YOU’RE STILL ON MY MIND
Published in two parts in Country Music People September and October 2006
If you asked passers-by if they knew Gram Parsons, few would say yes. They would all know the Eagles, and it can be argued that the Eagles would not have existed without him. By those in the know, Gram Parsons is seen as the founder of country-rock and even alt.country, but is that true? Part of the legend is because he lived very fast and died very young – but what of the music. Just how great was Gram Parsons? I’m going to do my best to answer it.
In his otherwise excellent biography, Gram Parsons: God’s Own Singer (Helter Skelter, 2002), Jason Walker wrote, “I have not sought to investigate some of the frankly outlandish stories that proliferated at the time of his death.” What a ridiculous statement: surely that is what he should be investigating, and anyone who buys a biography expects to be told what the stories are and whether they are true.
It could be that Walker is just being lazy, but I can understand his reluctance. Gram Parsons’ wayward lifestyle led to his death and then, because of a drunken pact with his road manager, Phil Kaufman, his body was stolen and cremated in the desert. Rock fans who couldn’t name one of his songs know of his death, but the true fans, like Walker, prefer to say, “Listen to the music”. Okay, I will, but I would maintain that his excesses enhance and enrich his music. It is the same scenario as Hank Williams, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis: you would never want them living next door but their work is the product of their unruly personalities. Gram Parsons died when he was 26 and although he had been full of promise, he blew every opportunity he had. He rarely lasted more than a few months in a group, a combination of his restlessness and his profligate lifestyle. Writing this feature, I realise that he annoys me intensely as I can’t believe how anyone so privileged and so talented could mess it all up.
If you set aside an afternoon, you could hear all of Gram Parsons’ recorded work as it is pitifully small: effectively, some early recordings, an album with the International Submarine Band, another with the Byrds, two with the Flying Burrito Brothers and two solo ones for Reprise: GP and the posthumous Grievous Angel. His songwriting legacy is around 50 songs, most of them co-written.
An overview of Gram’s career was issued on Sacred Hearts And Fallen Angels, a 2-CD Gram Parsons anthology, issued on Rhino in 2001. Rhino has now released Gram Parsons – The Complete Reprise Sessions, a 3-CD package which includes those solo albums, outtakes and an interview. A single CD compilation is Warm Evenings, Pale Mornings, Bottled Blues (Raven, 1992).
A feature-length TV documentary, Fallen Angel, first shown on BBC Four, has been issued on DVD, in an expanded version. There hasn’t been a bio-pic as such – we’ll come to the dodgy Grand Theft Parsons later – but he is a country James Dean and somebody must be planning something somewhere.
To date, there have been four biographies: Gram Parsons – A Musical Biography by Sid Griffin (Sierra, 1985), Hickory Wind: The Life And Times Of Gram Parsons by Ben Fong-Torres (St Martin’s Griffin Books, 25th anniversary edition, 1998), Grievous Angel: An Intimate Biography Of Gram Parsons by Jessica Hundley and Polly Parsons (Gram’s daughter) (Thunder’s Mouth, 2005) and the aforementioned Jason Walker. Phil Kaufman told the story of Gram’s last days to Colin White, in Road Manager Deluxe, which was published in its third edition by White-Boucke in 2005.
Gram is strongly featured in two comprehensive studies, Are You Ready For The Country? – Elvis, Dylan, Parsons And The Roots Of Country Rock by Peter Doggett (Viking, 2000) and Desperados – The Roots Of Country Rock by John Einarson (Cooper Square Press, 2001), as well as many other music books. Note Peter Doggett’s title as he is placing Gram Parsons alongside Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. I have drawn on most of these books whilst writing this piece but the quotes, including the ones with the authors, come from my own interviews.
In Peter Doggett’s eyes, Gram Parsons was a chameleon: “Everybody thinks he was a down the line country singer but he changed his style depending on whom he was with. When he was with the Stones, he started acting like Mick Jagger. He was an impossible guy to be around – lots of drugs, lots of drink – and it was inevitable that he would die early.”
His contribution is succinctly expressed by the American writer and musician, Sid Griffin: “He brought to a young audience to country music. I had country music in my back yard as there was a barn that had country and western dances but I hated it. It’s absurd to realise that I had this incredible heritage and ignored it but in the 60s, I wanted to be in the Beatles and live in Liverpool or London. Many young southerners like myself were only introduced to the music by a young hip longhair called Gram Parsons, but that’s a hell of a good contribution to have made.”
