Gram Parsons is one of the most legendary figures in music history. At different points throughout his career, he was a member of The International Submarine Band, The Byrds, and The Flying Burrito Brothers, as well as rubbing shoulders with some of the most prominent artists of the day, which included his close friends, The Rolling Stones.
Parsons popularised the style of music that he dubbed ‘Cosmic American Music’ in what is a distinctive combination of country, R&B, soul, folk, and rock that marked him out as one of the most talented artists of the era.
Although he passed away prematurely in 1973, aged just 26, Parsons remains one of the most influential musicians from the countercultural period, and fittingly, his life reads like a joint work between Thomas Pynchon and Tennesse Williams. It is a colourful, hazy journey featuring plenty of the era’s most recognisable faces. This myriad of larger than life characters give Parsons’ short life a fantastical quality, and it’s a wonder that a biopic hasn’t yet been made.
Aside from all the hedonistic abandon, one thing to remember is that Parsons’ life comprised much tragedy, as you probably extrapolated from the way it ended.
Both his parents were alcoholics and had a tumultuous relationship, and when Gram was just 12 years old, his father committed suicide. This disaster set a precedent for the spectre that seemed to haunt him over the rest of his life. After his father’s death, his mother remarried, but Parsons’ stepfather Robert had an affair, and this tipped his mother’s drinking over the edge, resulting in her death from cirrhosis when Gram was only 19 years old.
This palpable sense of catastrophe is one of the reasons that Parsons’ death is nearly as famous as his music. A proponent of alcohol and narcotics, his life became symbolic of wider cultural trend. He lived during the height of musicians living to excess, and because the dangers of substance abuse were not realised until much later, he became another one of the countless casualties in the fallout of the “classic rock” era.
However, it would be reductive to remember him just in this way, as first and foremost, he was a musician, and one of great merit. During a 1978 Rolling Stone interview with Parsons’ friend Mick Jagger when he was on the promotional tour for The Stones’ Some Girls, one of the cuts from the album, ‘Faraway Eyes’ was likened to Parsons, “via Buck Owens” by the interviewer.
Remembering his late friend, Jagger revealed that it was Parsons who helped him to sing country music and put an original twist on it allowing The Stones to go in the direction that they did over the ’70s. He said: “I knew Gram quite well, and he was one of the few people who really helped me to sing country music — before that, Keith and I used to just copy it off records.”
He continued: “I used to play piano with Gram, and on ‘Faraway Eyes’ I’m playing piano, though Keith is actually playing the top part — we added it on after. But I wouldn’t say this song was influenced specifically by Gram. That idea of country music played slightly tongue in cheek — Gram had that in ‘Drugstore Truck Drivin’ Man,’ and we have that sardonic quality, too.”