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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Daughter Remembers Gram Parsons, ‘Father Of Country Rock’

Country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons in an undated file photo. (AP/The Rhino Records, File)

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 Parsons. (John Anderson)

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.

Guest:

  • Polly Parsons, daughter of the late country rock musician Gram Parsons

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Cassandra

    God, how I still love Gram Parsons music. “Return of the Grievous Angel” is a very special song to my husband and me. Gram Parsons’s music sounds as fresh today as ever… the harmonies, the enigmatic lyrics that allow one to listen over and over, discovering new insights. His musical partnership with Emmylou Harris hasn’t been duplicated, in any genre. Thanks so much for reminding me to put on some Gram Parsons and SING!

    • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

      Thanks Cassandra. It was so great to talk to Polly. Glad you enjoyed it.  

  • GramBands

    Please sing the Petition to Induct Gram Parsons into the Country Music Hall of Fame, almost 7,000 signers from around the world: http://gramparsonspetition.com 

  • Carter Jason73

    I’m a huge parsons fan, but he was from waycross Georgia. We hold a tribute festival fro him here every year. Come check it out.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/VBQIGGGL6XR5C3CEN47PLI2BUI Tim

      he was born in fl then moved to ga as a child takes a parsons to know 1 lol btw i was born in ga

  • Tommy

    really nice interview!!

    • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

      Thanks Tommy. Thanks for listening.

  • Rich Evans

    20,000 roads is a good read,  hows your harmonica playing, remember when you used to jam to
    midnight rambler at U of I, rev

    • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

      I do rmember that, haven’t played much lately.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jennifer-Griff/1499992398 Jennifer Griff

    Brass Buttons, Hickory Wind.

  • Rich Evans

    Ash catching alot of interesting concerts on cable paladia channel.
    When did the sansui stop working. only rec w midrange

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=521446332 Dinsdale Piranha

    Who is Polly’s mother?

  • http://independentnewsofsound.wordpress.com/ Tamar Campbell

    Excellent page. As a journalist, I’ve run across a new group that is the closest thing to Gram/Burritos I’ve found. Please see what you think. They are trending. PC & The Angels Of Death  http://pcandtheangelsofdeath.weebly.com  and my article about them at http://independentnewsofsound.wordpress.com  .

  • Frank

    Your Father,  Was The Greatestest! I gotto know him threw Phil K,Anytime the were in the NY area I’d  be on the Bus  with them,or helping Phil, One night at Max’sKansas City,We jammed between shows.I was in heaven.Your Dad’sMusic,Voice, and true feelings started what they now call CountryRock. To Me He was HankWilliams of ourgeneration.
    Thanks,
    Frank

  • Charlie

    I have an interesting story about Polly’s grand mother Big Avis. If interested you may contact me at this address.

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