(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
As a new biography demonstrates,
the legend and cult of the late Gram Parsons, the “Cosmic American Music”
pioneer continue to grow. Parsons’ career and life flamed beautifully across the skies of country music and rock music before
being extinguished all too soon.
The young singer who was hugely responsible for the rise of country-rock — a label
he despised — throughout his short career influenced talents ranging from Emmylou
Harris to the Rolling Stones to the Byrds to Wilco and to the entire Americana movement.
About the same time that
Parsons was working on his Cosmic American Music idea in Southern California and England, a young man named Michael
Martin Murphey was developing a similar concept with his Cosmic Cowboy music in Austin. In both Parsons’ case and in Murphey’s
– and the whole larger Austin musical experiment going on inside the walls of the Armadillo World Headquarters — the basic
premise was to knock down musical walls and labels and make music with the free expression coming from many widely different
Parsons grew up in the South, listening to black and white gospel and blues and string bands and
dance bands — everything, in short, that had combined to create both country music and rock ‘n’ roll. So it was natural for
him to draw from everything he had experienced. And then to later put that mixture into the music he created, as his vision
of Cosmic American.
As Bob Kealing writes in his new Parsons biography, Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots
of Country Rock (to be published Sept. 23), Gram’s star and musical presence continue, undiminished.
Orlando TV reporter whose last book was about Tupperware, has done an admirable and exhaustive research task of finding and
recreating much of Parsons’ childhood, young adulthood and early career arc. He unearthed many previously-unpublished photographs
and located many friends who had never before been interviewed. Kealing gets high marks for research diligence.
from the narrative of reconstruction and telling the minute details of Parsons’ travels and travails, though, I am not so
confident about Kealing’s musical judgment.
For example, I am not so sure Gram’s early guitar jamming with “Spiders
and Snakes” artist Jim Stafford was an early experiment at creating Gram’s dream of Cosmic American Music, merely because
Stafford was a kid from a working class home and Parsons’ family was wealthy, and they each liked different music. I am also
always wary of portentous, chapter-ending sentences like this one: “The dawning of Florida’s great garage band era was drawing
near.” Or this one: “Meeting the Rolling Stones may have been the worst thing that ever happened to Gram Parsons.” Or this
one: “The summer of 1965 would be a decisive turning point.”
And to hint that Parsons anointed Austin’s Armadillo World
Headquarters with his special brand of music amalgamation stardust just by performing there once is a real stretch. The Armadillo
incubated that one-world mixture of country and rock and folk before and quite independently of Gram’s then social and musical
Bruce Springsteen also played the Armadillo once.
So did Fats Domino and Freddie King and many others. Willie Nelson and
Jerry Jeff Walker and their like hit that stage many times. My point
is that when there is a musical movement brewing, it often manifests itself in many artists and in many places. That’s not
to belittle Parsons’ contributions, but it’s a fact that many carpenters are required for any large building.
days, Parsons’ heritage is still being discussed. It both amuses and infuriates me when I hear critics attempt to dismiss
Parsons as a mere passing blip on the music radar. He remains a major talent and a true innovator. I wish he could have lived
long enough to fulfill all of his musical visions.
If you have not had the pleasure of listening to Parsons’ music,
I would recommend The Complete Reprise Sessions, a three-CD package which contains much essential music, including
his final two albums, GP and Grievous Angel, plus some essential outtakes.
What are the chances, as
many Gram devotees fervently wish, of Parsons being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame? I can tell you flatly that
it won’t happen in my lifetime. Not that I’m all that old, but the powers that be in Nashville are not ready for Gram. The
memory of his appearance with the Byrds on the Grand Ole Opry still rankles many living Nashville power brokers. Gram’s sin?
Performing an original song (“Hickory Wind,” which he dedicated to his grandmother in the audience) after being told not to
by the Opry brass.
I can tell you confidently that Ray Charles will
make it into the Country Hall before Gram Parsons will, and I think that’s a good thing because Charles worked magic on country
in the ’50s and ’60s, and he had a greater influence. Even so, it will be some years before either one has a real chance.
important thing to remember about Gram is that he made some things possible in music that would have seemed impossible before.
He helped give voice to what Emmylou Harris became. He made the Stones recognize country. He helped popularize and legitimize
what is now considered Americana and roots music. And, perhaps as important, he helped a lot of country artists stay a little
more musically honest than they otherwise might have.