Though Gram Parsons hated the term "country rock" and the kind of music it came to define, he was undoubtedly one of the genre's pioneers. A key member of the Flying Burrito Brothers and, briefly, the Byrds, the Georgia-bred singer/songwriter died at 26 in 1973, having already made enough classic music by to become a major influence on artists ranging from Emmylou Harris to Keith Richards to Elvis Costello. Though Parsons was never commercially successful, he has achieved near-mythic status in the years since his death. In the 2000s, Parsons' work continued to be embraced by new generations of artists, from alt-country musicians such as Ryan Adams to alt-rockers like Beck.
Born Ingram Cecil Connor III on November 5, 1946, in Winter Haven, Florida, he spent much of his childhood in Waycross, Georgia. The son of a Florida citrus heiress and a Tennessee-born World War II vet named Coon Dog Connor, he grew up in the lap of luxury. At nine, he learned to play the piano, but his main musical inspiration was seeing Elvis Presley perform that year at his local auditorium. By 12, he'd begun playing guitar. At that point, however, his life was shattered by the suicide of his father.
The family moved to his maternal grandparents' mansion in Winter Haven; the next year, his mother married Robert Parsons, who adopted Gram and legally changed his surname. At 14, Parsons began playing in a succession of local rock & roll bands as well as in folk groups. In 1964 his group the Shilohs made some recordings and performed throughout the Southeast. The next year, on the day Parsons graduated from high school, his mother died of alcohol poisoning. Parsons left Florida that fall for Harvard, where he spent more time playing music than studying. After one semester, he dropped out and moved from Cambridge to the Bronx with his new group, the International Submarine Band.
In 1966, with a repertoire of traditional country and R&B-tinged songs, the band played a few shows in New York, then relocated to L.A. after recording an unsuccessful single for Columbia. There, the band got a cameo role in Roger Corman's The Trip, but by the time Parsons recorded the ISB album Safe at Home (for Lee Hazlewood's LHI label), the band had broken up, and Parsons made the album primarily with session players. Soon after its release, Parsons met Chris Hillman and through him joined the Byrds [see entry], whose Sweetheart of the Rodeo included two Parsons songs, "Hickory Wind" (cowritten with Bob Buchanan) and "One Hundred Years From Now." (Parsons' lead vocals on several songs were not released until 1990, on the Byrds box set.)
After just three months in the Byrds, Parsons quit in summer 1968, refusing to join the band's tour of South Africa, reportedly because of his opposition to apartheid. In late 1968 he and Hillman (who also left the Byrds) formed the Flying Burrito Brothers [see entry]. Parsons played a strong role on the Burritos' first LP, but left the band in April 1970, just before Burritos Deluxe came out.
In 1970 Parsons, after recovering from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident, recorded some tracks with producer Terry Melcher that were never released. He spent the next two years indulging in the rock & roll lifestyle, including a stint at his friend Keith Richards' French villa during the recording of the Stones' Exile on Main Street. Parsons did not record again until his 1973 solo debut GP, which featured Emmylou Harris [see entry] (who'd been discovered by Hillman); bassist Rick Grech (ex-Blind Faith and Family); a friend from his Cambridge days, guitarist Barry Tashian (of Barry and the Remains fame); and three members of Elvis Presley's touring band, keyboardist Glen D. Hardin, guitarist James Burton, and drummer Ronnie Tutt.
Following a brief tour with his band the Fallen Angels, Parsons returned to the studio to record Grievous Angel. It had just been completed when, in September 1973, Parsons overdosed on a combination of morphine and tequila while relaxing at a favorite desert retreat near the Joshua Tree National Monument. He was pronounced dead after being rushed to the Yucca Valley Hospital. A few days later, his coffin, en route to New Orleans for burial, was stolen by his friend and road manager Phil Kaufman, taken back to Joshua Tree and set afire. It was later revealed that Parsons had expressed a wish for his ashes to be scattered at Joshua Tree in the event of his death.
Parsons' legacy lived on as Emmylou Harris toured with his old band and covered and popularized his material, as did many others in later years, including Costello on his country LP of 1981, Almost Blue. Costello also wrote liner notes for a 1982 British compilation of Parsons' work. Bernie Leadon's song "My Man," from the Eagles' 1974 On the Border, was a tribute to Parsons, and a song Richie Furay wrote about him in 1969, "Crazy Eyes," was the title track of a 1973 Poco LP.
In 1979 Sierra/Briar Records released an album of early Parsons material with the Shilohs; a live recording of a Fallen Angels gig was released by the label four years later. In 2000 Sundazed issued some of Parsons' solo acoustic demos as Another Side of This Life: The Lost Recordings of Gram Parsons, 1965-1966, which featured mostly covers of traditional and contemporary urban folk songs but also included an early version of his "Brass Buttons," a song that had been recorded by Parsons' Florida buddy Jim Carlton. The Gram Parsons Notebook, also released in 2000, featured bluegrass-style songs composed of music set to Parsons' lyrics found in one of his journals by former ISB member John Nuese. The 46-song compilation Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology arrived on Rhino in 2001, and five years later the label released The Complete Reprise Sessions, which compiled his two solo albums with extra tracks, alternate takes and radio interviews. The archives continue to be plundered for any evidence of unheard Parsons music; in 2007. The Gram Parsons Archive, Vol. 1: Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969, was released by the San Francisco indie, Amoeba Records.
Tribute albums have also kept Parsons' songs alive. In 1993 Rhino issued Conmemorativo: A Tribute to Gram Parsons, with his songs covered by post-punk artists including the Mekons, Uncle Tupelo, Bob Mould, Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Peter Holsapple, Susan Cowsill, Steve Wynn, and others. Emmylou Harris was the executive producer of the 1999 tribute album Return of the Grievous Angel (Almo Sounds) featuring, among others, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, and Harris duets with Chrissie Hynde, Beck, and Sheryl Crow. A performance by many of the album's contributors was televised on the PBS program Sessions at West 54th Street in 1999.
Several books and films on the singer have appeared, most notably 1998's Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons, by early Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres, and Gandulf Hennig's 2006 documentary Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel. In 2003 Grand Theft Parsons, a dark comedy focusing on the theft and burning of Parsons' body, starred Johnny Knoxville (from MTV's Jackass) as the singer's cowboy road manager Kaufman.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.