Some say that Gram started country-rock, but I tend to think that was Elvis. I put this point of view to Emmylou Harris. “Well, I suppose he did, but then you could argue that Bill Monroe started rock’n’roll. None of us exist in a vacuum and we’re all influenced by other people. I do think that there are visionaries: Bill Monroe was one, Elvis was one and Gram Parsons was one too. He took the poetry and beauty of country music and that wonderful harmony style of the Louvin Brothers and fused it with the poetry of his own generation, plus, most importantly, a rock’n’roll attitude. He had one foot in rock’n’roll and one foot in country. That’s not to say that Elvis didn’t do that, but he was the King, and Gram was much more in tune with his own generation.”
“All the riches and pleasures, What else could life bring?”
Although a wealth of material has been published about Gram Parsons, his history is unclear. This is partly his own doing. Gram told reporters that he was the son of a hobo country musician, who died in jail. Like Bob Dylan rewriting his past, it sounded good. In a sense, he had no choice: we prefer working-class heroes and it wouldn’t have looked good if he had acknowledged a privileged and wealthy upbringing.
Parsons’ grandfather, John Snively, owned land in Florida and made a fortune through orange juice, cattle and the entertainment complex, Cypress Gardens. His net worth was $30m and his daughter, Avis, married Major Ingram Connor, a fighter pilot from World War II. Gram was born Ingram Cecil Connor III in Winter Haven, Florida on 5 November 1946, but he spent his early years in Waycross, Georgia. His father ran a packing plant for Snively in Waycross, but he suffered from depression from his wartime experiences and drank heavily. His main interest was in hunting dogs and he was often called ‘Coon Dog’.
Gram was impressed when he heard Elvis Presley with Little Jimmy Dickens at Waycross City Auditorium in February 1956. According to Parsons, Elvis shook his hand, gave him an autograph and wished him luck. Gram loved the Louvin Brothers and he wrote his first song, Gram Boogie, when he was 11. He had some talent as a budding magician and would perform shows for his neighbours. However, it was a troubled family and Coon Dog’s self-esteem reached rock bottom when he found out about his wife’s affairs. He committed suicide just after seeing his family on a train to Winter Haven on 22 December 1958.
At the time, Gram was studying at a military academy and he became disturbed, soon being expelled for bad behaviour. His mother married a businessman from New Orleans, Bob Parsons, who specialised in earthmoving equipment. The Snivelys didn’t like him, regarding him as a gold-digger, but he adopted Gram and his sister, Avis, and Gram enjoyed his company. The family returned to Winter Haven and Gram had a Fender Stratocaster and learnt Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly songs. He played in the Legends with Jim Stafford (later to hit with Spiders And Snakes) and Kent LaVoie (later to become Lobo and score with Me And You And A Dog Named Boo). One day Gram dyed his hair blonde but when it came out orange, his mother made him leave it as a punishment.
Gram befriended a successful equestrian, Buddy Freeman, at a Cypress Gardens horse show. He arranged a few bookings for Gram and as a result he teamed up with a folk group, the Shilos, consisting of Paul Surratt, Joe Kelly and George Wrigley, Buddy became their manager and did well, sometimes hiring them out for $350 a night, which is good for an unknown group. A Miami newspaper said, “Parsons is the only one of the quartet, who has finished high school. The group, however, sings with a professional poise rivaling better-known groups who are riding the folk-song fad.” So Kingston Trio, watch out!
The Shilos played amusement parks and hootenannies and were included on a variety show for the state visit of King Hussein of Jordan. Bob and Avis bought the 17-year-old Gram a coffee-house, the Derry Down in Winter Haven, so that the group would have a regular performing venue. The Shilos’ introductory tape for radio stations was issued in 1979 as Gram Parsons: The Early Years 1963-1965, Volume 1 (Sierra 200750). There wasn’t a Volume 2 but the album was reissued with bonus tracks in 1985.
It’s a spirited recording very much in the style of the Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four or the Highwaymen. The songs include Bells Of Rhymney and Mary Don’t You Weep, but they also perform Gram’s torch ballad Zah’s Blues, which he wrote about a girl singer he heard in Greenwich Village. As well as the radio tapes, there is a demo of Gram’s song, Surfinanny, which is Gonna Raise A Ruckus Tonight with new words. He’s still working on the song and stumbling over the words.
On 27 March 1965, Parsons wrote to Paul Surratt about his ambitions and saying that they must perform original material: “I think we should work on my material. I know it will sell. Music, believe it or not, is turning towards a more intellectual vein. I’m sure that my music is going to be as big as Dylan’s.” He told a friend that not to write ‘haven’t’ in a song but ‘ain’t’ to make it more authentic: he was learning fast.
The Parsons household was becoming more and more like a Tennessee Williams melodrama. His mother, Avis, was drinking heavily and in June 1965, she died at the age of 38, actually on the day that Gram graduated. Gram paid her an affectionate tribute in his song, Brass Buttons, the first known recording being in December 1965. Avis and his stepfather Bob had had a child of their own, and to add to Gram’s problems, Bob was to marry the babysitter.
