Gram Parsons

b. Cecil Ingram Connor, 5 November 1946, Winter Haven FL, USA, d. 19 September 1973, Joshua Tree CA.

Brought up in an extremely wealthy Southern household—his grandfather had made his fortune in citrus groves and cattle—Parsons grew up knowing his trust fund would support him for the remainder of his life. He felt a passion for music while young, and his brief but influential career began in high-school as a member of the Pacers. This rock ‘n’ roll act later gave way to the Legends which, at various points, featured country singer Jim Stafford as well as Kent Lavoie, later known as Lobo. By 1963 Gram had joined the Shilos, a popular campus attraction modelled on clean-cut folk attraction the Journeymen. The quartet—Parsons, George Wrigley, Paul Surratt and Joe Kelly—later moved to New York's Greenwich Village, but Gram left the line-up in 1965 upon enrolling at Harvard College as a divinity student. His studies ended almost immediately and, inspired by the concurrent folk rock boom, founded the International Submarine Band with John Nuese (guitar), Ian Dunlop (bass) and Mickey Gauvin (drums). Two excellent singles followed, but having relocated to Los Angeles, Parsons' vision of a contemporary country music found little favour amid the prevalent psychedelic trend. The group was nonetheless signed by producer Lee Hazlewood, but with Dunlop and Gauvin now absent from the line-up, Bob Buchanan (guitar) and Jon Corneal (drums) joined Gram and Nuese for SAFE AT HOME. This excellent set is now rightly viewed as a landmark in the development of country rock, blending standards with several excellent Parsons' originals, notably "Luxury Liner." However, by the time of its release (April 1968), the quartet had not only folded, but Gram had accepted an offer to join the Byrds.

His induction resulted in SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO on which the newcomer determined the group's musical direction. This synthesis of country and traditional styles followed the mould of SAFE AT HOME, but was buoyed by the act's excellent harmony work. Although Parsons' role as vocalist was later diminished by Hazlewood's court injunction—the producer claimed it breached their early contract—his influence was undeniable, as exemplified on the stellar "Hickory Wind." However, within months Gram had left the Byrds in protest over a South African tour and instead spent several months within the Rolling Stones' circle. The following year he formed the Flying Burrito Brothers with another ex-Byrd, Chris Hillman, "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow (pedal steel guitar) and bassist Chris Ethridge (bass). THE GILDED PALACE OF SIN drew inspiration from southern soul and urban country music and included one of Parsons' most poignant compositions, "Hot Burrito #1." BURRITO DELUXE failed to scale the same heights as internal problems undermined the unit's potential. Gram's growing drug dependency exacerbated this estrangement and he was fired from the group in April 1970. Initial solo recordings with producer Terry Melcher were inconclusive, but in 1972 Parsons was introduced to singer Emmylou Harris and together they completed G.P. with the assistance of Elvis Presley's regular back-up band. An attendant tour leading the Fallen Angels—Jock Bartley (guitar), Neil Flanz (pedal steel), Kyle Tullis (bass) and N.D. Smart II (drums)—followed, but Parsons' appetite for self-destruction remained intact. Parsons lived the life of a true ‘honky tonk hero’ with all the excesses of Hank Williams, even down to his immaculate embroidered Nudie tailored suits. Sessions for a second album blended established favourites with original songs, many of which had been written years beforehand. Despite its piecemeal content, the resultant set, GRIEVOUS ANGEL, was a triumph, in which plaintive duets ("Love Hurts," "Hearts On Fire") underscored the quality of the Parsons/Harris partnership, while "Brass Buttons" and "In My Hour Of Darkness" revealed a gift for touching lyricism. Gram's death in 1973 as a result of ‘drug toxicity’ emphasized its air of poignancy, and the mysterious theft of his body after the funeral, whereupon his road manager, Philip Kaufman cremated the body in the desert, carrying out Gram's wishes, added to the singer's legend. Although his records were not a commercial success during his lifetime, Parsons’ influence on a generation of performers, from the Eagles to Elvis Costello, is a fitting testament to his talent. Emmylou Harris adopted his mantle with a series of superior of country rock releases while an excellent concept album, THE BALLAD OF SALLY ROSE (1985), undoubtedly drew on her brief relationship with this star-struck singer. Parsons' catalogue is painfully small compared to his enormous importance in contemporary country/rock, and his work is destined to stand alongside that of his hero Hank Williams.

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