Gram Parsons



Updated January 2018

Born Ingram Cecil Connor III, 5th November 1946 – 19th September 1973. Credited as being the founder of modern ‘country-rock’, Gram Parsons was hugely influenced by The Everly Brothers and included a number of their songs in his live and recorded repertoire – most famously ‘Love Hurts’, a truly wonderful rendition with a young Emmylou Harris. He also recorded ‘Brand New Heartache’ and ‘Sleepless Nights’ – also the title of a posthumous album – and very early, in 1967, ‘When Will I Be Loved’. Many would attest that ‘country-rock’ kicked off with The Everly Brothers, and in the late sixties the album ROOTS was a key and acknowledged influence, but that is not to deny Parsons huge role in developing it.

Gram Parsons is best known for his work within the country genre but he also mixed blues, folk, and rock to create what he called “Cosmic American Music”. While he was alive, Gram Parsons was a cult figure that never sold many records but influenced countless fellow musicians, from the Rolling Stones to The Byrds.

Gram Parsons came from a wealthy Florida family who provided him with a trust fund. He was thus never a ‘struggling artist’, which sometimes caused difficulty with his musical associates. Nevertheless, he had a troubled childhood and family background – which included depression, divorce, alcoholism and suicide, which created a life-long sense of insecurity that he channelled into his creative output and ultimately lead to his own untimely death.

He was the grandson of John Snivley, who owned roughly one-third of all the citrus fields in Florida, and the son of ‘Coon Dog’ Connor, who owned a box-making factory in Waycross, Georgia. As a child, Gram Parsons learned how to play the piano. Aged 9 he saw Elvis Presley perform at his school and decided to become a musician. When he was 12, his father committed suicide, and the family moved in with his grandparents in Winter Haven, Florida. A year after the move, his mother married Robert Parsons; Gram was then adopted by his stepfather and legally changed his name to Gram Parsons.

As a young teenager, Gram Parsons began playing in the local rock & roll bands The Pacers, and The Legends. In 1963, he formed a folk group, The Shilos, who performed throughout Florida and cut several demos. Forays into New York City’s Greenwich Village included appearances at The Bitter End. On the day he graduated from high school his mother, an alcoholic, died of alcohol poisoning. Gram Parsons enrolled at Harvard to study theology but spent only one semester there. Meanwhile, he formed the International Submarine Band (ISB) with guitarist John Nuese, bassist Ian Dunlop and drummer Mickey Gauvin and they moved to New York City 1966. The group spent a year in New York, developing a heavily country-influenced rock & roll sound and cutting two unsuccessful singles for Columbia Records. The band moved to Los Angeles in 1967; their terrific debut album, Safe at Home, was released in early 1968 on Lee Hazlewood’s LHI record label, but by the time it appeared in stores, the ISB had already disbanded. There are suggestions that Don Everly was involved in the recording, even adding some vocals, but it has never been verified and his voice cannot readily be identified on any tracks.

Around the time the ISB dissolved, Gram Parsons met Chris Hillman, the bassist for the Byrds, who were rebuilding their line-up. Hillman recommended that Parsons join the ranks. Gram Parsons did and was largely responsible for the group’s shift towards country music with Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It was originally planned to feature Parsons’ lead vocals, but as he was still contractually obligated to LHI, his voice had to be stripped from the final version.

Gram Parsons spent only a few months with the Byrds, leaving in autumn 1968 because he refused to tour South Africa – allegedly due to his opposing apartheid. Chris Hillman left the band shortly after and the duo formed The Flying Burrito Brothers in late 1968. Pedal steel guitarist “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow and bassist Chris Ethridge completed the band’s line-up and they recorded 1969’s The Gilded Palace of Sin. Although it only sold a few thousand copies, the band gained a cult following – mainly composed of musicians, including the Rolling Stones. Gram Parsons became close friends with Keith Richards and reintroduced the guitarist to country music, including Everly Brothers tracks. Gram Parsons had experimented with drugs and alcohol before he met Richards, but in 1969 he dived deep into substance abuse, supported with his sizable trust fund. The Burritos were booked as the opening act for the Rolling Stones at the infamous Altamont Music Festival. During 1969 Gram Parsons provided overdubs for an Everly Brothers session (22nd April 1969) for ‘I’m On My Way Home Again’ – along with Clarence White on guitar and Gene Parsons on drums and banjo (double-tracking). It is not known whether Gram Parsons contributions were vocal or instrumental; in any case it is doubtful they ended up on the final cut. Don Everly reputedly taught Gram ‘Sleepless Nights’ in 1969.

The hastily produced Burrito Deluxe was released April 1970; by the time of its release Gram Parsons had already left the band. It is notable for its take on Jagger/Richards’ ‘Wild Horses’ – the first recording released of this famous song. Gram Parsons was inspired to cover it on hearing an advance tape of the Sticky Fingers album. Jagger agreed to the cover, as long as it was not issued as a single. Gram Parson’s influence on the Stones can be seen in their more country flavoured songs, such as ‘Country Honk’, ‘Dead Flowers’ and of course ‘Wild Horses’. Shortly after, Gram Parsons recorded a handful of songs with producer Terry Melcher (Doris Day’s son) but failed to complete the album; the tapes are long lost. He then spent much of his time either hanging out with the Rolling Stones or ingesting large amounts of drugs and alcohol; frequently, he did a combination of the two. In 1971, Gram Parsons toured with the Rolling Stones in England and attended the recording of the band’s Exile on Main Street. He returned to Los Angeles late 1971 to write material for an impending solo album. He met Emmylou Harris through Chris Hillman, and he asked her to join his backing band; she accepted.

By summer 1972 Gram Parsons had assembled a band that included Emmylou Harris, guitarist James Burton, bassist Rick Grech, Barry Tashian, Glen D. Hardin, and Ronnie Tutt – and asked Merle Haggard to produce. Haggard turned him down; Haggard’s engineer, Hugh Davis, became the producer. G.P. was released late 1972 to good reviews but poor sales.

Following the release of G.P., Gram Parsons toured with his backing band, The Fallen Angels. After the tour, they recorded his second – and great – album, Grievous Angel, completed by the end of the summer. Gram Parsons celebrated by taking a vacation near the Joshua Tree National Monument in California, where on 19th September 1973 he overdosed on morphine and tequila. Although rushed to the Yucca Valley Hospital, he was pronounced dead on arrival. His body was due to be flown back to New Orleans for a private family funeral but Gram Parsons’ road manager, Phil Kaufman, stole the body from Los Angeles Airport and carried it back the Joshua Tree desert, where he cremated it. Kaufman claimed it had been Gram Parsons’ wish.

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