By: Alex Ashlock
Gram Parsons was another casualty of the hard rocking days of the 1960s and 70s, but in his brief lifetime he was a hugely influential musician.
He’s called by some the “father of country rock.” Parsons mixed blues, folk and rock to create what he called “cosmic American music,” playing with The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, influencing the Rolling Stones.
Gram Parsons died of a drug overdose in a hotel room in Joshua Tree, California in 1973, when his daughter Polly was just a little kid.
Today she’s keeping his legacy alive with the Gram Parsons Foundation, which is being launched officially today at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, with artists like Blitzen Trapper and members of the Fleet Foxes performing. The foundation will help musicians and artists deal with substance abuse issues, which is timely given the recent deaths of Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston.
Polly says her father’s death set the stage for her own addiction but also in hindsight, the work she’s doing today.
He was just 26 when he died and it left such a hole in their lives that her mom wouldn’t allow Gram’s music in their house. So she had to sneak away and listen to it under her bed–and it filled part of the hole.
“Still to this day I think that’s one of the beautiful things about Gram Parsons,” she said. “He’s one of the rare artists you can hear his spirit and his sadness in his music. It’s so incredibly timeless it never ceases to move his fans in the same exact way as it did the second they heard him.”
The Early Life Of Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons was born in 1946. He grew up in Florida in a troubled family–his father committed suicide and his mother remarried, but she later died of alcohol poisoning.
He turned to music, learning to play the piano as a kid, and he started bands, including a folk outfit called the Shilos.
After high school, he enrolled at Harvard to study theology but stayed there only one semester. He also formed the International Submarine Band, releasing a record called “Safe At Home” in 1968.
Parsons And The Rolling Stones
You can hear, in songs like “Luxury Liner,” the country rock sound that would become his signature, so it was a perfect match when Gram hooked up with Chris Hillman and the Byrds in Los Angeles in the late 60s. They recorded a seminal album called “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” in 1968.
It was around this time that Gram Parsons found another soulmate in Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. They bonded over their mutual love of music and unfortunately drugs.
Stones biographer Robert Greenfield calls them the psychedelic version of Don and Phil, the Everly brothers. Parsons was hanging out with Keith in France in 1971, while the Stones recorded “Exile on Main Street,” and while he doesn’t play on that record, his stamp is all over it, especially the steel guitar sound on songs like “Torn and Frayed.”
Gram Parsons, The Father
While all this was going on, Polly Parsons was just an infant. She wasn’t even aware of his music. She just remembers an idyllic childhood, playing Go Fish on the floor with her father in their Laurel Canyon home.
“I remember crawling up on my mother and my father laying on this beautiful silk day bed that overlooked the picture window through the garden and they were both naked. I remember them just holding me in that moment.That was the same day we played Go Fish on the kitchen floor,” she said.
But as a teenager, after he died, Polly’s trouble with cocaine and alcohol addiction started. And she kept it a secret that she was the daughter of the already legendary Gram Parsons.
“There was a time in my life where I was acutely aware that people really needed me to be the historian on my father’s life. They really needed me to know more than they did about my father and his music and his journey and his past and his history, and I didn’t want to be that person,” she said.
Polly Parsons’ Turnaround
You might say she saw the writing on the wall, coming from a family tree that included alcohol abuse and suicide on both sides. She didn’t want to end up dying like her dad in a hotel room, so she turned her life around.
She reclaimed her dad’s musical heritage, producing tribute concerts that attracted fans of her dad like Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Norah Jones, and she created the Hickory Wind Ranch, named after one of her dad’s classic songs, for women recovering from alcohol and drugs. And now she has started the Gram Parsons Foundation, which helps musicians deal with substance abuse recovery.
“I get to work with alcoholics and addicts that are creatives like my father. I get to understand who my father was at an extremely intimate level. I get to stand by them in the depths of dying of addiction and disease, and I get to hold their hands through recovery and finding their lives again,” she said.
Gram Parsons’ Work With Emmylou Harris
If he hadn’t done anything else, Gram Parsons would be remembered for his incredible work with a young Emmylou Harris on the two solo albums he recorded before he died, “GP” and “Return of The Grievous Angel.”
“She just kept getting better and better the more I looked at her. She’s got fantastic eye contact. She can sing anything that you’re doing in perfect harmony as long as you look at her… If you raise your eye brows if you’re going up on a note, she goes right up with you in perfect pitch. She’s beautiful,” Gram Parsons said of the partnership in an undated interview on one of his albums.
“I think that that power and that grace that he had with Emmylou, it was pivotal in his life. It was pivotal in hers. I just wish they would have had more time together,” Polly Parsons said of her father’s work with Harris.
To this day, Polly says she still gets letters from fans of her father, sometimes from teenagers, who say they grew up with his music, it was what their parents played while they danced in the living room.
“The other thing that is repetitious in nature with the letters that I receive, is Gram brought me through some of the darkest times in my life, and for that I am forever grateful,” she said.
She’s also grateful to have her father’s songs, bittersweet though they may be to her today, including “Thousand Dollar Wedding,” which she says was written for her mother.
“The pain in his voice about the state of the affairs that they were in in that moment is so potent, you know? The honesty in his voice,” she said.
After today’s events in Austin, Polly says she hopes to schedule events to support the Gram Parsons Foundation in other cities.
Jeremy Hobson joins Robin Young as co-host of Here & Now in its new 2-hour format, from WBUR and NPR.
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