A song for Gram

GP by Gram Parsons“Our approach is that we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band that sounds like a country band.”
Gram Parsons (1970)

I know that my blog seems to be turning into a eulogy for deceased musicians, but bear with me; it’s just that time of year. And, really, these anniversaries are just an excuse for me to write a few words about some of my favourite artists. I get to talk about the living all the time when I write about bands I’ve seen, but… well, dead men play no gigs.

Today it’s the turn of Gram Parsons, who died on 19 September 1973, aged just 26. Like many before him, and sadly many more after, Gram accidentally overdosed. What sets this story apart from similar tales is what happened afterwards, with road manager Phil Kaufman stealing the body and attempting to cremate it in the Californian desert, supposedly in accordance with Gram’s final wishes (ie, a drunken pact that the pair made one night).

Grievous Angel by Gram ParsonsI’m not an advocate of glamorising this stuff – the pain that it caused Gram’s family is obvious to anyone who’s seen Gandulf Hennig’s 2004 documentary Fallen Angel – but there’s no denying that these events have added to Parsons’ allure for many, helping build his cult status and legend. It often provokes the question, especially from non-fans: judged on his music alone, is he, y’know, worth it?

To anyone who’s ever been touched by that music, it’s a silly question.

Thirty-three years after he died, Parsons’ musical legacy is really starting to fall into focus. Though the country-music mainstream seems to be doing its darnedest to ignore him (in a recent CMT list of the ’40 Greatest Men of Country Music’, Gram is nowhere to be seen), his vision of ‘Cosmic American Music’ – a magical blend of country, rock and soul – is generally acknowledged as one of the major influences in the alt.country/Americana movement.

With the Gram Parsons exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville, in 2008Like Elvis Presley, with whom he shared a band in the early ’70s, Gram’s fanbase is growing by the year, too. As musician Bryson Jones observed at a tribute gig I saw in 2003, Gram Parsons is often the gateway that rock ‘n’ roll fans walk through to reach country music. It’s certainly true for me. I bought the GP / Grievous Angel CD about 13 years ago, having read about Gram’s influence on his friends the Rolling Stones. At the time, much of it was a step too far. I was expecting Honky Tonk Women – I was a rocker, dammit; I really didn’t dig that fiddle, and what was it with all those duets?

But I never let go of the CD. In fact, I kept returning to it, and over the next few years my appreciation for it grew. I found Gram’s fractured voice soothing, his harmonising with Emmylou Harris touching. The songs – of love, heartache and redemption – pinged nerves. I was moved. And that fiddle? It grew balls. As the 21st century dawned, Grievous Angel nudged its way into my top three albums of all time. Without noticing the process, I’d become a huge fan of Gram Parsons.

I was, indeed, ready for the country.

Today, I’ll be playing the GP catalogue in its entirety, beginning with the Shilos album, recorded in the early ’60s, and finishing with 1974’s classic Grievous Angel – a journey that takes me through some mighty pretty landscape. If you’d care to join me, I’d love to have you. Where Gram’s music is concerned, there’s always room for one more.

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