Gram Parsons – An Underrated Songwriter?

Gram at HarvardEveryone has his or her own definition of what makes for a great songwriter. Mine is seen by some as being a bit simplistic. I like simple definitions. So here goes: a great songwriter is one who has written one great song.

Simple yes, but hold on. My definition of “great,” while subjective, is a song that stands far above the field, basically a perfect song. For example, I’m not a big fan of Billy Joel, but I do think he’s a great songwriter just for “Piano Man.” Same with a lot of James Taylor, but “Sweet Baby James”? He’s in. Most folks would agree that Bob Dylan is a great songwriter. However, my criteria would be less on his incisive (and long) literary analyses of modern life and more on, say, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Many would disagree, but if it weren’t for Kristofferson’s first album, whose songs were largely in his guitar case before arriving in Nashville, I’m not sure I’d put him on that pedestal. However, he did and I do, as there are at least four absolutely perfect songs on that disk.

Lists of favorite or best songwriters pop up now and then, yet rarely is Gram Parsons’ name present. This seems to be truer today than about 10 years ago when everyone seemed to be on the Gram bandwagon. Almost 40 years since his passing, some seem to blame him for his bad habits and dying young, others like to criticize his voice (to me one of the best and most nuanced ever for the genre). Still others are embedded in the so-called Americana or roots movement, which Parsons’ legacy supposedly spawned (though Parsons’ influences were largely popular and even crossover) and which most recently seems to wander further from Gram’s vision, a vision Emmylou once called “regressive country.”

Gram Parsons is a great and distinguished songwriter, period. By my definition it’s tough to single out his greatest song, as there are so many he penned in a career cut short. Tough, but I’ll start by narrowing it down to probably his two best: “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2.” Although very different songs, they are often lumped together because of their titles, purposely ironic, I believe, as Gram knew he hit the mark but offered up whimsical titles (as he did with “Cosmic American Music” when pressed to label his music). Either of these centerpieces of the masterwork Gilded Palace of Sin is worthy of having been written by Leiber/Stoller, infusing rhythm and blues into a pure country form (Gram once referred to country music as “white soul,” which was an apt description until P.C. made this uncool). The anger and hurt come from deep inside, yet the words and delivery cleanse the soul. Everything about these two songs is perfect, and by my experience, they’ve been very hard for others to replicate live.

Some songs that Gram wrote as a very young man are undisputed masterpieces. “Luxury Liner,” written while with the International Submarine Band and made famous years later by Emmylou, stands out as one of the first. But even further back, the lesser known “November Nights” and “Apple Tree” merge mature lyrics and melody with youthful themes in a perfect complement not usually associated with those beginning to learn the craft. They figure forth creations that could only come from someone who only knew he loved, and could be hurt by, the world.

Yet for all the soulful suffering drawn from a tragic personal life, these songs and others can be almost jaunty and optimistic (as many have described Gram himself). Another is “Blue Eyes” from the ISB album, its sentiment worthy of John Denver and the song worthy of Buck Owens. And his almost bouncy “Do You Know How It Feels to Be Lonesome,” a reflection on the subject approaching the unapproachable “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” nevertheless holds something more, a matter-of-fact existential malaise that doesn’t cry in its beer, just notices, “Did you ever try to smile at some people, and all they ever seem to do is stare?”

As a student of Faulkner, I do not know of many songs that express such deep interior emotions that also reflect a transcending love for the South and its landscape and culture as GP’s “She” and “Song for You.” Together with “Hickory Wind,” another gem of a song, co-written with friend and ISB bandmate Bob Buchanan while on a speeding train to California,  these songs offer up a painful longing for something perennially lost, Gram’s own South. One feels in these the encroaching presence of L.A., if only for the homesickness of a boy so far from the green, green grass of home. “On the thirty-first floor, a gold-plated door, won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.” The record business, Wall Street, whatever, just couldn’t stand up to the fire and brimstone from rural Georgia. With the help of Chris Hillman, who knew from experience what the current audience wished to hear, the target turned outward, away from Gram’s own devils, by combining a futuristic perspective with old time evangelism. But it seems like this whole town’s insane, and Satan is real….

