Tribute to Gram Parsons on The 40th Anniversary of His Death

Gram Parsons is given huge credit to helping found both country rock and alt-country shown in his work with The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and his solo work. After a rough childhood, which saw him losing both his parents in his formative years, Parsons dropped out of Harvard and pursued his musical career. What began after that is one of the most intriguing, whirlwind of a musical career that tragically ended too soon. On September 19, 1973, Gram Parson died at the age of 26 from an overdose under some very unusual circumstances. WYEP’s Roots & Rhythm Mix host, Jesse Novak, talks to Cindy Howes about the life and music of Gram Parsons on the 40th anniversary of his death.

The Byrds hadn’t done anything so country until Gram Parsons joined them, but “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” drove them to a much more country sound, although still palatable by fans of rock and roll. “He did that all in five or six months, he was only a member from February 1968 to August 1968,” says Novak.

Parsons started his own alt-country band in 1968, the Flying Burrito Brothers, which had a wide cult following, including lots of musician fans. The Rolling Stones were fans, in fact, and this lead to the introduction of Gram Parsons to Keith Richards. This relationship wasn’t so positive other than the musicians’ mutual love of music, but Parsons got into drugs and became less productive.

One of Gram’s most influential partnerships was his collaboration with Emmylou Harris. “He was able to pull out of her what she had inside her that she didn’t quite know how to put out. For him, I think she was the perfect musical foil for him,” Novak says. Their haunting cover of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s song “Love Hurts” was released posthumously on Parson’s album Grievous Angel.                                        

Parson’s death was surrounded with some pretty strange circumstances. He was in Joshua Tree, California, where he took part in some substance abuse with his friends. While they partied, Parsons collapsed. His friends managed to revive him only to have him collapse again, this time permanently. Parsons wanted his ashes spread in Joshua Tree, which was his favorite place in California, but his stepfather wanted his body brought back to Louisiana. A couple of Parsons’ buddies absconded with his coffin and the body within, and tried to cremate it themselves, again unsuccessful.

Gram Parsons’ influence on music is huge. Despite his absence of 40 years, there are still bands that are obviously inspired by his sound. “Anything that is country influenced and rock has its roots back to Gram Parsons,” says Novak. “Whether its Wilco or the Jayhawks, anytime you here a pedal, a steel, and a pop for a rock oriented band it goes back to what he started.”