After his initial setback, Gram had done well at school and secured a place at Harvard University. He told the Shilos that the group was over. He said, “I’m heading north and I’m never coming back south again. Good luck to all the rest of you.”
Unsafe At Home
In September 1965, Gram Parsons went to Harvard to study theology, but it’s doubtful if he did anything except enroll. He wrote to his sister about his parents: “We have the advantage of seeing definite examples of what can happen when people permit life to tangle them so badly that there is no escape.” Sound advice, but it was not something he heeded.
Although Gram may have intended to study, he was sidetracked into making music and taking LSD. Following the death of his mother, he was entitled to a trust fund of $30,000 a year. In December 1965, he was sent down from Harvard for not doing any work, but he had enough money to set up himself and his group, The Like, in a house in the Bronx where they lived and rehearsed.
Among Gram’s friends was the former child actor, Brandon de Wilde, who had been in Shane (1953), Goodbye My Lady (1956) and Hud (1963) and who nurtured dreams of being a rock star, perhaps with The Like. The band was rehearsing both country and R&B songs. There is nothing particularly new in this – after all, both Elvis and the Beatles did it, not to mention Ray Charles with his groundbreaking albums.
During 1965 and 1966 Gram recorded some demo tapes and they have been released on Another Side Of This Life (Sundazed, 2000). The CD has to be reprogrammed to hear them chronologically but there are five from March 1965, six from Boxing Day 1965, five from April 1966 and two of Gram’s own songs from December 1966. The tapes were never intended for public performance and so it is unfair to criticise them, but they include some of the limpest covers you will ever hear, particularly of the Coasters’ Searchin’. Naturally, it is intriguing to have 50 minutes of Gram’s voice and guitar, but the CD is only of historical interest and I can’t imagine anyone putting it on for pleasure.
During 1966 and inspired by the name of a comic orchestra in an episode of The Little Rascals, The Like changed its name to the International Submarine Band, which was both psychedelic name and a nod to the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. In November, Parsons went to Los Angeles where de Wilde was making a film. De Wilde introduced him to David Crosby and he told Crosby’s girlfriend, Nancy Ross, “I’ve been looking for you a long time”, a chat up line which was surprisingly successful and didn’t wreck his friendship with Crosby. Gram moved the band to Laurel Canyon and they played at the Whisky A Go Go. Brandon de Wilde recommended them to Peter Fonda, who recorded Gram’s song November Nights and placed them in his psychedelic film, The Trip. Their song, Lazy Days, was not deemed hip enough and they are seen playing while another group, the Electric Flag, is on the soundtrack. Either the film was made on drugs or Fonda and his team were hooked on kaleidoscopes.
The line-up of the International Submarine Band had been Parsons, John Nuese (guitar), Ian Dunlop (bass) and Mickey Gauvin (drums). They released two singles, One Day Week (Columbia), which is rather like the Dave Clark Five, and a rock version of Johnny Mandel’s theme for the satirical film, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (Ascot), but in July 1967, Dunlop and Gauvin left. Those two teamed with Barry Tashian and Barry Briggs to form the first Flying Burrito Brothers.
The merger of country and rock was gathering momentum in Los Angeles, and in particular, Rick Nelson had cut an album, Bright Lights And Country Music, in early 1966. Gram Parsons persuaded Duane Eddy’s former producer, Lee Hazlewood, to give his band a chance, and Hazlewood’s girlfriend, Suzi Jane Hokum, produced their album, Safe At Home. Just Parsons and Nuese remained from the original band and the line-up is supplemented by Chris Ethridge (bass), Jay Dee Maness (pedal steel), Earl Ball (piano) and Jon Corneal (drums).
The album includes Gram’s composition about a cruise ship, Luxury Liner, an odd subject for a country song but one with a long life. His picture of a happy marriage, Blue Eyes, could have been taken up by any number of country stars and Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome is a typical, but less distinctive country song. They perform fine versions of Bobby Bare’s Miller’s Cave, and Merle Haggard’s I Must Be Somebody Else You’ve Known. The album is completed by covers of A Satisfied Mind, That’s All Right (Mama), Folsom Prison Blues and I Still Miss Someone, but there is an outtake on the first Rhino set of a pedestrian version of Knee Deep In The Blues.
Duane Eddy, Glen Campbell and Don Everly sang the band’s praises on the back sleeve. Everly raves about the album’s “white soul”. I wouldn’t make any great claims for the album, but the Byrds’ biographer, Johnny Rogan, disagrees. “I think Safe At Home by the International Submarine band was an important milestone in the history of country music because it was the classic combination of country and rock which Gram went on to do with the Byrds and the Burritos. It wasn’t well known at the time and yes, I am sure you could find other groups who were doing similar things, but that doesn’t take anything away from it.”
