Gram Parsons

First published in Country Music People, January 1976

During the mid-1960s many of the rock‘n’roll musicians and singers who sprung to prominence during the rock‘n’roll heyday of the 1950s turned from sagging careers in pop music to a new role in country music. It was a natural evolution as many of those who began with rock‘n’roll were in fact from country backgrounds. This same returning to the ‘roots’ is still happening, pop and contemporary rock artists like Freddy Weller, Brenda Lee, and even to a lesser extent, Leon Russell, have realised that it was country music that set them on a career in music in the beginning. Gram Parsons, one time member of The Byrds and founder member of The Flying Burrito Brothers is one of the modern long-haired pop musicians who could successfully have moved into a country music career, but just as he was beginning to establish himself he suffered a fatal heart attack on September 19, 1973 at the relatively young age of 27.

Parson was born in Florida, but grew up in Waycross, Georgia around the Okiphonoki Swampland. Growing up in this area is what puts his roots firm in country music. His love of country music and the desire to perform it drove him at an early age to appear at local talent contests. He was a born wanderer, though, and by his mid-teens had left home to find fame and fortune, With a guitar slung over his shoulder and plenty of country songs to tout he was able to pick and sing; earning his keep presented him with no problem. 

He linked up with many other young musicians and realised that straight country music wasn’t going to earn him a fortune. There were plenty of singers trying that in Nashville, but he wanted something different. The name of his first group gave an indication of Gram Parsons sight. The International Submarine Band was formed up in Boston, an album was made, produced by the redoubtable Lee Hazelwood (ex-producer of Duane Eddy and great friend of Waylon Jennings), and featured the first attempts at contemporary country music. Hazelwood, for all his faults, knew in which direction Parsons’ music was heading, and produced an album that was way ahead of its time, even if the sales at that time in 1964 were quite poor. 

Parsons’ name first hit the heady heights in 1967 when he joined The Byrds, a group well established on the pop scene from their associations, firstly with folk-rock, then space-rock and finally psychedellic-rock. Gram injected the necessary country music influences into the group that sent them hurtling into country-rock. He was featured on their sixth album, SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO, which led them down the path into country music, a route that has since been followed by countless other rock bands and musicians. Due to contractual reasons, Parsons wasn’t allowed to sing on this album, but his influence was enormous. In fact, the whole album was more of a Gram Parsons innovation than a new album from The Byrds. 

His association with The Byrds was short-lived. In 1969 he left due to disagreements over musical policy and a planned tour to South Africa that Parsons didn’t morally wish to undertake. Along with Chris Hillman, a founder member of The Byrds, Gram formed The Flying Burrito Brothers, with steel guitarist Sneaky Pete Kleinow and bass player Chris Ethridge. The idea of the band was a straight country and western format, and to begin with they didn’t use a drummer. Their first album, GILDED PALACE OF SIN, was a masterpiece. The freshness and purity of the music really stood out and to stress the point that they were country, the album cover featured the band in flamboyant cowboy outfits that even put the colourful suits of Hank Snow to shame. The music was in similar vein, colourful and right back in the old style—simple songs of love and the fresh open spaces. 

The Burritos were easily the finest country-rock band ever, yet for some inexplicable reason they never made it. They were never really accepted by country fans, and their music, to begin with, was shunned by rock fans. The sound was too open and hillbilly for rock addicts, so reluctantly the group added ex-Byrds drummer Michael Clarke to the line-up. 

The lack of acceptance for The Flying Burrito Brothers left Gram Parsons apathetic towards the whole project. A serious motorcycle accident in the spring of 1970 almost finished his career. He suffered severe injuries with burns to his face and hands that for a while affected his singing and playing. He left the group and for some time faded from the scene. The group continued, but the light, open country songs were gradually replaced by up-tempo rock numbers. 

During this period The Byrds literally fell apart looking for a direction to follow while The Flying Burrito Brothers underwent so many changes that the original concept of the group was lost in the search for stability. But Gram Parsons knew just where he was heading. Country music was his first love and near the end of 1972 he resurfaced with a new solo career, taking in old traditional country music with contemporary sounds of rock. 

Many had predicted that Gram Parsons was finished, but his signing with Warner Brothers and the release of the outstanding country album G.P. dispelled these completely. With a line-up of musicians that included Glen D. Hardin, James Burton, Al Perkins, Byron Berline, Alan Munde, Buddy Emmons and the excellent production work of Rick Grech, Parsons created one of the finest and most beautiful solo albums of the year from a contemporary country artist. 

A few months before the session he had teamed up with Emmylou Harris, a young folk singer whom he’d found singing in bars and honky tonks up in Washington. Her high, soaring voice was just what Parsons needed, and she became the perfect harmony for his country singing. 

G.P. was definitely a country album; the harmony singing of Emmylou was real good, her high voice adding a traditional flavour to a contemporary sound. The older country songs sounded good alongside Parsons’ new ones and you could really understand his roots as he took George Jones’ That’s All It Took and breathed new life into it, without in any way detracting from the basic country style. He almost topped Carl Butler’s ‘Acuff-influeced’ vocal style on We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning, and Burton’s Dobro work on this track is really outstanding. 

For some reason, though, this album suffered in the same way as The Flying Burrito Brothers. It seems that his music was too countrified for the rock fans, he didn’t even try to flavour the country with rock‘n’roll; if his voice had been a bit twangier he could have been mistaken for George Jones. He wanted to sing and play country music in the way it should be done—straight and simple. But Parsons failed, he didn’t even appeal to the country fans, yet he should have done. He could have been a great asset to modern country music. He had both the sincerity and a natural feel for the music, and it showed through on every track on his one and only solo album. Just as important he really understood the music, perhaps a whole lot better than some of the so-called country singers who hang around Nashville.