To his champions, Gram Parsons was a cult-hero musical genius and the primary inventor of “country rock.” But he was also a tragic figure who died prematurely, and whose work has never been properly appreciated.
To his critics, Parsons was a spoiled rich-kid wastrel who rode his good looks, marginal talent and insider connections to a promising career. But he ultimately pissed it all away through selfishness, out-of-control hard-drug abuse and reckless sexual liaisons.
Both groups will find plenty to admire as well as debate in Twenty Thousand Roads, a huge credit to author David N. Meyer, who has written an engrossing and detailed look at Parsons’s life and music. It’s the definitive account of a man whose work may have only appeared on six records during his lifetime, but whose influence has outshone his own contributions.
The book begins with a page-turning, can’t-make-this-stuff-up account of Parsons’s upbringing and Southern Gothic / Tennessee Williams-style family history. Born into a very wealthy (and elegantly wasted) Florida citrus power family, Parsons lost his father to suicide and his mother to alcoholism – the latter dying on the day of his high school graduation.
And while a generous trust fund ensured Parsons would never have to work, it was also a gift that allowed a general laziness in regards to his career and easy access to the very substances that would kill him. The “family background” section of most music bios is usually tossed-off or strictly skimming material, but here Meyer skillfully turns it into a riveting story of its own.
The book wonderfully charts Parsons’s developing musical sense and efforts to meld rock and country through his stints with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and finally two solo records. Though only a Byrd for six tumultuous months, he and bassist Chris Hillman are credited with pushing the band towards making 1968’s critics’ favorite Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Later, the Burritos’s Gilded Palace of Sin would turn even more stone country in the band’s Nudie-suited glory. But incredibly sloppy stage shows and Parsons’s drug-fueled listlessness would sabotage them as well.
The “cosmic American music” of the title was Parsons’s own term for his blending of gospel, soul, funk, country, rock, bluegrass and honky-tonk that drew from all those sources but claimed no one in particular. And while much more commonplace today, especially with the advent of “alt-country,” at the time it was deemed too redneck for the rockers and too rocky for the rednecks. Meyer uncharitably chastises the Eagles for having such massive success with a variation of the formula, but their mellower, hook-laden songs and professional conduct took them to a career plateau the shambling Burritos would have never reached anyway.
Meyer also dissects Parsons’s symbiotic friendship with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and the two men’s almost strange way of morphing into the other in looks and mannerisms. Though largely based on their mutual high drug intake and fascination with country music, it ended abruptly during the infamous French recording sessions for Exile on Main Street. That’s when Gram was swept out with a bunch of other hangers-on, crushing his fantasy of actually playing with or becoming a Stone. And as Meyer points out, when Keith Richards is concerned that you’re doing too many drugs, that alone says something.
One portion of the book has an interesting Houston connection, detailing Parsons and the Fallen Angels’s four-night 1973 stand at now-defunct Liberty Hall downtown. The group was extremely well-received (especially by a young Steve Earle), but one local music writer couldn’t help but notice the condition of the star. “Gram was blasted out of his gourd, and it was pretty sad. He was putting everything in his system you could get, without regard to anything.” The writer, who also took a backstage picture that appears on the page, was John Lomax III, father of the current Houston Press music editor.
The Houston show was further marked by the onstage appearance of Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt, who after the show took the band back to Neil’s room “at one of the ritziest hotels in Houston” where, according to Gram’s guitarist, they sang country songs until 4 or 5 a.m.
One of the cornerstones of Parsons’s legend is, of course, his death instigated by a motel room overdose of morphine and a most rock and roll of “burials.” In an event which even those who don’t know his music know about (as somewhat fancifully depicted in the 2003 movie Grand Theft Parsons), two drunk friends amazingly managed to hijack the Gram’s coffin with his corpse inside, drive it out to his favorite area of the desert near Joshua Tree, California, and set both box and body on fire. This supposedly fulfilled a mutual promise one of them had made with Gram – who, incidentally, died at 26, not even making it to the exalted “27 club” of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Kurt Cobain.
Meyer manages to get the first extensive interview with one of two female friends who were actually with Parsons in the room when he overdosed. And while their versions and those of the coffin-stealing friends vary slightly, it’s probably the most accurate account of the bizarre story we’re likely to ever get.
Meyer posits the theory that Parsons might have survived had the women sought medical help immediately instead of more than an hour later, but a junkie’s code of taking care of things themselves with home remedies – including shoving ice cubes up the ass – and “hoping for the best” negated that route. But that might well have simply put another temporary roadblock to an inevitable crash.
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Meyer also tries to put to rest the question of whether or not Parsons and duet partner Emmylou Harris were actual lovers, or just had possessed an incredibly intense and intertwined chemistry. Harris has never said publicly either way, but evidence points toward the latter, busting another cherished rock and roll myth.
“Gram spent his life proving his selfishness, unreliability and lack of impulse control,” Meyer sums up, but adds that he had “the most moving white voice I know.” And indeed it’s that heartbreaking, quavering tone – not his songwriting, guitar playing or fashion sense – that is ultimately his greatest legacy.
The Cult of Gram continues to this day. A recent double CD release of a 1969 Burritos show was not-so-subtly titled GRAM PARSONS with the Flying Burrito Brothers and features a picture of only the shaggy icon on its cover. But regardless of whether readers think Gram Parsons gets too much or too little credit for his musical direction and catalogue, Twenty Thousand Roads is an amazing, rich biography of a man who knew you didn’t have to pick between Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and Merle Haggard. You could love them all. – Bob Ruggiero
Twenty Thousands Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music, by David N. Meyer, 592 pp., Random House, $27.95