I wrote this article for the five-year anniversary of Parsons’ death. The piece and artwork by Patti Simmons were accepted for publication by Country Rambler magazine; unfortunately the magazine folded before its publication. In 1977 not many knew the intricate details so well chronicled in the next 35 years, including this writer. At that time, most of the world had still not heard of Gram Parsons. I was several years away from becoming an editor, and was writing a work of fiction, more interested in the feel than the facts. I present it, therefore, with all its faults and some inaccuracies. However, I also feel it has a freshness that derives from being closer to that point in history and a sense of loss that was still tangible. Included at the close are copies of the editors’ notes on acceptance and the letter telling me of its fate; in some way I feel like it was similar to one of those many missed opportunities in Gram’s life. So for what it’s worth…
Emmylou Harris sits in an airport staring wistfully beyond the large, dirty windows at an American Airlines DC-10 readying for takeoff. Hard rain is pelting the shiny, metal wings, above which the words Luxury Liner beam brightly through the grey morning.
Luxury Liner, forty tons of steel
No one in this whole, wide world
Can change the way I feel
I’ve been a long lost soul
For a long, long time….
As the silver bird taxis up the runway, turns, and climbs weightless into the low clouds, wings drooped back like some grievous angel, she must give thought to her mission and her mentor. It is now five years since the death of Gram Parsons, her close friend and the Prince of Country Rock. She is strong again as she continues to fulfill the challenge that Gram hand picked her to help fight — preserve the vital force of country music in an age not of the freight train but of the supersonic Concord: to remember the past and to celebrate the present. And, above all, to preserve the “soul” in country music — to never allow change and innovation kill an essential ingredient, what William Faulkner once described as “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
To Gram Parsons, this is what country-rock was all about. He lived his short and profoundly tragic life loving traditional country music. He also loved every Chuck Berry and Elvis Presly hit filling the good old airways in the fifties. From the start the old and new were inseparable in his mind and his music. The Louvin Brothers took on the vocal qualities and the beat of Elvis. Merle Haggard songs took on an honest rock beat in an age when rock music became synonymous with youth dissension.
Parsons genius was that he saw it all as a progression; you take the best of the new and use it to preserve the tried and true. Politics and generation gaps have no place in this process and Gram kept his mind free of these obstacles to his vision.
What became part of his vision was the voice of a girl singer from Washington, D.C. One rainy night before a local bar gig in D.C., Emmylou Harris received a phone call from a stranger in Baltimore who said he’d like to hear her and could she pick him up. She told him he was crazy, she had a job that night and a baby to feed. So Gram Parsons caught a train, listened to the cynical Emmylou sing and joined her, for the first time, their voices coming together in “I Fall to Pieces” and a few other classics. That night was the beginning of what could have been a lifetime partnership as the greatest country-rock duo ever. Might have been if the end had not come a short two years later.
L. A. COWBOY
Before Emmylou Parsons had approached his goal of producing meaningful country-rook in artistically progressive steps. His first album was with his International Submarine Band, comprising Parsons and a group of L.A. studio musicians. It was a good country rock LP (including his song “Luxury Liner”) — innovative yet solid in its roots. And it was the first of its kind, years ahead of any other such synthesis. It went nowhere. Later came his stint with the grounded Byrds which produced the classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The Byrds, with Parsons at the helm, introduced country-rock to the Grand Ole Opry, the first “rock” band to be heard over those hallowed airwaves. Gram angered Opry officials when he broke format and dedicated his Hickory Wind to his grandmother.
FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS
He took the Byrds as far as he dared and left, claiming disapproval of a planned tour to segregated South Africa. Then came formation of the country-rock band, the Flying Burrito Brothers based on Parsons, session bassist Chris Ethridge, former Byrd Chris Hillman, and virtuoso steel player “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow. Their first and best album, Gilded Palace of Sin, was a country-rock masterpiece and, one thought, the culmination of Gram’s vision.
