More than almost any other musician, the country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons’s legacy is entwined with the story of his tragic death, 50 years ago this month.
The details are sad, macabre and sordid enough to have inspired a movie titled “Grand Theft Parsons.” Let’s dispense with them here and be done with it: Parsons, a 26-year-old former member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers who dreamed of creating a utopian genre that he called “cosmic American music,” was preparing for the release of his second solo album when he made a trip to his adopted sanctuary of Joshua Tree National Park.
On his second day there, Parsons — a prodigious drinker and drug user who once attempted to kick heroin cold turkey while locked in a room with an also-detoxing Keith Richards — overdosed on morphine and could not be revived. His stepfather immediately arranged to have Parsons’s body flown to Louisiana, perhaps so he would stand a better chance of inheriting a chunk of Gram’s family fortune.
But Parsons’s friend Phil Kaufman intervened, remembering a drunken pact they’d made at a friend’s recent funeral: Whichever one of us goes first, we’ll cremate the other’s body in Joshua Tree Park. Kaufman knew a guy with a hearse. Of course. The pair sweet-talked their way into stealing the coffin at the airport. Then, out in the desert where the yuccas stretch their branches to the cosmos, they doused their friend’s coffin in gasoline and set it ablaze. They were charged with grand theft larceny — for the coffin.In the half-century since, this tale has been told and retold, embellished and subsequently fact-checked. The true-crime music podcast “Disgraceland” dedicated an episode to it. Countless Parsons pilgrims — cynics call them “Grampires” — have made their own voyages to the Joshua Tree Inn and requested to stay in Room 8, where their tarnished hero took his last breaths. On a 2021 episode of the Travel Channel show “Ghost Adventures,” the host and a social media celebrity stayed at the inn and attempted to communicate with Parsons’s spirit using a device called a “polterpod.”
Why has this cultural fixation on Parsons’s death endured for 50 years — now almost double his time alive? Some of it has to do with the posthumous nature of his fame and influence. As his buddy Richards wrote in his autobiography, “Life,” Parsons “changed the face of country music and he wasn’t around long enough to find out.” Parsons’s first biographer, Ben Fong-Torres, put it another way in his 1991 book “Hickory Wind”: “Life, for him, was a series of incomplete sentences.” For the last half-century, then, it’s been up to the survivors to finish them.
IN 1946, PARSONS — then Ingram Connor — was born into orange-juice royalty. His mother’s side of the family, the Snivelys of Winter Haven, Fla., had a booming fruit-packing plant and, at one point, owned one-third of the state’s citrus crop. Parsons was raised with his name engraved on the brass door knocker to his bedroom. Elvis changed his life. So did his father’s suicide, two days before Christmas the year Gram was 12.
After he was adopted by his mother’s next husband, Bob Parsons, the musician’s teen years were spent gusting in and out of schools — a North Florida prep academy; a semester at Harvard — and, even more disruptively, bands. Parsons was a social leap-frogger, unashamedly quick to move on, blissfully ignorant of the messes left in his wake.
He quit one group he fronted, the psychedelic- and country-influenced International Submarine Band, right before its only record was released. The Byrds had just fired David Crosby, and Parsons somehow convinced them that he would be a drama-free replacement, content to just hang in the background. Little did they know he was about to hijack the band, steer it in an unexpectedly traditional country direction and help create a 1968 record that still has a rabid cult audience to this day, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” Roger McGuinn put it memorably, and saltily: “He turned out to be a monster in sheep’s clothing. And he exploded out of that sheep’s clothing. God! It’s George Jones in a sequin suit!”
Parsons, ever in a hurry, was soon gone, but not before he released his first classic song: “Hickory Wind,” co-written with the Submarine Band’s Bob Buchanan. No matter who’s singing it — Parsons’s late-career duet partner Emmylou Harris; Gillian Welch; some random guy on YouTube — it’s a stunner, but there’s a particularly devastating power to Parsons’s delivery. He sounds like a precocious child doing an impression of an adult, exaggerating the depths of his twangy baritone. There’s an unshakable pathos to the performance, too, a pure but impossible yearning to return to a gone-too-soon Eden of childhood. “I started out younger, at most everything,” Parsons sings at the beginning of the second verse, the “most” delivering the bulk of the devastation — a concession that there are still a few unspoken ways in which we start out old.
In a time of cultural division, Parsons had a lofty and idealistic aim for his union of country and rock. He wanted, as Fong-Torres wrote, to “champion the idea of hippies playing country music for a rock ’n’ roll audience.” When the Byrds were invited to play the Grand Ole Opry in March 1968, Parsons pulled a stunt that briefly united country fans and hippies, because it made everyone mad at him: Instead of playing a rehearsed cover, he led the band into playing the as-yet-unreleased “Hickory Wind.”
“Looking back, I now view that night as a missed warning,” Chris Hillman of the Byrds wrote in his recent autobiography. “I should have known that night what I was in for, working with an impulsive guy like Parsons.” And yet, even Hillman couldn’t resist Parsons’s pull. They started a new band together, the Flying Burrito Brothers, within the year.
Hillman, for a moment, was a stabilizing collaborator: While sharing a house in Reseda, they wrote the original material that would appear on the group’s brilliant debut album, “The Gilded Palace of Sin,” somewhat shoddily recorded but featuring some of Parsons’s most impassioned singing.
Parsons’s best album, though, is also the one I find most difficult to listen to: his second solo effort, “Grievous Angel,” released posthumously in 1974, full of darkness but also Harris’s luminous backing vocals. Sometimes “Grievous Angel” just makes me angry, because his early death means we’ll never know if he could have written a hundred more songs as raggedly beautiful as “$1000 Wedding,” where he sounds flayed and old before his time, like a man in touch with oblivion.
“WHAT IF” IS a fool’s question, but to be a Gram Parsons fan is to be constantly made a fool, because it’s so tempting to ask. If he’d lived, would “Grievous Angel” have made him a star? Would he have created a long, rich discography or would he have quickly become a pale imitation of himself? Would he still be around, or would he have found another opportunity to die young?
To ask “what if,” though, is also a way to register dissatisfaction with, or wage a silent protest against, what is. Parsons was never shy in talking about music he disliked, and the watered-down, commercially palatable version of “country rock” (a term he hated) that was becoming popular in the 1970s made his skin crawl. (He had an unprintable, and hilarious, way of describing the Eagles’ music.) There’s an element of the poor little rich boy in Parsons’s story, of course. But it’s also true that plenty of his Boomer rock contemporaries made Snivley-level fortunes with decreasingly inspired takes on his own sound.
On the flip side, as the former Eagle and Burrito Brother Bernie Leadon once put it, “How can you compete with a dead guy? You just can’t.” Parsons’s hypothetical later albums are everything we want them to be, because they exist solely in the imagination. Perhaps his death has become such a cultural obsession because it purified him, making an imperfect artist — an imperfect man — pristine.
But there’s still plenty of mystery and magic in what he left behind. Parsons was initially supposed to sing lead on more “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” songs, but his vocals were replaced with McGuinn’s. Emmylou Harris once suggested they may have just been turned way down in the mix. “If you listen real close in the headset,” Harris said, “you can hear him, because his phrasing is so different from Roger McGuinn’s.” It was like, she said, “hearing a ghost.”
This is the kind of Gram Parsons ghost-hunting I can get behind: close listening. Straining for glimpses of him in the margins of Byrds songs or even in the backing vocals of the Stones’ “Exile on Main St.,” where some swear you can hear him. Surveying the last half-century of cosmic American music and seeing where the wind blew all those hickory seeds.