100 Greatest Artists

87

Gram Parsons

Illustration by N. Vetri

By Keith Richards

Like I know the blues, Gram Parsons knew country music — every nuance, every great country song that was ever written. And he could express it all — the music from Nashville and Bakersfield, California, the stuff from Texas — in his singing and songwriting. But he also had intelligence and honesty. That's the kind of guy I like to hang with. Also, he loved to get stoned. At the time, that was an added plus.

I first met Gram in 1968, when the Byrds were appearing in London — I think it was a club called Blazes. I knew the Byrds from Mr. Tambourine Man on; the Stones had worked some shows in California with them back then. But when I saw them at Blazes with Gram, I could see this was a radical turn. I went backstage, and we hooked up. Then the Byrds came through London again, on their way to South Africa. I was like, "Man, we don't go there." The sanctions and the embargo were on. So he quit the Byrds, right there and then. Of course, he's got nowhere to stay, so he moved in with me.

Basically, we hung around together, like musicians do. We'd spend hours and hours at the piano, swapping ideas. Gram and I both loved the songs of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant — the Everly Brothers stuff they wrote. We both loved that melancholy, high-lonesome shit. We were always looking for the next heart-tugger, looking to pull that extra heartstring.

As a songwriter, Gram worked very much like I do, which is to knock out a couple of chords, start to spiel and see how far it can go, rather than sitting around with a piece of paper and a pen, trying to make things fit neatly together. But he would also work very hard — harder than I ever did — on honing it down.

Mick and Gram never really clicked, mainly because the Stones are such a tribal thing. At the same time, Mick was listening to what Gram was doing. Mick's got ears. Sometimes, while we were making Exile on Main Street in France, the three of us would be plonking away on Hank Williams songs while waiting for the rest of the band to arrive. Gram had the biggest repertoire of country songs you could imagine. He was never short of a song.

The drugs and drinking — he was no better or worse than the rest of us. He just made that one fatal mistake — taking that one hit after he cleaned up, still thinking he could take the same amount. And it was too fucking much. But he didn't get into dope because of us. He knew his stuff before he met us.

I think he was just getting into his stride when he died. His actual output — the number of records he made and sold — was pretty minimal. But his effect on country music is enormous. This is why we're talking about him now. But we can't know what his full impact could have been. If Buddy Holly hadn't gotten on that plane, or Eddie Cochran hadn't turned the wrong corner, think of what stuff we could have looked forward to, and be hearing now. It would be phenomenal.

In a way, it's a matter of lost love. Gram was everything you wanted in a singer and a songwriter. He was fun to be around, great to play with as a musician. And that motherfucker could make chicks cry. I have never seen another man who could make hardened old waitresses at the Palomino Club in Los Angeles shed tears the way he did.

It was all in the man. I miss him so.

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