Gram Parsons: Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology

Gram Parsons
Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: the Gram Parsons Anthology

Sometimes the most talented among us are taken early — leaving a legacy that grows in time. Certainly this case can be made for Cecil Ingram Connor III, the man we’ve come to know more familiarly as Gram Parsons. Perhaps more than any other, he forged roads that joined the once disconnected lands of country/western and rock into one merged, lonesome highway. In Parsons’ brief time, his music traveled back and forth between these worlds, enlightening each as to the merits of the other, ultimately creating a hybrid form called country rock.

In the decades since his untimely death, his influence has expanded exponentially. Without the pioneering work of Parsons, the music of Poco, Pure Prairie League, Marshall Tucker Band, or The Eagles wouldn’t have been possible. He was a big influence on the likes of The Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds and R.E.M. More recently his spirit lives on in the popular alt-country trend, with Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, The Mekons, The Jayhawks, Whiskeytown, Black Crowes and Old 97s all owing some of their heritage to this long- fallen angel.

The thing with Parsons is that, even with the legendary reputation, I daresay more have heard his name than have actually heard his music. Even fewer know the story of his abbreviated life (but if you read on, I’ll change that for you). Thankfully, his was a productive musical career within a variety of musical entities. There was the obscure single release from The International Submarine Band that some claim was the first real country-rock album (Safe at Home), his work with The Byrds (Sweetheart of the Rodeo, remastered in 1997), his work with The Flying Burrito Brothers (two albums and some live performances more recently compiled into Hot Burritos!: The Flying Burrito Brothers Anthology) and the standard classic two-fer-one pairing of his solo work, G.P./Grievous Angel. More recent years have seen the release of an album of live performances from 1973, and some very early works as well.

All told, it hasn’t been easy for the average enthusiast to get a decent overview of Parsons’ music in one place. To get the career overview, you’d have to make several purchases — until now, that is. Thanks to the hard work of Rhino A&R man James Austin (who managed the miracle of peaceful cooperation between different record labels), the definitive musical history of Parsons now exists in one place. Though some might dither about a few song choices or tracks left off, most will agree that these 46 songs on two CDs manage to hit all the major notes of Parsons’ entire musical life.

Before the music, however, comes the story of the man. Parsons had a childhood of privilege and problems. Gram (as stated earlier) is short for Ingram. The baby born on November 5, 1946 in Winter Haven was the grandson of John Snively, agricultural magnate who owned about 1/3 of all the citrus fields in Florida (Snively Groves was the single largest shipper of fresh fruit in the state), as well as an interest in the popular tourist attraction Cypress Gardens (built partially on Snively-owned land). In 1944, Sniveley’s daughter Avis had married Cecil “Coon Dog” Connor, Jr., son of a wealthy salesman from Columbia, Tennessee, and former WWII fighter pilot. Connor had flown over 50 missions, including several over Australia and Papua, New Guinea but at this time he’d returned to Waycross, Georgia, where he ran a box factory owned by his new in-laws.

The Connors raised young Cecil Ingram in Cherokee Heights, the nicest part of town, in a relative mansion with maids, servants and all a child could want. Still, it was a fairly normal home life. Gram was close to his father, who took him camping, hunting, fishing and canoeing in the nearby Okefenokee Swamp. He was exposed to country music on the local Waycross radio stations. Additionally, some employees at the Box Factory formed a band and practiced evenings there. Gram would listen to them, playing many of the songs he later would record himself. From an early age, Gram would tap away at the grand piano, taking lessons, but trying on his own to pick out gospel and country tunes he heard on the radio and from his parents. By 1956, some early rock and rollers also caught his interest: Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins.

In February 1956, at the age of nine, Gram saw Elvis open for Little Jimmie Dickens at the City Auditorium in Georgia. After the show, Gram marched into Elvis’ dressing room, said, “Hello there. You’re Elvis Presley and I’m the little kid who buys your records”. Elvis, no doubt distracted by the many girls in his dressing room, dismissed Gram with a quick autograph. Still, that performance convinced young Gram that he wanted to be a musician. From then on, he’d pretend to be Elvis, lip-synching songs for the neighborhood kids. Ironically, Parsons would one day borrow Elvis’ stage band for his own two solo albums.

