Flashback: Gram Parsons Dies in the Desert

Remembering the alt-country forebear, who died from an overdose on September 19, 1973

Gram Parsons, who died September 19, 1973. Credit: GAB Archive/Redferns

The mythology of Gram Parsons' short life runs deep, but perhaps nothing is as enigmatic as the death of the 26-year-old king of Cosmic American Music, onetime Rolling Stones cohort and founding father of alt-country.

On this day in 1973, Parsons headed to room Number Eight at the Joshua Tree Inn with a heavy stash of morphine and alcohol — he liked getting high in the desert, and was looking for a place to unwind after recording his second album, the now classic Grievous Angel. What followed is certainly filed under the best of rock & roll lore: He suffered a deadly overdose of, by most reports, a combination of booze and opiates, after which his body was lost at the airport en route to Louisiana. Though it was ultimately determined that the amount of drugs consumed would have been beyond what any human (or two) could survive, many Parsons fans insisted — and still do — that he had only taken a modest dose.

Of course, Parson's body wasn't lost. It was stolen by his friend and producer Phil Kaufman, who wanted to carry out a pact he'd made with the artist to cremate their remains out at Cap Rock in Joshua Tree. Kaufman torched the coffin with a couple of gallons of gasoline, was chased (but not caught) by the cops and eventually fined only $750 for the ordeal. Though Parsons' remains were ultimately flown back to New Orleans, where, so the story goes, his greedy stepfather wanted him buried so he could inherit some of the artist's bountiful estate. Still, flocks of fans visit Cap Rock every year to pay tribute — and to theorize as to what they think may have actually happened back on September 19th over 40 years ago.

Though his discography wasn't large, Parsons' influence is and was — he began his recording career as a short-lived member of the Byrds, for whom he is credited, in his brief tenure, with infusing a more country-centric sound. It could be said that he did the same for the Rolling Stones, shacking up with the band at their villa in France while they worked on Exile on Main Street. Parsons, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards would pluck Hank Williams songs in between work sessions, and more lore says that Parson contributed vocals to "Sweet Virginia," though it's never been confirmed.

Released after his passing, Grievous Angel's impact has been enormous. Melding the morphing hippie culture and evolving psychedelics of the late Sixties and early Seventies with rock & roll grooves and country backbones, it shaped a generation from Emmylou Harris, his duet partner and protégée, to contemporaries Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, through Ryan Adams, Wilco and, most recently, Sturgill Simpson. Maybe now it would have been called "Americana," but "Cosmic American," Parsons' chosen phrase, does it better justice — and applies as much to his music as it does his life and most unusual death.

Listen to Gram Parsons' seminal twanger, "Return of the Grievous Angel," below.