It started small, just a few local pickers gathered in Dave Griffin’s backyard in Waycross, GA. Two years later, this collection of musicians would evolve in an annual celebration of the life and music of Gram Parsons. By 2001, Griffin says the event was drawing a bigger crowd than he could comfortably accommodate. “My home has always been a welcome haven for music,” he says. “But after the ’01 tribute, I woke up the next morning to find dirty footprints in my bathtub and thought maybe it’s time for a change.”
Parsons, the influential artist, musician and trail blazer who left this world before his time over 40 years ago, hails from Waycross, but fans travel from all over to honor his memory and his contributions to the music world. The 17th annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival is held Sept. 26-27 at the Okefenokee Fairgrounds. Advance weekend tickets are $30. Kids under 12 are admitted free. “It’s a laid-back good time with non-stop music,” Griffin says of the event, which features on-site tent and RV camping and various vendors. Guests can bring their own coolers ‘filled with whatever you like,’ and pets are welcome as long as they are leashed. “Bottom line, it’s all about the music! When all this began in 1998, I told my wife, ‘I’m putting 1st Annual on the flier ‘cause if we do it once and people come, we’ll do it again.’ Never did we envision it being more than a backyard get-together.”
As a young songwriter, Griffin was inspired by Parsons to take chances. While Parsons is often noted as the father of alternative country music, his vision of music without labels influenced other artists, including Emmylou Harris to create outside the box. Gram came along at an exciting period in music. And it seemed he was before his time even during his short-lived prime. “I think that’s the case with visionaries. Certain people are doin’ the movin’ and shakin’ and sometimes it’s not evident until after they’re gone. Gram was at the crux of the most pivotal decade of music in the 20th century and he left his mark,” Griffin says. “Gram was shaping music well before his death…The Byrds, Rolling Stones. Since Gram’s passing, Emmylou Harris has exemplified his vision of Cosmic American Music by remaining true to the song.”
It’s those truths that have continued beyond Parsons’ influential early years as a member of The Byrds, widely considered to have released the first country rock album, or as he referred to it, cosmic American music. He went on to perform with The Flying Burrito Brothers before trying his hand as a solo artist before his tragic overdose at the Joshua Tree Inn in September, 1973. Parsons is also credited with the discovery of Emmylou Harris, and he forged a unique bond with Keith Richards.
The list of artists and bands who have been influenced by Parsons includes Richards of The Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello, Wilco, Beck, U2, Tom Petty, Linda Ronstadt, and The Eagles. “He was not with us long enough, but Gram Parsons accomplished what he set out to do. A vast array of musicians have Gram to thank for loosening the invisible, yet powerful restraints that shackled the music he loved so dearly,” wrote friend and former GTO member Pamela De Barres. “He opened countless hearts with his expansive desire to shake, rattle, and roll the status quo, and as I said in the beginning, his profound and continuing influence will always be impossible to measure.”
The Gram Parsons Guitar Pull Songwriting Contest is another exciting aspect associated with the two-day event that encourages local bands that play Americana music to perform at the festival. Safe at Home Productions Inc., in association with Jacksonville Songwriter Residency and St. Johns Riverkeeper, is proud to present the Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull Songwriting Contest Sept. 20 at Jack Rabbits. Tickets are $10.
This international, Americana-oriented songwriting contest features two categories – Ecological and Environmental issues concerning Florida’s St. Johns River and Cosmic American Music representative of Gram Parsons’ legacy. Deadline for song entry will be midnight September 6. “Gram’s music is as real and honest as it gets,” Griffin says. “As a fan and artist, we are on a life-long journey to get as close to the heart of the music as we possibly can. It’s the truth. It’s from the soul. And it doesn’t get any better than that.”
The headliners at the festival will be Elizabeth Cook, Underhill Rose and Ian Dunlop, who played with Parsons in the pre-Byrds era band The International Submarine Band. Other performers include Beauty & the Beard, Betsy Franck, Billy South, Boulware Family Band, Brent Kirby & the New Soft Shoe, Chris Emerson and Ty Bennett, Crabgrass Cowboys, Dakota Dodge and more.
For a complete performance schedule and to purchase advance passes, go to www.gpgp.com.