Childhood friends remember Gram as smart, charismatic and given to telling wild stories, but his home life was difficult. Parsons’ father was prone to bouts of drinking, followed by long arguments with his wife. Gram escaped some of this, though. In 1957, he was sent to a military academy/prep school in Jacksonville Florida.

In December of 1958, after sending his family off on a train to Winter Haven for the Christmas holidays, “Coon Dog” shot and killed himself. Gram was seriously shaken by his father’s suicide (some argue this event plagued him the rest of his days). Within a few months, he was kicked out of prep school due to disciplinary problems and moved back with his mother and sister to Florida. A year later his mother married Robert Ellis Parsons, a rich New Orleans businessman, who adopted Gram and his sister Avis, legally changing his name to Gram Parsons.

In 1960 at age 14, Parsons joined his first band as lead singer for The Pacers, a group comprised of older guys at Winter Haven High School. The Pacers had a clean-cut image and did a lot of Elvis covers. After a year or so, Gram sought to form his own band, convincing two members of another local band (The Dynamics) to join him. The resulting group — The Legends — featured Gram Parsons on rhythm guitar and vocals, Jim Stafford on lead guitar, Gerald “Jesse” Chambers on bass and harmony vocals and Jon Corneal on drums. The band was a loose grouping, and often other musicians came and went, including Kent Lavoie (who’d later achieve some notoriety under the name Lobo — remember “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo”?). Gram’s taste in music still ran toward the early rock and rollers, along with R&B influences from bands that toured the South at that time. In The Legends, Parsons sang the usual covers (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Duane Eddy and The Ventures, The Everly Brothers and Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say”), playing the state’s Country Club circuit and earning a decent living for what essentially was a high school band. They even played a regular slot on a Tampa Bay local television version of an American Bandstand-type dance show.

By 1963, Parsons was involved in several side projects, sometimes sitting in on keyboards for Kent Lavoie’s band The Rumors. As folk music exploded on the national scene, Parsons started focusing on that genre. Occasionally, he played solo gigs with acoustic guitar and even worked up a comedy duo with bassist Jim Carlton in the manner of The Smothers Brothers. He also formed a folk trio roughly in the fashion of Peter, Paul & Mary (he, his friend Dick and his girlfriend Patti), that would play during intermissions of The Legends’ gigs. Music and girls proved too much of a distraction, and Gram failed his junior year at Winter Haven High. Family friends pulled strings and soon he returned to the same prep school to repeat his junior year. Without Parsons, The Legends soon dissolved.

At age 17, Parsons caught a performance of a folk group from Greenville, SC called The Shilos and through offering connections and a manager, talked his way into the group. The group (now a quartet) played a lot of covers a la The Kingston Trio at dances, coffeehouses, colleges, and TV shows. In time they commanded several hundred dollars per performance and recorded nine tracks at the radio station of Bob Jones University, some of which were unearthed on the recent Gram: The Early Years CD. In 1965, Parsons graduated from high school; on that same day, his mother died of alcohol poisoning. In order to appease his family and preserve his allowance and inheritance, he agreed to study theology later that year at Harvard University.

Since music remained his focus, his Harvard tenure only lasted a semester. While at Harvard, he formed the original International Submarine Band and promptly moved out to Los Angeles. The original line-up featured John Nuese on lead guitar, Mickey Gauvin on drums and Ian Dunlop (who named the band) on bass. With lots of talent and little money, this foursome parted ways over a debate as to musical direction. Neuese and Parsons kept the band name and preferred a country sound, while the other two split off into a R&B horn band that Dunlop called “The Flying Burrito Brothers”. During a visit home to Florida in 1967, Gram tried his best to lure former Legends band mates bassist Gerald Chambers and drummer Jon Corneal back to Los Angeles to join his new group. Corneal took him up on his offer.

The three International Submarine Band members, with a temporary bassist successfully auditioned for Lee Hazelwood’s LHI Records and by Christmas, had recorded Safe at Home. Five tracks (plus one unreleased outtake) from the ISB are included in this new anthology. While recording the ISB album, Gram met and become friends with future collaborator Chris Hillman, with whom he shared a love of country music. He began hanging around recording sessions for The Byrds (some say he boasted to Roger McGuinn that he was a hot jazz pianist), and when David Crosby left the group, Hillman invited Gram to join up.