“The New Soft Shoe” explores a century of nation building through the sales pitch in a visual work worthy of Edward Hopper. The tormented self realizations of “How Much I’ve Lied” match the best of Cash. Gram’s brilliant “1,000 Dollar Wedding” is an enigmatic story song that takes the country story telling motif to a whole new level. And the heartbreaking “Brass Buttons,” written also very early for his terribly sick but deeply loved mother Avis, exists as a beautiful and timeless still life arrangement. The more one looks at these songs, the more one begins to understand, maybe, why it was so hard to sell this brand of country music, old in form yet something new in scope. In some ways it represented a whole new Western “tough guy,” one who was toughing it out with his own interior self.

Perhaps Gram’s signature song, even if based on a poem by someone else, “Return of the Grievous Angel” is epic in scope and ties our past with Fitzgerald’s ever-receding American dream, always beyond the horizon. It’s a hallmark of Gram’s songwriting genius.

One could go on and on, there are more examples of such magnificent perfection in Parsons’ catalog, a catalog larger than many who have grown to a ripe old age. But one must probably conclude with “In My Hour of Darkness,” a eulogy as well as a celebration for three of his closest friends whom he had lost (loss being a major theme in his work as in his life, also common to many great Southern writers). We don’t need to mention the names of those friends; most of us know them by now. Moreover, the song stands as a paean to Parsons himself, and to all country boys who have it in them to become something more, even through deceptively simple country songs.

Another young man safely strummed
His silver stringed guitar
And he played to people everywhere
Some say he was a star
But he was just a country boy
His simple songs confess
And the music he had in him
So very few possessed.

Gram Parsons

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Is Gram Parsons Eligible? A Look Based on CMA’s Own Criteria

Gram Eligibility for CMHOFNomination Proposal to the CMA to Induct Gram Parsons Into the Country Music Hall of Fame

The following was written to CMA criteria and submitted as hard copy with List of Supporters to the CMA, 9/19/08, on the 35th anniversary of Gram’s death and is made available to them updated 24/7 online.

 Basic Standard A

Candidate basically is to be judged on the degree of his/her contribution to the advancement of Country Music and on the indelibility of his/her impact.

Cecil Ingram Parsons III (Gram Parsons) meets this

standard unquestionably, arguably advancing country music more than any

other individual or force within that past 40 some years. His indelible impact

can be seen and is seen in the broad scope of all types of country music today.

His contributions, from the International Submarine Band’s “Safe at Home”

(which many critics consider to be one of the great country albums of all time,

and is included in the Library of Congress collection as such),

his work with the Byrds during which he literally hijacked a rock band to

further his country vision with “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (upon its release he

played the Grand Ole Opry, a milestone the Opry itself marks as being 33 in

their top 80 Opry Moments of All Time), through the groundbreaking “Gilded

Palace of Sin” and his two albums completed with his protégée Emmylou

Harris, “GP” and “Grievous Angel.” It should be noted that Ms. Harris herself

on numerous occasions credits Gram Parsons for her understanding of and

distinguished career in country music and her own well deserved induction into

the Country Music Hall of Fame. Please see the comments of well over 13,000

individuals so far comprising the List of Supporters (attached and at

http://www.gramparsonspetition.com) for further substantiation of this observation.

Individual Candidacy Only

Individuals may be elected to the Hall of Fame. Companies, publications, radio stations and other groups many of which significantly foster Country Music are not eligible for Hall of Fame recognition.

Gram Parsons, although he worked with many distinguished musicians,

including those mentioned above, members of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and

Elvis Presley’s backup band, is presented here for individual consideration as a

country artist; moreover, it is his singular individuality upon which this

nomination is based.

Scope of Activity Flexible

Authority is vested in the Electors in identifying the scope of a candidate’s activity in Country Music. The individual may have excelled in a narrow, specific sphere . . . such as songwriting, publishing, musician, recording artist, etc. or may have been active in several areas. In any event, a candidate must have achieved definitive leadership in his/her own field of Country Music activity. However, it is definitely not mandatory to honor the leaders in every activity related to Country Music. A candidate truly must compete with all candidates in all fields, as well as with all candidates in his/her own field.

