yeah, traditions were scuffed up a little but what really got the Opry folks' goat was when Gram decided he wanted to perform "Hickory Wind" for his grandmother instead of the song The Byrds were supposed to play.

Gram Parsons singing a song to his granny caused more of a stir than anything any of these magazine cover "Outlaws" today have ever done. Imagine that.

This song and the next are Gram's best performances, if you're asking me. "Wild Horses," yes, is a Rolling Stones song, technically, but Gram recorded it first, with his post-Byrds project, The Flying Burrito Brothers. This is the definitive version of the song, for many fans of both bands. Gram got permission to record it straight from the author, his drug buddy, Keith Richards. Gram met The Stones when The Byrds toured Europe and went to stay at Keef's house after leaving the band over trumped-up reasons. Gram's visit was the perfect opportunity to make another convert to roots country music and he set his personality to the task, succeeding... uh, wildly....

Keith Richards Gram Parsons acoustic guitar

It's impossible to say Gram Parsons is the reason these artists embraced country music in their personal listening and introduced it into their professional work. All we can say for sure is they met Gram Parsons and then they started making versions of country music. Maybe it's all a series of coincidence...

Emmylou Harris was next in line to have her life forever changed by Gram Parsons. She was already singing, yeah, but Gram saw her potential for harmonies and started her on a steady diet of the Louvin Brothers. The two hung out a lot, listened to records and played some songs together for some short time before Gram asked Emmylou to sing with him on his new solo albums and she accepted. (Gram's hopes that Keith Richards would hook him up with a solo recording contract spurred him to tag along with The Stones to France, where they were recording Exile. By all accounts though, the junk hole Richards' was digging for himself at the time was far too deep for anything like that to get done. See Robert Greenfield's A Season in Hell with The Rolling Stones for more of that story.)

Gram was married at the time but one certainly gets the impression that a romance was blossoming between himself and Emmylou. Anytime Emmylou speaks about him, she's... affected. I don't know that she's ever said whether or not she and Gram were physically involved but there is no mistake that they were in a love of some kind, on whatever plane of spirit or emotion.

Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris performing together

Sadly, we'll never know where that musical partnership would have gone because Gram Parsons was found dead of an overdose in his room at a motel in Joshua Tree National Park in 1973. He was 26 years old. All of this hero worship, the songs, the derailing of life paths... all of your drunk mothers dancing to "Honky Tonk Women".... All because some kid made it happen before checking out a year too early to join the 27 Club. Imagine if he'd had another 26 years to work with.

Thank you for your time. Are there any questions?


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  1. Anonymous4:41 PM

    If you feel like it and are of like mind, please sign the petition to induct Gram into the Country Music Hall of Fame. If not of like mind, fuck you. http://gramparsonspetition.com

  2. Anonymous7:16 PM

    Nice blog btw, thank you for not wasting more electrons by re-hashing the "death caper."

  3. Anonymous12:03 PM

    Tyler, I enjoyed your article. Your picture reminds me of Jim Carroll. Gram is such an influence on so many musicians/genres. Thank you for highlighting him here...

  4. Anonymous12:03 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Anonymous8:34 PM

    Hold up. It is possible to tell that Gram had an effect on people's listening of country music. In fact, Keith Richards has said so in interviews. As well as many others. The Byrds in Nashville were not well received that's true, but the amplifier rumor is not true. The only thing amplified in that performance was independence.

  6. Anonymous2:57 AM

    Great article:)

  7. I really enjoyed this article, it's simply touching for me, and you made me to listen to Hickory wind for the first time in my life, and I fully understood your words about it. That true country voice gived me the chills... grievous indeed, indeed.
    Thank you.