By February 1968 Gram Parsons officially was a Byrd, only he had neglected to get out of his LHI contract. The addition of Parsons had an immediate influence on The Byrds and they began work in Nashville, recording what would be their most country-flavored album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Five classic Byrds songs are included in the new Rhino compilation, along with a live version of “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man”, which Parsons co-wrote with McGuinn. Due to contractual problems, many of Parsons’ lead vocal contributions to the album had to be dubbed over by McGuinn. Eventually, G.P. sold the ISB name to Hazelwood to get out of the contract and avoid being sued. The highlight of his Byrds career came when they played the Grand Ole Opry, performing Parsons’ “Hickory Wind”.

When about to embark on a tour of South Africa, Parsons’ opposition to apartheid made him quit the band; his time with The Byrds was a mere three months. When Chris Hillman also deserted The Byrds shortly after, the duo formed “The Flying Burrito Brothers”, along with pedal steel great “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow and bassist Chris Ethridge. They recorded their first album The Gilded Palace of Sin with a series of session drummers, then toured the Southwest, playing small local gigs.

Though the album was not a big seller, it did inspire a dedicated core of cult fans, many of them musicians (most notably Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones). At this time Parsons became close with Keith Richards, who introduced him to the excesses of a rock and roll lifestyle. Parsons, who had experimented with drugs and alcohol, now fell into a period of regular substance abuse, supported by his huge trust fund. Parsons traveled with Richards to his villa in France as part of the Rolling Stones entourage, and got to sit in during the sessions for Exile on Main Street.

In 1970, the Burritos recorded and released their second album Burrito Deluxe, which was but a pale follow-up to the first. Parsons’ drug and alcohol abuse hampered both his songwriting and his creative judgment. He felt he was a major part of The Rolling Stones somehow and his influence may have inspired such songs as “Wild Horses”, “Dead Flowers”, and “Honky Tonk Woman”. While The Burritos did play the infamous Altamont concert and did appear briefly in the film Gimme Shelter, Gram wanted out. He had a motorcycle accident in 1970, which led to the use of pain pills in excess of suggested dosages. According to some, he became spacey, irritable and difficult to work with. He and The Burritos agreed to part ways.

Later that year, Parsons married model Gretchen Burrell, honeymooned at Disneyland, then continued to hang with rock and roll friends both in Europe and the U.S., compiling material for what he hoped would be his first solo album. At first he recorded a handful of songs with producer Terry Melcher, but he never completed that album. Then he planned to record with Merle Haggard, but that also fell through. In 1971, he toured with The Rolling Stones in England, then headed back to Los Angeles and started writing new material. At first, he was under the impression that Keith Richards was going to produce this album and release it on the new Rolling Stones label.

He began spending time wandering through the Mojave Desert with Keith Richards, communing with the trees, looking for and sometimes seeing flying saucers, and staying at The Joshua Tree Inn. He seemed bored with music and upset with his own lack of achievement. He had no band, no record contract, was putting on weight and taking more drugs.

In the fall of 1971, Chris Hillman persuaded Parsons to go see a singer at a small club in Washington, D.C. From the instant he heard her voice, Gram was an Emmylou Harris fan. He even joined her on a couple of songs that night. She provided the inspiration and direction his life seemed to lack, and when he asked her to join his band for a forthcoming album, she accepted. A gap of about a year followed, and Emmylou went back to playing small gigs on her own. But finally Parsons got his material and a band assembled, and Emmylou joined him in the studio along with three members of Elvis’ band — James Burton, Glen D. Hardin and Ronnie Tutt — as well as Barry Tashian and Buddy Emmons. The patient musicians were able to hang in through sessions with Parsons falling down drunk, and eventually completed the album GP.

Released in January 1973, it featured stunning harmonies between Gram and Emmylou, with clear phrasing and a sense of unity to the two voices. Emmylou joined The Fallen Angels touring band to promote the album. After a short successful tour of the U.S. playing to good-sized audiences (and even joined onstage by Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt one night), they rode this crest of popularity back into the recording studio with what would become Grievous Angel.

Here the harmonies were better than ever and, with Emmylou, Parsons finally was making the best music of his life. A few weeks after the album was recorded, Parsons went on vacation back out to Joshua Tree, California where unfortunately a combination of morphine and tequila proved lethal. On September 19, 1973 the coroner who found him dead in his motel room listed this drug and alcohol overdose as due to “natural causes”.