One cannot imagine a field of endeavor within country music within which any

individual can claim greater and broader excellence than that of Gram

Parsons, a scope which encompasses brilliant country songwriting, plaintive

and uniquely evocative voice, excellent musicianship on several instruments,

and as a leader, his artistic vision compelling others to help him achieve his

steadfast objective: to promote country music and bring it squarely into the

next century without turning his back on innovation in

the era in which he lived, which often was a divisive and turbulent time. He sought

with gentle kindness, good humor, wit and his art to allow those who would not

otherwise “see the light” to have it shine on them brightly.

Span of Influence

The time factor of a candidate’s impact on Country Music is completely flexible. It may cover an uninterrupted span of many years or it may cover two or more distinct and separated time cycles. Conceivably, even a candidate may earn Hall of Fame recognition by one transient act, momentary in time, providing the impact on Country Music is deemed significant enough. Longevity of involvement with Country Music, therefore, will not in itself warrant recognition in the Hall of Fame.

In addition to his own history-altering achievements on the field of country

music, Gram Parsons had a profound and now widely recognized influence on

others that continues to this day. More than any other artist of the late 60s and

early 70s, Gram brought a new audience to a deep, genuine, and

transformational appreciation of authentic country music. Ironically, his

direct influence has actually had as great a longevity, if not greater, than any

nominee considering by your distinguished board over the years. I know of no

one in the past 40 years whose influence has actually grown and continues to

grow to span the decades and to have as broad an impact on country music

than Gram Parsons.

Influence on Others

A most significant criterion in evaluating a candidate will be his/her inspirational effect on others . . . the degree to which he/she multiplies his influence through others to create impact on Country Music far beyond his/her own direct individual contribution.

Gram Parsons had an exponential influence on those of his time and those in

the 38 years that he’s been gone. The best testament to this are the comments

attached from all over the world, for indeed his influence was arguably more

global in spreading the gospel of genuine American country music throughout

the world than any other country artist in history (again, please reference the

List of Supporters and their countries of origin, also at http://gramparsonspetition.com).

Quantity vs. Quality

A candidate’s ability to expand the popularity of Country Music is a quantitative virtue. The professionalism of his/her activity is a “qualitative” one. Both quantitative and qualitative criteria are to be considered equally and separately important; conceivably, one may be present without the other.

It is the opinion of this nominator that the Latin word versus should not be used

in the above criterion. Substitute “and.” The key words in this criterion are “a

candidate’s ability to expand the popularity of country music” as a quantitative

virtue. Many country stars come and go, some even selling millions of

records. But how many of them leave an indelible mark on the dispersion of

country music to new audiences and expand its reach to any great extent? One

who did and continues to is Gram Parsons. An excellent reference for this is

the List of Supporters with over 13,000 signers and their comments.

I was amazed as someone who loved Gram’s music back when he was with us that

so many, seemingly most, have discovered him recently

and express their reverence for his music and

wish to emphasize how it has influenced their own style of country. Then there

are the tribute songs written about him, said to total more than about any other

musician. And the number of books and movies about someone who died at 26 put

him in the same group as Anne Frank, King Tut, and Robert Johnson. While difficult

to quantify with any precision, the numbers of “units” sold since his death has

increased exponentially. There is little to add, except to say that any number

of expert lists, books and reviews put the five albums in particular listed in

the first criterion at the top of influential and both quantitative over the

years, and qualitative excellence far above most others.

Devotion to Others

Furthering Country Music by selfless devotion to the interests of others may enhance the candidacy of an individual, but it is not essential to winning. The activities of a candidate may be completely self devoted and still be considered significant enough to warrant recognition.

