It started with a few local pickers gathering in Dave Griffin’s Waycross backyard. Two years later, the collection of musicians evolved into an annual celebration of the life and music of Gram Parsons. By 2001, the event drew a bigger crowd than Griffin 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.”
Today, the 22nd Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull is held September 26-28 at the Okefenokee Fairgrounds in Waycross, where Parsons spent his early years. Fans travel from all over to attend the festival to honor the influential musician and trail blazer who left this world before his time.
“I sit back, and it catches me a lot when I see that number 22. It’s kind of like turning 60. You can’t believe it, but it’s there. I’m pleased that it continued little by little. The same atmosphere, the same attitude, beautiful people and beautiful festival,” Griffin says of the event which features over 30 bands, on-site tent and RV camping, and various vendors. “It’s a successful combination of things. We have great artists, and it’s a laid-back time with non-stop music. We just have a really good little thing going here.”
The 2019 lineup includes Fred Kopp, Lucky Mud, Don Drury, Fester Hagood & Friends, Ian Dunlop, Michahlan Boney, Pine Box Dwellers, Ross Pead & the Cypress Knees, Rider, Ohoopee Angels, Kellie Parr, Donna Frost, Nancy Northrup, Hoboken Zephyrs, Susan Hall, Greg Henderson & the Wayouts, Larry Murray & Billy Ray Herrin, Crabgrass Cowboys, Devils in Disguise, Doug Seegers, Raffle, Toni Brown Trio, Jim Lauderdale, Ty Manning & the Slawdog Biscuits, Deepwell and Marlin Brackett, Abe Partridge, and Rob McNurlin.
With over two decades of music, there’s bound to be some growth. Griffin can measure the time in inches. When the festival was just starting out, two of his staffers had small children. One wasn’t even born yet. Now, he’s 16 and picking up the guitar. It’s a testament to the power of Parsons’ music to continue inspiring new generations.
“It’s mind-boggling, really. You can feel what Gram was doing that wasn’t very welcome at the time in the late 60’s when he was beating on that door trying to get long hair anti-establishment to put down their Jimi Hendrix and listen to George Jones. It was not very well-accepted. Thank God he had the perseverance to keep pushing. You can listen to that music then and know that he was ahead of his time. You listen to it now, and it’s still just as relevant.”
As a young songwriter, Griffin was inspired by Parsons to take chances. Griffin and childhood friend Billy Ray Herrin formed Sweetbriar, the first country-rock band in Waycross.
He’s spent his life playing music and sharpening his songwriting skills. In 1989, he and Herrin co-wrote a series of songs published by the late Bill Lowery in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photos by Kim Reed from 2018 Gram Parsons Guitar Pull
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. During Parsons’ influential early years, he was a member of The Byrds, and, in the late 60s, he released what is widely considered the first country rock album by blending honky-tonk, bluegrass, and folk music with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude, or as Parsons referred to it, Cosmic American music.
“Just the sound of his voice. It was one of those voices that I heard described one time as like staring at the sun too long. You can’t listen to it that long because it’ll just get to your heart,” he says. “You can hear the destruction and the angst and the childhood and the alcoholism and all the things that he went through growing up. You can hear all that in every song he sings.”
Parsons went on to perform with The Flying Burrito Brothers and tried his hand as a solo artist before his tragic overdose at the Joshua Tree Inn in September, 1973. In life and in death, Parson’s always seemed before his time even during his short-lived prime. The list of artists and bands who have been influenced by Parsons includes Richards, Elvis Costello, Wilco, Beck, U2, Tom Petty, Linda Ronstadt, and The Eagles.
“The people who give Gram credit is like a timeline. It keeps on going through the decades. 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,” notes Griffin.
“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. Gram’s music is as real and honest as it gets. It’s the truth. It’s from the soul, and it doesn’t get any better than that. He is the carrier of the torch, for sure.”