Gram Parsons Biography

Ingram Cecil Connor III, 5 November 1946, Winter Haven, Florida, USA, d. 19 September 1973, Joshua Tree, California, USA. Parsons’ brief but influential career ended in his untimely death in 1973. His solo recordings and his work with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, have led many objective critics to hail Parsons as popular music’s first country rock star.

Parsons’ music 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 Roland Kent Lavoie, later known as Lobo. By 1963 Parsons 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 Parsons left the line-up in 1965 upon enrolling at Harvard College. 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 (or ‘Cosmic American Music’ as he dubbed it) found little favour amid the prevalent psychedelic trend. The band 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 Parsons 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’.

By the time of Safe At Home’s release (April 1968), the International Submarine Band had not only folded, but Parsons had accepted an offer to join the Byrds. His induction resulted in Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, on which the newcomer determined the band’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 ballad ‘Hickory Wind’. Within months Parsons 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 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. Parsons’ growing drug dependency exacerbated this estrangement and he was fired from the band 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 GP 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 (which was released posthumously) was a triumph, in which plaintive duets (‘Love Hurts’, ‘Hearts On Fire’) underscored the quality of the Parsons/Harris partnership, while ‘Brass Buttons’, ‘In My Hour Of Darkness’ and the reworked ‘Hickory Wind’ revealed a gift for touching lyricism.

Parsons’ death in September 1973 as a result of ‘drug toxicity’ emphasized the album’s 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 the singer’s wishes, added to the 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 and Uncle Tupelo to Ryan Adams, is a fitting testament to his talent. Emmylou Harris adopted his mantle with a series of superior country rock releases, while an excellent concept album, Ballad Of Sally Rose (1985), undoubtedly drew on her close working relationship with the singer. Parsons’ catalogue is painfully small compared with his enormous importance in contemporary country rock, and his work is destined to stand alongside that of his hero Hank Williams. A tribute album, Return Of The Grievous Angel, was issued in 1999. Gandulf Hennig and American musician/writer Sid Griffin completed a feature length documentary on the singer in 2004.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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