Perhaps the most striking example of Gram’s selfless devotion to others is a

letter he wrote from Harvard, one of many, to his little sister Avis, for whom he

felt responsible after the death of both parents due to alcoholism. Please

reference David Meyer’s biography (page 163) or other source for this letter,

which is as exquisite in its thought, feeling and artistry as any of his songs. All

who knew Gram knew of his personal devils (a major theme of country music),

but they also attest to his humanity and devotion to those he loved. Again, a

good source who has backed this up many times on the record is Ms. Emmylou

Harris, as well as the likes of Bonnie Bramlett (“Gram was also a catalyst among

fellow musicians. He spread the word. He was our buddy…”) and many, many others.

Professional Conduct and Image

A candidate is expected to have practiced the highest caliber of professional conduct in order to enhance the public image of both himself/herself and Country Music.

All of the foregoing attest to Mr. Parsons’ caliber of professional conduct. All

who knew him attest to the degree to which he had grown, both personally and

professionally, during the making of those brilliant final albums. His music

represents a desperate though controlled attempt to bridge the abyss that had

formed in the 60s and early 70s. He would preach the truth of country music to

anyone who would listen, and often did. He would walk into an otherwise

dangerous bar in the valley and win over the most hardcore of traditional

country fans. He proudly wore the same suits as Mr. Porter Wagoner, not

ironically, but out of a deep respect for the music he loved (indeed, he was one

of Mr. Nudie’s best friends). Had he lived, he would have continued to enhance

the public image of country music as many of his proclaimed followers have.

Personal Morals and Behavior

The selection process is not a judgment of personal morals and behavior, providing the latter do not negatively affect the professional conduct of the candidate and the public image of Country Music.

No one will ever know what definitively happened that night 42 years ago just as

no one will know all the details of New Year’s Day 1953. Gram Parsons lived in an

undeniably divisive time, a world between the worlds.

As has been stated, everyone knew Gram had his devils. As his beloved Louvin Brothers

said, “Satan Is Real.” But I am not going to simply write off this criterion by

pointing to an equally great country music legend who died a tragic young

death fighting his devils. Recent science has shown that addiction is also real,

and is caused by a defect in a gene. Both of Gram’s biological parents were

extreme addictive personalities, clearly demonstrating this genetic abnormality

(again, see Meyer’s biography and others). True, the era he had no choice but

to live in didn’t help, but to judge Mr. Gram Parsons negatively based on an

addictive behavior would not only rule out Hank, Sr., but also many other

country music notables by using prejudicial criteria clarified by modern

science. No, Gram Parsons believed wholeheartedly in his art, in country music, in

what William Faulkner called the only thing worth writing about: the human

heart in conflict with itself.

Gram InterNational Posters

gramaltamont2017CP

2017CosmicLadiesFB080817

sunburstnashville_final

2016. Heartland first, L.A., Nashville, and Dublin to come.

SunburstMilwaukeeLF11_5x17_.jpg

____________________________

As we’re done with year VIII and several posters for 2015, we thought we’d share them here. The first (2008) was used for a shirt instead of a poster, and was the art used for my 1977 article (Gram Parsons: The Tulsa Queen and You Are Gone). We began the name Gram National in 2010 (third annual); and the first Gram InterNational began in 2011 as we had concerts in Canada and Ireland as well (more on that at Background). As we used to say in TV land, thanks for watching!

 

posterwest

PhilHarleyDCyazoo1027

posterTO15

Year I (2008, T-shirt)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlso used by Nellcote60 in video using images over tape of Emmy/Gram in Philly.

Year II

blog09poster

Year III

blog10posterboston

Year IV

blog11posterNashville

Year V

blog12poster

Year VI

Nashville 2013 (and T-shirt, picture on a black shirt):

2013NashvillePoster640wWordpress

Toronto 2013 (three posters!):

TorontoStreetPoster13

Gram InterNational 2013 Toronto Official

2013TorontoPoster3

2014TO_8x11flyerForND

2014Nash800wFinal

 

 

 

Gram Parsons: The Tulsa Queen and You Are Gone (Will James, 1977)

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…
_______________________________________

EArtwork by Patti Simmons for Tulsa Queen article mmylou 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.

______________________

luxurylinerEmmylou 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
Are gone….