But the story goes beyond this. At a funeral for his close friend Clarence White, Gram made known his wishes that when he died, he wanted to be taken out to Joshua Tree, be cremated and have his ashes scattered in the beautiful desert. So when Parsons’ body was taken to Los Angeles International Airport to be flown back to Louisiana for the family burial, two of his friends intervened. Road manager Phil Kaufman and another friend, Michael Martin, got very intoxicated, stole a hearse and drove to LAX. Once there, they told the shipping clerk a story about transferring the remains out of some other airport, flashed false paperwork and signed for the body.

After a minor crash into a wall, Phil and Michael drove the body back to The Joshua Tree Desert, stopping only for gasoline and more beer. In the desert, they tried to honor Gram’s wishes, pouring gasoline inside the coffin and setting it ablaze. A few days later, the two were arrested, fined $700 for stealing and burning the coffin. Gram’s partially burned remains finally were buried in a cemetery near New Orleans.

He never lived to see 1974’s release of Grievous Angel but even today his music lives on. His wistful voice is thin and often lacks distinction, yet has a way of delivering the true spirit of the music, the real goods. Whether it’s heartbreak, women, drinking, guilt, wrongdoing, gambling or some other loss — when Gram sings it, you believe it. He blended rock and country into what he called “Cosmic American Music” (disliking the term “country rock”) and this anthology provides all the evidence needed. What you get here is more than mere history — it’s a cumulative effect. From the good-natured earnest young kid who helmed The International Submarine Band and maybe let the pedal steel too heavily into the mix all the way to the melancholic world-weary man whose voice wove in and out of harmonies with Emmylou Harris, there’s a foreshadowing sadness that underlies each song.

One gets the sense Parsons knew he wouldn’t be around very long. This is music of distinction, often dark and always poignant, and whether Gram Parsons sings original music or covers a classic, his pure heart makes it his own. His genius is in making music that speaks to a certain frame of mind, a mood expressed as loneliness sung.

Having seen firsthand how money couldn’t buy happiness, Parsons instead found salvation in music. His inherited wealth gave his natural talent and imagination a wide berth, yet he never achieved much media attention in his time. Thankfully, Emmylou Harris’ emergence as a star allowed her to carry the torch of Parsons’ music to a wider audience. She single-handedly waged a personal campaign to raise awareness of his many talents. These days, when a rock group decides to go country for a song or an album, we accept it as musical fact. In Gram Parsons’ time, such things weren’t done. He was a pioneer of crossover at a time when it wasn’t considered “hip” or “groovy” to do so.

Rhino has done a fine job picking songs. On the first disc, you can follow chronologically from the early ISB songs through his time with The Byrds and into The Flying Burrito Brothers. Highlights of Disc One (difficult to choose here) include: “Luxury Liner”, “Do You Know How It Feels to Be Lonesome?” “Hickory Wind”, “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, Christine’s Tune (Devil in Disguise)”, “Hot Burrito #1”, “Hot Burrito #2”, “Cody, Cody”, “Sing Me Back Home”, and “Wild Horses”. Disc Two covers The Flying Burrito Brothers into his solo career (including three live tracks from the 1973 tour). Highlights of Disc Two (even harder to pick from these choices) include: “To Love Somebody”, “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning”, “A Song for You”, “She”, “The New Soft Shoe”, “How Much I’ve Lied”, “Return of the Grievous Angel”, “Brass Buttons”, “$1000 Wedding”, “Love Hurts”, “Ooh Las Vegas” and “In My Hour of Darkness”.

Hardcore fans won’t need this new collection, but those eager to gain a better perspective on real music history need to get it. Rhino provides a fine booklet to accompany the two discs featuring liner notes from Holly George Warren and Bud Scoppa, rare photos, essays from Harris and the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson, plus track-by-track commentary with input from Hillman and McGuinn. Gram’s music manages to communicate the authentic suffering of the blues via early rock diffused through a country filter. Like Hank Williams, he lived a vulnerable self-destructive life and translated it into music. His talent as vocalist, performer and musical visionary are preserved in songs that remain surprisingly fresh and relevant decades later. And thanks to Emmylou and anthologies like this one, Gram Parsons finally is getting his rightful due.