Gram Parsons – From Harvard to Country Rock and Quite a Few Things In-between
There are quite a few rock stories that are sprinkled (or heavily dosed) with all sorts of eccentricities. From strange behavior, drugs, alcohol, debauchery to strange religious or occult practices. But then, those can matter more or less, depending on the music that actually comes out of it.
How about all of the above with some of the most influential music included, even if the artist behind it doesn’t, or really didn’t have a chance to have an overly extensive output?
Considered as one of the most influential in what now goes under the names of country rock and Americana
If you want such a rock story, don’t look any further than that of Cecil Connor III, to music fans better known as Gram Parsons. Essentially, Parsons was in three bands with whom he recorded four albums, along with two as a solo artist. Still, this not so extensive output is considered as one of the most influential in what now goes under the names of country rock and Americana music.
On the other hand, the way Parsons entered music, his lifestyle full of twists and turns, his premature departure from life, and almost bizarre happenings surrounding his death, are no less talked about among music fans. After all, as some of his best friends in life (musical and otherwise) sang once, it’s only rock’n’ roll…
Florida ‘Aristocrat’ Goes to College…
If Cecil Connor III, sounds like an aristocratic name, it might as well have been, but it wouldn’t really matter, as Cecil came from quite a wealthy Florida family (his birth father owned practically one-third of Florida citrus production at the time) that gave him a chance to study at a university such as Harvard.
Of course, you had to have a certain level of intelligence and knowledge to get there in the first place. Oh, he decided to study theology. Not that it matters much to Cecil, who very soon became Gram and decided that playing rock music is much more rewarding than ‘serious’ studies. Actually, he gained Parsons’ last name when his mother re-married and his stepfather adopted him.
Although Parsons picked up music in his teenage years, it was at Harvard that he formed The International Submarine Band, the reason he left college. While it took them a while to secure an album deal, Safe At Home, their sole album is considered as the first fully-fledged country-rock album. And it was Parsons who was more or less the mastermind behind all of the music on that album. By the time it got released however, the band was no more.
From a Sweetheart to a Flying Burrito
The ISB album left a serious impression on The Byrds original bass player Chris Hillman, who recommended Parsons to the band. The result was Sweetheart of The Rodeo, probably one of the most influential country-rock albums to this day. Yet, the question many asked was, how come there were no Gram Parsons vocals on it?
It was the usual ‘simple’ music industry explanation – contractual reasons. Although Parsons did record vocals for the album they had to be scrapped and replaced by those of Roger McGuinn as Parsons was still contractually tied to his previous record company.
Still, that constellation didn’t last long. The split came when The Byrds were to tour South Africa in the summer of 1968. Parsons insisted that he didn’t want to play in front of segregated audiences. For his part, McGuinn insists that it was only Parsons’ cop-out explanation, as he wanted to remain in London and be with his new friends in Keith Richards and other members of The Rolling Stones.
After Parsons quit The Byrds, Hillman followed soon after, and the two formed the archetypal country-rock band The Flying Burrito Brothers. While the Burrito’s music still rings true with the genre’s fans, it seems that their fashion style left an even stronger influence on what is now considered the mainstream country music fashion.
One more thing marks the Parsons two album phase with the band, and that is their participation at the infamous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. According to Hillman’s account, but also by those that were present at the event, it was The Burritos and the way Parsons handled the situation that was able to calm the bad karma that was brewing… at least for a moment.
The Stones, Drugs, Booze, and Bit More Music
The moment Parsons arrived in Los Angeles, he seemed to make an impression on the scene, even while his music was still yet to truly emerge. One of his first ‘famous’ acts was to steal then David Crosby’s girlfriend, Nancy Ross (the mother of their child, Polly).
But then, he became also known for his sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. As the former Byrds drummer Mike Clarke said at one point, “Man, I don’t think Gram ever met a drug he didn’t like. I guess there’s an object lesson there.”
Becoming friends with The Rolling Stones, particularly Keith Richards, only accentuated that lifestyle. Parsons and Richards became so close that Parsons and his then-girlfriend actually moved in with the Stones at their villa in France while the band was recording their seminal Exile On Main Street album. While fans still debate whether Parsons’ vocals can be heard on the “Sweet Virginia” track from the album, it is obvious throughout the album that Parsons was able to wean Richards and other members of the band on the ‘advantages’ of country music.
No music on his own, a lot of drugs and booze, and the trust fund becoming depleted had a toll on Parsons’ nerves
No music on his own, a lot of drugs and booze, and the trust fund becoming depleted had a toll on Parsons’ nerves, so at some point, as the stories go, Richards’ then sweetheart Anita Palenberg kicked Parsons and his girlfriend out of the villa.
With a secret dream of becoming a member of the Stones gone, Parsons returned home and suffered a motorcycle accident. It took him almost two years to recover from it, during which period he wrote songs for his solo career.
The first result was GP, one of country rock’s classic albums – recorded with Emmylou Harris, Rick Gretch (of Blind Faith fame), and three members of Elvis Presley’s touring band.
Just before he started recording Grievous Angel, his last musical statement, Parsons’ awoke with his bedroom on fire, and the blaze practically burned down his Laurel Canyon house. The fire also spelled the end of his marriage.
During the recordings, to observers, it seemed that Parsons was finally giving up on substance abuse, and the results showed in what turned into another grand country-rock statement.
The Joshua Tree and the Bizarre Events After Parsons’ Death
There’s a motel in the Joshua Tree National Monument Park that has gained additional importance, especially to Parsons’ fans and country-rock devotees.
Sometime in late September 1973, after he completed the recording of his second album, Parsons decided to take a vacation at what he said was his favorite place. Whatever happened there is still unknown, but the final result was Parsons being found dead in his room on September 19. The official report said it was an overdose of morphine and alcohol.
While overdoses were not so uncommon among musicians, what ensued afterwards certainly is.
In front of the fateful motel stands a guitar-shaped memorial to Parsons and two benches where admirers can sit and contemplate his influence
His coffin was stolen by his manager Phil Kaufman and former Byrds roadie Michael Martin and taken to Cap Rock in the California desert. There, as per his own wishes, the body was set alight. Afterward, Parsons family reclaimed his remains and he was later buried at the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Metairie, Louisiana.
Today, in front of the fateful motel, as some commentators have noted, stands a guitar-shaped memorial to Parsons and two benches where admirers can sit and contemplate his influence on luminaries such as his protégé Emmylou Harris, the Eagles, and numerous alt-country bands.
The list of those claiming Parsons’ influence and what he called ‘cosmic American music’ includes the likes of Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle as well as Norah Jones and Jim James, of My Morning Jacket.
Whatever it is, songs like “The Return of the Grievous Angel,” “She,” “Hickory Wind,” and “Sin City” remain country-rock classics to this day.