His father committed suicide when he was 12. His mother drank herself to death on the day he graduated from high school. A trust fund junkie, Gram Parsons was doomed. He drank too much, stuck needles in his arms and seemed to be just passing through this life. His death at age 26 was shockingly young, but it did not seem too much before his time to those who knew a man who lived – and sang – as if he were prepared to die.
But before he succumbed to a morphine overdose in a motel in the California desert, the creatively restless Parsons packed in a lot of amazing music and spawned the country-rock genre at a time when the Eagles were just a football team out of Philadelphia and Linda Ronstadt was singing Peter, Paul and Mary songs.
You can argue over who created reggae or who was the first punk band or whether Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole pioneered the concept album, but there’s no question that Parsons was the first to play Nashville country music with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude. He wore the sequined Nudie suits favored by the classic country singers, but Parsons had his decorated with marijuana leaves, pills and naked women where the glittery cacti, wagon wheels and lariats usually went. He was the original cosmic cowboy, recording songs by Merle Haggard and George Jones with the International Submarine Band way back in 1966.
Parsons, whose short time with the Byrds produced the classic “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” in 1968 and who formed the Flying Burrito Brothers the same year, has sold many more albums in death than in life. The latest reissue (2006), is a three-disc box set of “The Complete Reprise Sessions” ($34.98), which combines Parsons’ two solo albums, 1972’s “G.P.” and his masterpiece, 1973’s “Grievous Angel,” with a disc of alternate takes.
Despite all the tumult in his personal life, Parsons managed to find enough pockets of clarity to make a pair of albums that tap into the full range of emotions, from the mournful “In My Hour of Darkness” and “A Song for You” to the flat-out exuberant “Cash on the Barrelhead” and “Big Mouth Blues.”
As chronicled in the 2004 Parsons documentary “Fallen Angel,” the troubled troubadour found an angel to pull him through the recordings. The new old set could be called “The Emmylou Harris Sessions.” After Parsons was kicked out of the Flying Burrito Brothers because he chose hanging out with Keith Richards over touring with the Burritos, he got a solo deal with Reprise and set out to look for “a chick singer” to soften his nasally lead vocals. He found her in a club in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Georgetown – a shy, pretty songbird who would be the Tammy to his George.
If Harris, who had a live-in boyfriend, and the married Parsons ever had a fling, Harris is not saying, and she’s the only one who knows for sure. But they certainly made love with their harmonies, with the cashmere-smooth Harris caressing Parsons’ stark leads. Their “Love Hurts” is not as seamless and luxurious as the original version, but the Everly Brothers didn’t sound like they were looking into each other’s eyes when they sang it.
If only love could be so natural, so forgiving, so consistently magical. There was just so much musical chemistry between these two, who were sitting together on a motorcycle on the original cover of “Grievous Angel,” until Parsons’ jealous wife nixed it after his death.
But Harris remains tireless as the ambassador for Parsons’ legacy. This model of integrity and grace has not only kept alive such Parsons compositions as “Luxury Liner,” “Ooh Las Vegas” and “Still Feeling Blue,” but she cherishes that bit of soul Parsons left with her. Parsons and Harris were, and still are, an incredible love story.
“I never knew what kind of music was inside me,” Harris once told a reporter, “until I met him.”
Such musicians as Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy from Uncle Tupelo and Ryan Adams could say the same thing, although they met him only through his records. Parsons is also the spiritual sponsor to Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Rodney Crowell and many more singer-songwriters who believe that you separate laundry, not country, folk and rock. Even the Rolling Stones owe a debt to Parsons, who showed them the way to “Dead Flowers” and “Country Honk” and “Sweet Virginia.” And if not for his versions of Parsons’ “Hot Burrito No. 1” and “How Much I Lied,” Elvis Costello’s 1981 country foray “Almost Blue” would’ve been a bust.
Elvis Presley was Parsons’ main musical idol, so it was a thrill for him to make his last two albums with the King’s final backing band – including guitarist James Burton, piano player Glen D. Hardin, bassist Emory Gordy and drummer Ronnie Tutt. Careerwise, Parsons was on an upswing when he and a few friends went on a vacation near Joshua Tree National Park in California, after completing “Grievous Angel.” But drugs and alcohol got the best of him at the Joshua Tree Inn on Sept. 19, 1973.
His body was supposed to be flown to New Orleans, where his stepfather Bob Parsons lived. But Gram Parsons’ friend Phil Kaufman (a former cellmate of Charles Manson) persuaded airport handlers to give him the coffin for transport on a private flight. Kaufman instead drove the body back to Joshua Tree, poured five gallons of gas on it and lit a match, later saying that it had been Parsons’ wish to be cremated in the desert.
Kaufman, who was arrested for stealing the casket (but not the body), didn’t know what he was doing and the remains ended up just being badly charred. The morbid act may titillate casual observers, but it cheapens the legend for fans. When you listen to the records Parsons and Harris made together, you don’t think of a burning body, but souls on fire. The music is so alive.