By J.R. Jones
Poor Little Rich Boy
In a 1972 interview with an A&M Records publicist, Gram Parsons was asked what he’d been doing with himself since leaving the Flying Burrito Brothers two years before. The godfather of country rock replied, “I played a lot of sessions, but I played mostly with friends. It’s a hard thing to do, making a living.” This answer was more than a little disingenuous: for the most part, he’d been jamming, drinking, shooting heroin, hanging out with the Rolling Stones at Keith Richards’s villa in the south of France, and drawing on a family trust fund that paid him as much as $100,000 a year.
The musical self-portrait Parsons left behind–more of which has been revealed recently on two expanded reissues–seldom hints at his leisure-class roots. His country-music heros, among them George Jones and Merle Haggard, had grown up dirt-poor, pursuing music as an uncertain escape from a future of poverty and killing physical labor. Parsons, heir to a Florida citrus fortune, grew up at country clubs, attended an exclusive prep school, and spent a few months at Harvard before dropping out to blaze a trail for country music in the brave new world of 60s rock. But he had enough contradictions on his plate already, performing Hank Williams tunes for baffled hippies in New York City and struggling to win over the hostile shit kickers in west-coast honky-tonks, who despised his long hair and outlandish clothes. After his death in 1973 from an overdose of morphine and tequila, the image he had crafted of a poor country boy in the big city became part of his legacy, despite its blatant falsity. Yet Parsons’s silver-spoon past provided the ghosts to inhabit his music, and his wealth was sadly to blame for the brevity of his career.
Parsons always hated the term “country rock,” coining phrases like “white gospel” and “cosmic American music” to describe the sound he was chasing. But more than any other artist, he helped legitimize traditional country for an audience likely to associate it with cross burnings and pro-war sentiment. In 1968 his work with the International Submarine Band led to a gig with the Byrds, and as documented on the newly expanded Sweetheart of the Rodeo, he briefly seized the reins from Roger McGuinn, convincing the band to cover songs recorded by Haggard, Merle Travis, and the Louvin Brothers. A contractual snafu forced the Byrds to erase Parsons’s vocals on most of the tracks, but the new edition includes two discarded Parsons tracks (previously released on the 1991 Byrds box set) and four rehearsals in which he sings numbers later appropriated by McGuinn and Chris Hillman. In the end their experiment showed how far apart the country and rock audiences remained: the Byrds got a mixed reception when they performed at the Grand Ole Opry, and Sweetheart of the Rodeo stiffed on the pop charts.
With his generous inheritance, Parsons could afford to ignore such commercial realities: he had virtually bankrolled the International Submarine Band, and after four months with the Byrds he quit, ostensibly because he opposed their imminent tour of South Africa but also because he wanted more musical control. He had no problem walking away from an opportunity other musicians would kill for; his bills would always be paid. If Parsons ever considered himself a hypocrite for singing songs like Haggard’s “Life in Prison” while living it up at LA’s swank Chateau Marmont, he never let it show. Only on the ISB’s album Safe at Home (1968) did he explore the subject of material wealth, playing the role of dissolute playboy on his song “Luxury Liner” and covering the Porter Wagoner hit “Satisfied Mind” (“…it’s so hard to find / One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind”).
After that Parsons distanced himself more and more from his old-money background–at least in song. “I was born in a little bitty tar hut,” he claims in “Big Mouth Blues,” a rocker from his first solo album, GP (1973). In “Ooh Las Vegas,” from his masterpiece Grievous Angel (1974), he declares the gambling mecca “no place for a poor boy like me.” The Louvin Brothers’ “Cash on the Barrelhead,” a jump tune from the same record, casts him as a vagrant forced to spend 40 days in jail for want of $45. But the gulf between Parsons’s circumstances and the music he loved has no better example than “Streets of Baltimore,” from GP. A classic ballad by Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard, it tells the tale of a farmer who indulges his young wife by selling their farm and moving her to the big city; despite all his sacrifices, she leaves him for a life of prostitution and he returns to the country alone. When Parsons sings of coming home from a factory job “with every muscle sore,” he stretches the gap between himself and his persona to the breaking point.
