Gram Parsons' Light Still Shines Decades After His Death

Musician largely responsible for bringing country influences to rock is up for Hall of Fame consideration.

Twenty-seven years ago, Gram Parsons' brief career — which included stints with the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers and solo work with a young duet partner named Emmylou Harris — flamed out with his death in the desert near Joshua Tree, Calif.

Though he wasn't a radio idol or a million-selling superstar, Parsons, as a songwriter, performer and musical adventurer, left a legacy that set a course for country, rock and folk performers, including Harris, Chris Hillman, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Son Volt and countless others.

Last week, Parsons' name was among the 31 that made the short list for consideration for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next year.

Gillian Welch, who recorded Parsons' signature song, "Hickory Wind," for the 1999 tribute album Return of the Grievous Angel (Almo Sounds, 1999), said at that time he "opened the soul of country music for generations to discover. He's the Opry's back door."

Growing up amid tangled Southern gothic family situations in Florida and South Georgia, Parsons (born Ingram Cecil Connor III) heard Chuck Berry, saw Elvis Presley play a concert and took up the electric guitar.

The folk revival and resultant singer/songwriter explosion were on the horizon, though. In 1965, after a short stint at Harvard University as a theology major, he landed in New York, where he ran across the Ray Charles album Country & Western Meets Rhythm & Blues, encountered recordings of the Bakersfield, Calif., sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and began creating the country-rock fusion songs that would become his legacy — songs such as "Brass Buttons" and "Luxury Liner."

Middle Of The Road

Looking for a middle ground between rock music's psychedelic explorations and country's polished-up hick style, Parsons was ahead of his time — so he moved to California, where he eventually joined the Byrds. Their 1968 album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, baffled both folk and country audiences at the time, but over the decades it picked up a reputation as a near-classic door opener to the world of country/folk/rock fusion, a cross-pollination of genres that would influence the careers of artists such as the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco — and Harris.

Harris and Parsons first met when she was playing a club near her Washington, D.C.-area home. "I didn't really know who Gram Parsons was," Harris recalled. "I was a folkie — I had been kind of out of it as far as what was happening in music — the isolated single mother. Gram and I sat on some beer kegs down in the basement and worked up a couple of songs, and we played them for the three people who were there in the audience.

"Gram said, 'Well, this sounds good, I'm putting this record together and I'll be in touch.' I didn't think anything would come of it." Something did, though. A year later Parsons asked Harris to come to Los Angeles to sing on a solo album he was recording, GP.

"His phrasing was so ... different. When I had to follow him, I called it 'hieroglyphics' because I was making these notes to myself about what to do. ... But what we did live was always better," said Harris, who would go on to tour with Parsons' Fallen Angel Band as a backup singer and duet partner in the early 1970s.

"In the studio, there were two mics but they were right next to each other, so we could watch each other. We sang as the tracks were going down and we kept a lot of those."

Fallen Angel Rising

Harris brought a brief dose of sanity, some of Parsons' friends thought, to a life that was careering out of control. But even though he was caught up in a glittery rock world of drugs and alcohol, Parsons still managed to weave ballads that incorporated folk's storytelling power with rock's rhythmic deftness and country's soulful emotion.

Many remain classics today, including "In My Hour of Darkness" (RealAudio excerpt), "Ooh Las Vegas" (RealAudio excerpt), "Sin City" and the quintessential drifter's ballad, "Return of the Grievous Angel."

Almost since the day he died in a California hotel room at the age of 26, there has been dispute about whether Parsons took his own life or whether his weaknesses for drugs and alcohol converged at a vulnerable time.

What's not in dispute is his legacy in music.

Said Harris: "A lot of people don't know Gram; they haven't heard him on the radio or really bought his records. I think that once people do hear Gram, it could possibly turn a light on inside them the way his music did for me. He was a poet for his own time."