______________________

Gram Parsons for Lifetime Achievement Award? A Look at Web Metrics and the Meaning of “Lifetime”

Gram Parsons Web Metrics Lifetime AchievementIn these days of Linda Chorneys and Lana Del Rays, it’s getting increasingly difficult to deal with the criteria used to nominate someone, and in which category even, whether for halls of fame or for the likes of the Grammy Awards. There are clearly ways to “play the system” if indeed there still exists a system to be played. You have to know your way around the Casino.

And when it comes to “lifetime achievement awards,” which would also include induction into halls of fame, the definition of “lifetime,” which had become “15 minutes of fame,” seems now to be reduced to about a nanosecond.

Add the landscape-altering shifts in “categories” and their qualifying criteria, such as airplay (“spins” adding terrestrial and satellite), and unit sales (now including 0’s and 1’s, electrons either embedded in plastic discs or just free flowing), streaming, pirating, etc., and you are left with a real tossed salad, especially when dealing with artists whose careers have spanned these relatively recent revolutions, or even those who lived when music had only two vehicles — live or vinyl.

Trends in measuring popularity, success, artistic accomplishment, and any other yardsticks involved in nominating an artist for any such “lifetime” accolades become increasingly complex when dealing with those whose careers either spanned these changes that have rocked the business, or who lived their lives entirely in a statistically simpler, more easily quantifiable time.

As an example, let’s examine an artist on Rolling Stone’s List of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, who has been nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times, has been the subject of a slew of biographies in both books and film, and who is the subject of a global petition to induct him into the Country Music Hall of Fame with over 11,600 signers so far. He is arguably eligible for a lifetime achievement award or hall of fame induction, even though that lifetime lasted just under 27 years. In this case, another question might be added: should the criteria for lifetime achievement continue after death if that artist’s influence and popularity actually expands exponentially after the artist’s passing?

Gram Emmylou art for Country RamblerIn 1978 on the fifth anniversary of his death, Gram Parsons was all but a rock n’ roll footnote except for a few who loved him and his work before his tragic demise. Partially to help rectify this situation, I wrote an article call “Gram Parsons: The Tulsa Queen and You Are Gone” which was accepted for publication by one of the earliest alt country (the term didn’t even exist yet) magazines at that time called Country Rambler. The publication went out of business before my piece made it to print. (Thirty years later I used the artwork commissioned for it, an expressionist rendering of Gram and Emmylou based on the covers of Grievous Angel and Luxury Liner, done by the sister of my then girlfriend, on the T-shirt for the first annual Gram InterNational festival.)

The article, which mainly outlined the then-little known facts concerning this obscure artist and hinted at his historical importance, would be silly if published today. The idea that these basic facts would be flushed out over the following decades in microscopic detail by so many biographies, movies, plays, etc., was inconceivable at the time of that fifth year benchmark. All his records were out of print, and there was no Internet or alternative channels of distribution.

Fast forward back to the present; strange days have indeed found us. Clearly a variety of metrics is needed to even guesstimate an artist’s place in history over the years. Indeed, in some ways we live in an era when popular icons seem to never really “die” (e.g., Princess Diana).

It’s well known that Gram Parsons, for a variety of reasons and missed opportunities, sold relatively few units while alive. It’s believed that the only royalty check he ever received was due to Joan Baez recording “Hickory Wind.” His records were out of print shortly after his death. Lacking any other means of distribution, there was about a 20-year period during which the only way to find Gram was to scour used record stores and get lucky. But slowly at first, a fascinating and somewhat unique phenomenon occurred. While vinyl sales were relegated to the occasional bootleg collection of unreleased Flying Burrito Brothers material, the popularity of this by now almost mythical figure in American music began to soar, at first by the age-old “oral tradition,” that is, by other musicians, those who have always led Gram’s resurgence, covering his songs and preaching his significance, followed by fans of these latter day singers spreading the word.