But country is the music of heartbreak, and Parsons’s wealth caused him enough to rival that of all his heroes. In Ben Fong-Torres’s Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers describes Parsons’s family as a page out of Tennessee Williams, and indeed, one would have to read Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for a more disturbing portrait of greed, betrayal and self-destruction. Gram’s father, Ingram “Coon Dog” Connor Jr., was a decorated fighter pilot in World War II, but when he married Avis Snively, an heiress to the $28 million Snively Groves in Winter Haven, Florida, he found himself emasculated and ridiculed by his rich in-laws. Gram and his younger sister were raised in Waycross, Georgia, near the Okefenokee Swamp, where the Snivelys had installed Ingram with a token job managing a box factory. Both of Gram’s parents drank, and the marriage was scarred by infidelities. Two days before Christmas in 1958, when Gram was 12, his father shot himself. The Snivelys were so crushed by his death that Gram’s maternal aunt hosted a cocktail party the day before the funeral.
Gram’s mother remarried, and according to family members’ accounts in Hickory Wind, her husband Bob Parsons did everything he could to gain control of his wife’s fortune. He adopted the two children and fathered a third, but eventually he began sleeping with their 18-year-old babysitter. Gram’s mother drank herself into an early grave, dying of alcohol poisoning on the day of his high school graduation; Bob Parsons later confessed to Gram that he had sneaked her bottles of vodka in the hospital. By the time Gram arrived in Cambridge, music had become his greatest solace, and despite an early love for rock `n’ roll, he gravitated naturally toward the sounds he’d heard in Waycross: the gin-soaked country ballads so steeped in cheating and loss, and the spirituals with their promise of redemption.
His own wounds were what allowed Parsons to reach deep into the heart of a song, to occupy the soul of a broke and broken farmer heading back home without his benighted wife. The ISB, Byrds and Burrito Brothers records demonstrate his abundant talent and his ability to synthesize traditional country with other genres, but Parsons’s solo albums find him slicing down to the bone, reaching in the bleakest songs a level of emotional nakedness both harrowing and beautiful. “Love Hurts,” a song that in the hands of the Everly Brothers was merely sad, becomes heartrending when shared by Parsons and frequent duet partner Emmylou Harris on Grievous Angel. In “$1000 Wedding,” from the same record, Parsons takes what could be a mawkish story–a bride dies on her wedding day, leaving the shattered groom to drink himself numb–and invests it with the hidden anguish of a man who has seen other joyous occasions spoiled by the hand of death. The last song, “In My Hour of Darkness,” is his finest: Parsons devotes a verse to each of three friends who have died, the chorus perfectly realizing his notion of a white gospel sound: “In my hour of darkness / In my time of need / Oh, Lord grant me vision / Oh, Lord grant me speed.” Less than a month after recording the song, Parsons himself was dead.
If money compromised Gram Parsons’s art, it did so by cutting him too much slack; in the end, the tragedy of his short life is compounded by the fact that he squandered so much of it. Despite his passion for music, he seldom took his own very seriously. With the exception of the Byrds, his bands were chronically underrehearsed. The Flying Burrito Brothers’ first show, at an A&M media showcase, was a humiliating mess, and the subsequent tour was distinguished less by their performances than by the amount of money they blew on drugs, room service, and a never-ending poker game. Parsons’s first attempt at a solo album was a series of drunken sessions that hit bottom when he vomited all over a concert grand piano. He spent the next two years partying with the Stones, waiting in vain for a strung-out Keith Richards to produce his solo debut. “He wanted it all,” Chris Hillman says in Hickory Wind, “but he didn’t work at it. And that’s what I finally realized. He didn’t put his time in.” Had Gram Parsons died a year earlier, before recording the two albums that form the cornerstone of his reputation, he’d be considered now what he was then–a historical footnote to the Stones and the Byrds.
Live 1973 is a one-hour radio broadcast from Parsons’s GP tour. An edited version was released in 1982; almost a decade later, Sierra Records remastered the complete performance for a limited-edition CD, which Rhino has now picked up for general release. Like the Burrito Brothers’ debut, the Fallen Angels’ first show, in Boulder, was a disaster, but by the time they recorded this set on Long Island they had spent a few weeks on the road and gotten their act together. In his song introductions Parsons sounds pretty hazy, but his performance is faultless; he and Emmylou Harris deliver sterling duets on “Streets of Baltimore,” “The New Soft Shoe,” “That’s All It Took,” and “Love Hurts” (which was nominated for a Grammy in 1983).
Onstage they usually positioned their microphones so that they could sing to one another: Harris was a steadying influence on Parsons, and by her own account, he was her greatest musical inspiration. “He was never afraid to write from the heart,” she said in a 1975 interview. “It could rip you up. Not many can take music that real.” Nor can many make it. There are some gifts that money can’t buy.
Chicago Reader, March 28, 1997
Copyright 1997 by J.R. Jones.