Free Byrd

“Calling Me Home,” the new biography of musician Gram Parsons by Bob Kealing (University Press of Florida), is subtitled “Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock.” He would’ve hated that. The book repeats facts about the talented singer-songwriter — he was born Ingram Cecil Connor III Nov. 5, 1946, in Winter Haven, even though the family usually called Waycross, Ga., home — but then peels back more layers to reveal the fatal progression of Parsons’ rise and premature fall.

In the 1960s, live music was played all over Florida at what was called youth centers or teen halls. Sometimes set up by churches and civic organizations, these were places where tweens and teens could hang out and listen to the bands touring the circuit. Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers and Tom Petty (in his Epics/Mudcrutch phase) were among the young up-and-coming rockers on stage, as well as country crossovers like Jim Stafford, Bernie Leadon and Parsons. Musicians would give and take a little knowledge along the way.

Young Gram had a hellish childhood: His father killed himself on Dec. 23, 1958, and his alcoholic mother remarried Robert Parsons, a wealthy rounder whose cheatin’ ways might have escalated her drinking — she died of alcohol poisoning the same day young Gram graduated from The Bolles School.

But his stepfather owned some of those teen centers, and Gram was able to play music with rock cover bands, soon creating the folk group Shilos — pop-folk was all the rage in ’63. The Shilos played hootenannies up and down the East Coast, even at New York City’s Bitter End.

Gram Parsons (he dropped Connor in favor of the name he’d carry to his grave) went to Harvard, and kept up his frenetic pace to make music — going from rock to folk to country. By 1966, he was playing professionally full time, moving to Los Angeles in ’67, where he met The Byrds’ Chris Hillman and hired on as a sideman. His role in the soft-rock-country-folky group was more than just backup, though; The Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album featued Parsons’ song, “Hickory Wind.”

The wildly popular band (they covered some Bob Dylan songs, charting with “Mr. Tambourine Man”) toured Europe in the summer of ’68. But Parsons quit, objecting to playing in apartheid South Africa. On the loose in England, Parsons hung out with The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, which led to Richards renewing his acquaintance with country music and Parsons allegedly reviving his kinship with heroin, to which he had — allegedly — been introduced in ’64 in Greenwich Village while gigging as a folkie.

Returning Stateside, Parsons formed The Flying Burrito Brothers with Hillman, producing a kind of alt-country music, like Merle Haggard on acid. That twist may have been a result of Parsons’ increasing love affair with psychedelics and coke, fueled further by the summer of ’69 arrival of The Stones, finishing up their iconic “Let It Bleed” album. The Burrito Brothers had the dubious honor of opening for Mick and the lads at the now-infamous Altamont Music Festival. Parsons whirled deeper into a heroin vortex when he met Terry Melcher, who’d earlier nixed Charlie Manson’s bid for rock fame. Melcher and Parsons did a lot of drugs and very little musical production.

The biography continues with tales of Gram Parsons’ spiraling self-destruction, creating fewer and fewer original songs while feeding his habit and alienating most of his friends and fellow musicians, to the point where his skills were not being sought. In ’71, Parsons married Gretchen Burrell and again partied with the Stones, a scene that ended badly.

When Gram Parsons finally kicked heroin in ’72, he and his wife were getting along, he was making new music and was promoting an exciting new country singer, Emmylou Harris. Much to his wife’s displeasure, Parsons and Harris toured with his new group Fallen Angels as a country-rock band. (Parsons maintained his music was “cosmic American,” not alt-country or Southern rock.) The tour’s road manager, Phil Kaufman, was the entourage narc, keeping Gram away from drugs. After a backing band member was killed by a drunk driver, Parsons flipped, got drunk and — reportedly — told Kaufman he wanted to be cremated at Joshua Tree, Calif., where he’d often visited in the late ’60s and ’70s.

Parsons went to the site once more, to soothe his pain after he and Gretchen split. On Sept. 19, 1973, Gram Parsons overdosed on alcohol and morphine, and died. Robert Parsons, now in New Orleans, wanted his stepson buried there, and tried to exclude Gram’s music industry friends from the memorial. As the body chilled at L.A. International, Kaufman borrowed a hearse, then just took the coffin, absconding to Joshua Tree to honor Parsons’ last wishes. After a failed cremation, cops gave chase but Kaufman got away, only to be arrested later. He was fined for coffin-stealing; Parsons was finally buried in Metairie, La.

What we’re left with is a minimal body of work, but a vast amount of influence on at least two distinct genres of popular music: country and rock. Each has a taste of the other, thanks to Parsons’ words and music spanning the boundaries. Rather than remember how he died, we should celebrate what he created: a new way to listen to and play American music — music rooted in Waycross and Jacksonville, brought forth from the abundant imagination of Gram Parsons.

Marlene Dryd

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