With his fragile vocals and Country & Western-tinged songwriting, Gram Parsons generated a legend that still resonates today, more than thirty years after his tragic premature death. His music influenced a wide range of artists during his own lifetime, from The Byrds to Emmylou Harris, The Rolling Stones and The Eagles, and still resonates today in the work of current generations of alt-country artists and singer-songwriters such as Ryan Adams.
His enduring popularity and influence has a bitter irony, for during his own lifetime Parsons never achieved much commercial success and died a squalid lonely death.
Cover Bands, Coffee Houses and High Schools
Born in 1946, Parsons began his musical career in his teens playing in cover bands in clubs in Florida owned by his father. At first he played rock n’roll standards but soon developed a taste for folk music and by the time he was 19 was playing professionally in a band named The Shilos.
The Shilos enjoyed no major success, playing low-key venues such as coffee houses and high school auditoriums, though they did make appearances at venues in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
The International Submarine Band
After The Shilos split Parsons briefly attended Harvard University, but dropped out after a semester and departed for Boston, Massachusetts, where he absorbed the music of Merle Haggard and became interested in country music. This was to be a turning point in his career as his passion for this style of music and skill at fusing it with rock n’roll was to become his hallmark.
Chris Hillman and The Byrds
At this point Parsons’ career really took off, as he came to the attention of a number of important figures in the contemporary music scene. Chris Hillman, bass player with The Byrds, offered Parsons a place in his band following the departures of David Crosby and Michael Clarke. Parsons successfully auditioned for The Byrds and was recruited as a jazz pianist, rhythm guitarist and vocalist. His position was that of a sideman or hired session musician, though he was given equal billing with the rest of the band on their classic album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (released August 1968).
The Rolling Stones and The Flying Burrito Brothers
In the summer of 1968 Parsons left The Byrds, citing his objections to playing a concert in the then-apartheid South Africa. During a trip to England Parsons met and become friendly with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and was to develop a close if short-lived bond with Richards in particular. Their musical chemistry was such that Parsons envisaged co-writing an album with the Rolling Stones guitarist, but this never materialized.
Upon returning to LA Parsons formed a new band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, with Hillman, bassist Chris Ethridge and pedal steel player “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow. With Hillman and Parsons as the main creative impulse, the band released their debut album “The Gilded Palace of Sin” in 1969. This record saw Parsons unleash the full scope of his talent and vision for an updated version of traditional Bakersfield-style country music. The record was packed with melancholy classics such as the Parsons-Hillman originals “Christine’s Tune”, “Hot Burrito #2” and “Sin City”, and superlative covers of the soul tunes “Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman”.
Parsons Flys Solo
Despite its quality, Gilded was not a commercial success and barely caused a stir in the music charts. The tour that followed was chaotic, as the band gambled away most of their earnings in endless games of poker and met with baffled reactions from audiences in most cities. “Burrito Deluxe”, the follow-up to Gilded, was a hastily recorded grab-bag of originals and outtakes recorded on a savagely reduced budget.
Released in April 1970, it was a mediocre sequel distinguished by Parsons’ cover of Jagger and Richards’ “Wild Horses”. Panned by critics and a dismal commercial failure, “Burrito Deluxe” was a decided flop and led to Parsons becoming disenchanted and leaving the band to go solo.
Emmylous Harris and the Fallen Angels
Soon after this disappointment Parsons was creatively revitalized by his friendship with the young country singer Emmylou Harris, whom he heard sing at a club in Washington D.C. The pair went to Los Angeles to co-write an album together. Released in 1973 “GP” was a creative if not commercial success and featured fresh Parsons classics “Big Mouth Blues” and “Kiss the Children”, as well as featuring the guitar playing of James Burton, who had played with both Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson.
With Harris as his duet partner, Parsons now embarked upon a tour of the US billed as Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels. The high point of the tour was a filmed concert at Liberty Hall in Houston where the band was joined onstage by Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt. Parsons followed up his newfound momentum with 1974’s “Grievous Angel” which featured “$1000 Wedding”, “In My Hour of Darkness” and “Return of the Grievous Angel”.
The album garnered terrific reviews, which made it all the more bittersweet that it was to be his last. Gram Parsons was found dead in a hotel room in California on September 19, 1973, from a lethal combination of morphine and alcohol. He was 26.