Parsons, however, after a mediocre follow-up LP, grew disenchanted with the Burritos. He befriended Keith Richards and began hanging out with the Rolling Stones. He was also becoming heavily involved with alcohol and drugs. A motorcycle accident followed.
The demise of an artist after a misunderstood masterpiece? No. Gram’s art still sought perfection. His writing was improving and the songs were too big to take second place to a band. The Burrito Brothers had become an entity to themselves. What he wanted was perfection for the songs. That was the most important thing: to crystallize the song in a musical and vocal vehicle so good it would disappear behind the song itself.
EMMYLOU & THE FALLEN ANGELS
That rainy night in Washington he found the missing factor–the voice that should have been there all along. And Emmylou realized it immediately too. They saw each other’s potential while listening to their voices rise and fall, blend and fight, and weave the songs together. It was a magical union and Parsons knew it. Emmylou came to L.A. to sing with Gram on a proposed L.P.
Despite Parson’s now chronic bouts with the bottle, GP was completed. Merle Haggard intended to produce it but dropped out, much to Parsons’ dismay. A band was assembled consisting of members of Elvis’ touring band. Gram produced the album himself with the help of British rocker Rik Grech. And for the first time Parsons added Byron Berline’s fiddle, which effectively played off the pedal steel creating uplifting melody lines. Together with Emmylou’s voice, it really tore your heart out.
Gram had overcome his personal problems and succeeded once again. Although ignored by the public, GP was a great achievement in country-rock history. Emmylou’s singing juxtaposed Parsons’ beautifully. The music succeeded in allowing Gram’s songs (“She,” ”A Song For You,” “The New Soft Shoe”) to come through in all their enigmatic wisdom.
Gram was pleased. But he was confused by popular indifference. He had been ignored before, but this was approaching the realization of his vision and people should have been listening.
So, in typical Parsons’ country-glitter style, he rented a bus, scrawled “Gram Parsons” across the side, and took off with Emmylou and the band to play every honky tonk in the country that would listen. They christened themselves the Fallen Angels, but it was all Gram and Emmylou.
The people did listen. Those who were lucky enough to be there were struck by an intensity they’ll long remember. And it was no mistake, for, as usual, Gram was sure of himself and his music.
He even began an attempt to clean up his life. His writing was stronger than ever, with enough new material for another venture into the recording studio. His voice had improved greatly. The best result of the Fallen Angels tour was the learning experience gained, especially for Emmylou. She now understood how she was supposed to sound–how to blend her strength properly with Gram’s subtlety of inflection. The result was chilling.
THE LAST SESSION
With all going well, they returned to the studio to record the new album. It could not have gone better, especially the title cut, “Return of the Grievous Angel.” In this song the themes were profound and varied–the failure of the American Dream, the triumph of a personal dream, the passing of the railroads. For ultimately it was a great train song, and stands as Gram Parsons’ masterpiece.
For suddenly he was gone. Just like that. He had gone off to a favorite spot in the desert and mixed too many drugs in too short a time. His art had never been more pure but his body was full of poison.
A friend stole the body from LAX to burn it in the desert as was Gram’s wish. Unfortunately, this now infamous deed is what most people remember about this great artist–a man whose excellence set the rules for country-rock music. Willie, Waylon, Ronstadt — they all know the roads Gram Parsons paved.
Emmylou sits back and stares out the window as the jet rises above the clouds in a matter of seconds and the metal wings reflect the morning sun. Her album, including the beautiful “Luxury Liner,” all climbed the charts as quickly as that DC-10. Elite Hotel was there over fifty weeks. She has become a bonafide star, something Gram Parsons didn’t have time to accomplish.
But she has not forgotten. She will never forget. Just listen to the albums. He is there, climbing the charts with her.
Everyone has a train song. Gram had “Return of the Grievous Angel.” Emmylou penned the “Tulsa Queen,” a train song of her own composition that just might bring tears to your eyes. It is no mistake that it is also about her friend Gram Parsons:
Lately I speak your name too loud
Each time it comes up in a crowd
And I know that when I do
The Tulsa Queen and you