Pictures of Joshua trees and desert highways, and fans adorning cowboy hats, glittery suits and what must have been the largest collection of hipster western shirts in the state of California. These are the images inspired by Gram Parsons, a country-rock cross between James Dean and Kurt Cobain, whom, many credit with fusing the two genres.
He lived fast, died young, and left a not-so-good-looking corpse. In the thirty years since Parsons’ passing, the legend of his dramatic Joshua Tree desert death (from a fatal dose of heroin and tequila) has too often over-shadowed his short life of inspiring music. Aiming to shift that focus is Parsons’ thirty-six-year-old daughter, Polly, who enlisted old friends, peers and new disciples to come together on stage for two nights and celebrate her father’s legacy. Return to Sin City: A Tribute to Gram Parsons, held at the Santa Barbara Bowl on July 9th and Los Angeles’ Universal Ampitheater on July 10th, featured performances by some of music biggest names — Keith Richards, Norah Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle among them — backed by a top-notch ensemble of session players that included revered guitarist James Burton and lap steel maestro Al Perkins, both of whom played on Parsons albums.
“It made sense not to go with the obvious and try to make something that was eclectic, organic and real,” Polly said of choosing the lineup. “I thought to myself, ‘If Dad were here for one night and we could throw a party, who would he want to be there?'”
Putting together such an impressive guest list was no easy task to pull off. Though Polly had hosted several tributes in the past, this one was two years in the making, with Richards, who credits Parsons for introducing him to country music and influencing the Stones’ seminal Exile on Main Street album, committing only a few days before the curtains lifted. “Keith was the first person I went to,” Polly said. “I met him backstage at a Rolling Stones show. He didn’t know I was coming and when I walked in, he just lost it. He told me, ‘Little girl, you’re the last little bit of your daddy left on this planet.’ So I took that one opportunity to ask him, ‘If, by some grace of God, I’m able to put together a concert as a tribute to my father, would please be there?’ He said, ‘If I did it for anyone, it would be for you.’ I took him on his word and he came through.”
Artists like Williams, Yoakam and Earle didn’t need any convincing either, as they’ve been Parsons fans for years. “It’s not a trendy thing — these are timeless songs that will always be around,” said Williams, who delivered somber renditions of Parsons’ “Sleepless Nights” and “A Song for You,” and afterwards screamed to the crowd, “I feel like a pig in shit!” Yoakam recalled discovering Parsons for the first time through Emmylou Harris’ debut album. He kicked up the energy for a rollicking, countrified version of “Sin City” to rousing applause. Similarly, Earle turned up the twang on Parsons’ trucker anthem, “Luxury Liner,” which he remembered hearing on the radio as a teen. He also chose to play the more obscure, “My Uncle,” a Flying Burrito Brothers song written at the height of the Vietnam War, and introduced it by saying, “If things keep going the way they’ve been going, then we’re probably gonna have a draft and this song will unfortunately be timely.” Another point that Earle, a recovering heroin addict, made sure to emphasize was the concert’s main purpose, to benefit the Musicians Assistance Program, which aids artists struggling with drug and alcohol abuse. (Polly hopes the proceeds from ticket sales will raise between $50,000 to $70,000.)
Younger artists like Norah Jones and Jim James are more recent Parsons converts. Said James, “An ex-girlfriend of mine had a mix tape with ‘Do Right Woman’ on it. It was one of those moments when you hear someone’s voice, the production and the song and it all clicks.” The My Morning Jacket frontman sang “Dark End of the Street” and “Still Feeling Blue,” which he introduced as “another number of classic proportions.” “I hardly ever get nervous,” he later said off-stage. “But I really wanted to do [the songs] justice.” Jones, on the other hand has been practicing her own version of the classic “She” for some time now as part of her touring set list. “I think it’s my favorite Gram song,” she said. “It’s moving and beautiful and I love turning people on to it.” She herself was turned on to Parsons through a friend shortly after her move to New York City four years ago, though it’s obvious she’s done her homework since then. During a rehearsal, Jones made sure to point out that the second sung Hallelujah on “She” is held longer than the first — something only a true Gram fan would fixate on. Jones also tackled “Streets of Baltimore” and “Cry One More Time,” giving both songs the bluesy treatment that has become her trademark. But the highlight of her night, as well as the crowd’s, was a touching duet with Keith Richards on “Love Hurts,” a song not written by Parsons, but recorded for his 1973 solo album, Grievous Angel, and made popular just a few years after his death by hard rockers Nazareth. “That song is amazing,” Jones said afterwards. “And singing with Keith Richards was awesome! This show is the most fun I’ve ever had.” Back at center-stage, Richards asked the crowd, “If only the good die young, where does that leave me?” before launching into “Hickory Wind,” a song Parsons recorded as a member of the Byrds.
But the marquee names weren’t the only ones that impressed. Jay Farrar sang a true-to-the-original “Christine’s Tune” that served as a reminder to the alt-country community of where Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and Son Volt all came from. Likewise, X singer John Doe didn’t veer far from the recorded versions of “Hot Burrito #2” and “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning,” on which he was accompanied by Canadian alt-country crooner Kathleen Edwards. But the spine-chill award went to Memphis soul singer Susan Marshal, who belted a powerful “Do Right Woman” that practically brought people to their knees. “She’s my secret weapon,” Polly said. “No one knows who she is, but she wows them every time.” The House of Blues gospel choir, which handled the church-ready “In My Hour of Darkness,” offered more soul-searching spirit only to be climaxed by the show’s finale, an all-star sing-along of “Wild Horses. (Parsons recorded the Jagger-Richards tune a year before the Rolling Stones released it on Sticky Fingers). “That was the highlight of my life,” said Farrar, who played piano on it. With more than thirty people on stage, Earle then kicked into “Ooh Las Vegas” and closed out the night.
So why all the hooplah over a man whose career lasted a mere six years? “He opened doors,” Richards said. “In the short time that he had, his influence is enormous. He’s left us some great songs that I’ve sung on very lonely nights and in odd places. I think it’s time to say hello to Gram again.” “He’s a real music-lover’s musician,” added Jones. “To me, he’s like another Dylan or Orbison,” James said. “There are certain Gram Parsons songs that define my life, and I always come back to them.”
Williams offered a different take on the renewed interest in Parsons, who’s inspired over a dozen books, a feature film (Grand Theft Parsons, starring Johnny Knoxville and Christina Applegate), and two tribute albums. “There’s an incredible nostalgia for the time,” she said. “And the way he died only goes to further the mythology of it all.” “I wanted to cry when they unveiled the big picture of him,” Jones said. “He was so cute and died so young.” To that end, Parsons’ legend and the romantic notion of his premature death has been both a blessing and a curse, something Polly made sure to address from the stage. “Tonight is not to glorify death, but to glorify life,” she said. “My father, Gram Parsons, loved music and he loved songs.”