Gram at ArmadilloBy the time CD disks and the Internet came about, Gram Parsons was definitely bigger than when he died in ’73. Several high profile tribute events were held, and cult-like leaders such as the late Mark Holland, who formed the Gram Parsons Memorial Foundation and the seminal newsletter The Cosmic American Music News, helped develop an underground movement that wouldn’t stay buried for long. With the advent of the Internet, a full 20 years following Parsons’ death, fans were soon able to connect globally, and connect they did. To what extent? I can tell you there is a huge though unquantifiable admiration and love for Parsons and his work from all corners of the the world. It would be wonderful if we had a total of unit sales for Parsons including original releases, bootlegs, shared files, mp3s, etc., but that is seemingly impossible to calculate (I would love it if someone could prove that statement wrong).

Today, web metrics can be helpful in measuring the comparative interest, value, importance and significance of a search term and thereby the subject in question. The key word in the last sentence is “comparative,” either to itself over a specified time period or in comparison to other terms that share characteristics in common. The following observations, which is all they claim to be, are mainly of the latter type; looking at search engine results for artists in similar genres to Gram Parsons, and those who may already be elected to a hall of fame or who have been associated with Parsons in a famous band and have gone on to a full lifetime of many and various achievements. (Results for any not included here can be found in seconds by the reader.) While these metrics do not necessarily correlate with unit sales, an argument can be made that the greater the number of search engine results returned, the greater the conversion of these user-generated inquiries into an action associated with acquiring the artist’s product (hopefully a purchase). The results of such an analysis obviously don’t point to a conclusion by themselves; however, they may add a quantifiable factor to such an analysis of lifetime achievement.

For example, using Google and searching for “Gram Parsons” in quotes (to be sure we don’t get returns for an international unit of measurement!), Google returns 2,160,000 results (note: depending on Google’s algorithms, which change often, these numbers will change; those given here were taken within an hour of the same day). Again, not much you can do with that number except a basic comparative analysis. For example, Parsons’ total result returns is exactly one million more than for “Roger McGuinn”, Gram’s boss with the Byrds and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (who returns 1,160,000). Fellow Byrd and Flying Burritio Brother bandmate Chris Hillman returns 506,000. In fact, the only Byrd to out-return Parsons is David Crosby, no doubt less for his antics with the Byrds and more for his subsequent fame with CSN&Y.

While the Country Music Association insists “Quantity” is not a vital consideration in determining Hall inductees, it’s common knowledge that it’s of more value than their criteria states. Again for what it’s worth, a comparison of Parsons 2+million search engine returns reveals the following in comparison with some random recent Country Music Hall of Fame inductees:

    The Statler Brothers: 1,140,000
    Barbara Mandrell: 902,000
    Jean Shepard: 436,000
    Bobby Braddock: 353,000
    Tom T. Hall: 1,050, 000
    The Louvin Brothers: 85,400
    Jimmy Dean: 3,120,000 (ok, you have to take off at least half for pork sausage inquiries!)

Interestingly, a great songwriter with certain similarities to Gram, Townes Van Zandt comes in at a statistical dead-heat at 2,190,000.

Parsons’ protege and reigning queen of both country and “Americana” music, Emmylou Harris, returns a whopping (and not surprising) 6,300,000, approximately three times as many as her mentor, whom she often credits for her knowledge of country music. Had Gram lived one could easily assume a roughly equal number as his career was roughly one third as long (and one could also envision a huge number for the two of them together as probably the biggest country duo act in history).

Obviously this has been a cursory analysis only meant to point out that web content and usage metrics can find a place in, and assist in informing, market trend analysis, and may help us notice that which otherwise may remain obscure. More refined metrics analysis would and could obviously produce more target-specific trending, and/or historical, data.

So as we move forward this year to analyze the train wreck that were the award shows and more specifically their categories and nomination procedures, those involved may want to get up to speed on this paradigm, one that is quantifiable while also being more widely relevant to the industry’s current consumer base. Doing so may assist in making the more subjective judgments at the heart of making such calls.

And as in the case of Gram Parsons, such an empirical analysis may also show that one’s career may not only not end with his or her life but indeed may show that such a career requires re-definition to include the full scope of activity for that artist, whether still with us or not. (After all, to risk a “John Lennon oops! moment,” I believe it took Jesus a few hundred years to really get noticed!)

Gram Emmylou