By now Gram had married Nancy Ross and she had become pregnant. Gram didn’t relish the responsibility of being a father and unlike his character in Blue Eyes, he wanted Nancy to have an abortion. She refused and Parsons’ only child, Polly, was born in late 1967. Shortly afterwards, they split up and Nancy moved to Santa Barbara. Gram had revealed himself to be not safe at home and the poor sales of the album led to the submarine sinking.
The hit-making Los Angeles band, the Byrds had reached a crisis. They had had international success with Mr Tambourine Man, All I Really Want To Do, Turn! Turn! Turn! and Eight Miles High. They had instigated folk-rock and had delved into country music with A Satisfied Mind and their hit single, Mr Spaceman, a novelty record which could be described as psychedelic bluegrass.
But as soon as one member joined, another one left. When David Crosby left in October 1967, there was just Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke (who was about to be sacked) and they had dates to fulfil. The Byrds were dropping out of the sky, so Chris Hillman went to see Gram Parsons. Roger McGuinn recalls, “Chris Hillman found Gram and brought him over and I thought he was good and we hired him and he evolved into a monstrously good player and songwriter and singer.”
Although McGuinn had no clear idea of what the Byrds were going to do next, he expected them to continue in the psychedelic vein of Eight Miles High. When he heard Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons harmonising on country numbers, he envisaged a double-album capturing a century of American music and ending with psychedelia. In the end, he decided on just going country. Hillman was delighted – he was an experienced bluegrass musician who had been sneaking country songs onto Byrds’ albums when he could. Now he had an ally in Parsons.
Michael Clarke comments, “Chris and I had always loved country music and so there had always been a country twang in the Byrds, but Roger is no James Burton, if you know what I mean.” And no friend of Michael Clarke’s, it would seem. Michael Clarke was replaced with Hillman’s cousin, Kevin Kelley, who had been in the Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder.
In March 1968, the long-haired Byrds went to Nashville to make the new album and on their first day, they recorded a countrified version of Bob Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere. A few days later, they were guests on Tompall and the Glaser Brothers’ section of the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry promoted old-style country and the audience was not impressed with hippie musicians. As soon as their name was mentioned, they went “tweet, tweet”.
Tompall Glaser announced that they would sing Merle Haggard’s Life In Prison, but Grams’ grandmother was in the audience and he decided in the final seconds to switch it to his nostalgic Hickory Wind. A new song by a hippie band: the audience was bored, but they won them round with Merle Haggard’s Sing Me Back Home featuring Lloyd Green on steel guitar. The presenter of the Grand Ole Opry, Ralph Emery, told the Byrds that he didn’t like hippies, which prompted Roger and Gram to write Drug Store, Truck Drivin’ Man, a song that Joan Baez sang at Woodstock. On the other hand, Emery’s former wife Skeeter Davis kissed them and said they’d done well.
The Byrds continued making the album, which became Sweetheart Of the Rodeo. Although there is some country-soul with William Bell’s You Don’t Miss The Water, it is largely country and folk numbers in a contemporary setting. McGuinn is in his element with Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd. They do a wonderful take on the Louvin Brothers’ The Christian Life without, it would seem, any irony, and Hillman sings the bluegrass hymn, I Am A Pilgrim. The new songs included Gram’s nostalgic view of a lost childhood, Hickory Wind, which was dedicated to his grandmother.
It was intended that several tracks would feature Gram Parsons’ lead vocals. When Parsons foolishly told Hazlewood what he was doing, Hazlewood pointed out that Parsons was under contract. The negotiations between Columbia and Hazlewood ended bizarrely: Gram’s lead vocals were removed on some tracks, although they remained on Hickory Wind and the country standard, You’re Still On My Mind. Roger McGuinn recorded new lead vocals for such songs as Parsons’ One Hundred Years From Now, and the album was released.
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was very well reviewed but a poor seller. The country fans weren’t interested and the rock fans were suspicious of country and what’s more, McGuinn’s distinctive 12-string sound had been abandoned. Peter Doggett recalls, “Up to that point, it was the Byrds’ worst selling album. First of all, it was an out and out country album and people weren’t expecting that from the Byrds and several songs were sung by Gram Parsons. Nobody had ever heard of him, and what was he doing on a Byrds’ album? It was a real shock for their fans. It wasn’t a big seller but it was one of those records that has become really influential for other musicians.” The Byrds’ biographer, Johnny Rogan, agrees, “When the Byrds went to Nashville, Nashville did not want to know them, but they did influence a whole generation of new country singers.”