by Heather Lovejoy
When Gram Parsons sings, you can feel it. You can feel the devastation in his voice. That sincerity is what grabbed Dave Griffin’s soul when he first heard Parsons in 1973, and it has never let go. As founder and organizer of the annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull in his hometown of Waycross, GA, where Parsons spent his first 12 years of life, Griffin is dedicated to preserving the late musician’s pioneering efforts to fuse country music with rock ‘n’ roll. Local and national acts, including several from Jacksonville, will pay tribute to Parsons at the festival on Friday-Sunday, September 20-22, at the Okefenokee Fairgrounds.
“His music is so from the heart,” Griffin says by phone. “I listen to his voice, with the breaks and the cracks, and it ain’t perfect, and I think that’s what appeals to me more than anything.”
He started the event in his backyard in Waycross with about 25-30 people, and dubbed it the Griffin Guitar Pull. It was a true, informal “guitar pull,” with people passing around guitars and taking turns singing songs. Naturally, many of them were Parsons’ songs. By the third year, the annual party had morphed into the Gram Parsons Guitar Pull, and when about 250 people overran his house the next year, he decided to make the event public. Now in its 16th year, he hopes the festival draws a crowd of 2,000.
“[The festival] started very organically, and it still has that feel to this day. It still has the feel of a backyard,” he says. “People who come to it for the first time, they all have the same opinion, they all say it’s very homegrown and very spiritual in a way.”
Raising awareness of Parsons’ contributions as a highly influential musician in the late 1960s and early 1970s has been a slow haul in Waycross and Jacksonville, where Parsons attended the Bolles School. Before dying of an overdose in 1973, he became known for joining The Byrds and transforming their sound with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which is widely considered to be the first album defining country rock, or as he preferred to call it, cosmic American music. At the time, Griffin heard that a member of The Byrds was from Waycross, but he and his friends dismissed the notion. “One of the Byrds was from Waycross? That was ridiculous. We just laughed it off,” he recalls.
Parsons’ later ventures with The Flying Burrito Brothers and as a solo artist, as well as his discovery of Emmylou Harris, earned him even more recognition. His cult status as an American musical legend was further solidified when his road manager stole his body and burned it in the Joshua Tree National Park. The list of artists and bands who have been influenced by him is seemingly endless, including Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello, Wilco, Beck, U2, Tom Petty, Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles. But where his roots lie, he remains largely unknown. That’s slowly changing because of the tribute festival.
Musician Brad Lauretti, whose band This Frontier Needs Heroes will perform at the festival on Friday, has been hugely influenced by Parsons. When he moved to Jacksonville from New York City, he discovered the city’s connection and was struck by how few residents knew that Parsons attended high school here. “In Brooklyn, it’s like you can walk down the street and any person you pass might know about Gram Parsons. But here, it’s not that way,” he says by phone.
Lauretti has coordinated with Griffin to kick off the Gram Parsons Guitar Pull Songwriting Contest, and encouraged several local bands that play Americana music to perform at the festival. Those bands, including New Strangers and Fjord Explorer, will play on Sunday. A showdown of ten finalists in the songwriting contest will be at 8 pm, Wednesday, September 18. The winner will play at the festival on Saturday night.
“I wanted to get some Jacksonville bands into the mix, and to get people to celebrate part of the city’s musical heritage,” he adds. “I see this as something Jacksonville needs to be aware of and proud of, because Gram was so important, so influential.”
Griffin says knowledge of Parsons in Waycross is also on the rise. A few years ago, the mayor and a city commissioner showed up at the festival and asked to make a speech. They proclaimed the week surrounding the festival, which is scheduled near the anniversery of Parsons’ death on September 19, 1973, as Gram Parsons Week. “In that respect,” he says, “they have taken notice with what we’ve done. It’s something that can’t be dismissed.”
The headliners at the festival will be Ian Dunlop, who played with Parsons pre-Byrds in a band called The International Submarine Band, at 7 pm Saturday; Fayssoux Starling McLean, who played with Emmylou Harris in the Hot Band, at 5:40 pm Saturday; and singer-songwriter Levi Lowrey, who has toured with the Zac Brown Band, at 10:20 pm Friday.
For a complete performance schedule and to purchase advance passes, go to www.gpgp.com.
A Homegrown Tribute
by Heather Lovejoy