BY Barney Hoskyns
Mr Parsons’ studio portrait in California, 1969 Jim McCrary/ Redferns/ Getty Images
Narcotics, Nudie Cohn suits and The Rolling Stones – we pay homage to the alt-country pioneer, whose demise was as rock’n’roll as his career.
To Miss Mercy of Mr Frank Zappa’s LA protégées Girls Together Outrageously (aka the GTOs), Mr Gram Parsons was “true glitter-glamour rock”. The phrase might sound odd when applied to a guy regarded as the founder of “alternative country” – and who himself referred to 1970s glitter as “litter rock” – but it’s hardly wide of the mark when you look at photographs of Mr Parsons in his late-1960s prime, sporting a bright white suit designed by the great LA-based rodeo tailor Mr Nudie Cohn and bedecked with rhinestone pills and marijuana leaves.
Glitteringly glamorous Mr Parsons could certainly be. He took the gaudy sparkle of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry stars and fused it with the wasted foppery of his pals The Rolling Stones in their Boho-aristo pomp. He combined the Southern sex appeal of his teen idol Mr Elvis Presley with the sybaritic androgyny of Sir Mick Jagger in Nic Roeg’s Performance – a film he watched many times – and created a unique style that’s influenced a hundred musical renegades, from Messrs Ryan Adams to Bobby Gillespie.
“It’s funny when you look back at how he was wearing these outlandish scarves and doing this mild cross-dressing,” said bass player and mandolinist Mr Chris Hillman, who formed The Flying Burrito Brothers with Mr Parsons in late 1968. “Here we were playing these redneck country bars where people just wanted to kill us.”
“If Mr Parsons wasn’t the first 1960s musician to attempt the apparently impossible – making country music hip – he was arguably the coolest, sexiest and most influential of them”
Mr Hillman had already watched Mr Parsons antagonise country fans when, in March 1968, they played the Opry together in The Byrds, the LA folk-rock band that had set the Sunset Strip alight with their 1965 version of Mr Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man”. “Tweet tweet!” carped one Nashvillite when the LA longhairs took the Opry stage. But the prejudice worked both ways. When Mr Perry Richardson, assistant to the Stones’ photographer Mr Michael Cooper, was asked to look after Mr Parsons during a trip to London, he was astonished by his first sight of the svelte rock star when he showed up at his Holland Park flat. “I had a picture in my head of a little squat country and western singer,” Mr Richardson remembered. “Gram turned up in yellow trousers and a jean jacket.”
If Mr Parsons wasn’t the first 1960s musician to attempt the apparently impossible – making country music hip – he was arguably the coolest, sexiest and most influential of them. Los Angeles may have had its fair share of musicians turning the reactionary squareness of country on its head – from Mr Rick Nelson to the Fantastic Expedition of Messrs Doug Dillard and Gene Clark – but none was quite like Mr Parsons.
Reflections on Gram Parsons: The Complete Reprise Sessions
GRAM PARSONS – THE COMPLETE REPRISE SESSIONS
by James Calemine
“In my hour of darkness,
in my hour of need
Oh Lord grant me vision
oh Lord grant me speed.”
(from Return of the Grievous Angel)
A veritable writer once said, “Death is a great career move.” No finer example exists of this statement than the life of Gram Parsons. Arguably, Parsons contends as one of the saddest singers of all time. Rhino Records latest release of Parsons’ final two albums, GP and Return of the Grievous Angel–along with some incandescent outtakes–prove Parsons’ musical legacy continues long after he died at the age of 26 from a morphine and tequila overdose in Room 8 at the Joshua Tree motel on September 19, 1973.
Co-producer Emmylou Harris wrote about this latest release in the opening paragraph of the 45 page booklet: “This collection brings back so many memories for me, of a special time and especially of Gram, an extraordinary young man who, more than anyone else, changed my life and set me on a wondrous road I never would have found by myself. The finished albums GP and Grievous Angel long ago took their place in history, but the alternate takes and overdubbed rough mixes can now be heard for the first time, and I am deeply grateful to the folks at Rhino for unearthing these treasures.
The story of his recorded music ends here, but the genius and soul of Gram Parsons will, thankfully, live on far beyond his tragically short life.”