"It was nice to know he was somewhere nearby, in case you needed to run by and get a recharge," Peter Holsapple says. The former Continental Drifter remembers that on the band's first road trip to Louisiana, they stopped in Metairie to get a pencil rubbing of Parsons' grave, a flat marker with a bronze relief of Parsons, long-haired, scarf flowing and playing guitar along with an inscription from his song "In My Hour Of Darkness." More than twenty years ago, while Holsapple was in the seminal power-pop band the dB's, he did a one-off tribute show called the Gram Parsons Project; the singer's spirit, he says, has shadowed and influenced him for years.
"I'd say he was a guiding light for the early Continental Drifters," he says. "There wasn't a night we didn't do 'A Song For You.'"
Thirty-three years after his death, attention is getting paid to Parsons' short but legendary career and semi-tragic, troublesome figure. This summer, Rhino released his complete solo recordings from Reprise Records, as well as the DVD of last year's documentary Fallen Angel. And in May, English journalist Barney Hoskyns' book Hotel California (Wiley) came out, a comprehensive look at the early '70s singer-songwriter scene in Los Angeles' Laurel and Topanga Canyons.
An artist's early death, of course, invites a lot of blank-filling and myth-making. And Parsons' comes with plenty of fodder for drama. His idyllic Southern childhood in the lap of privilege was marred by his father's suicide and his mother's slow death from alcoholism. When the singer himself died of a morphine overdose in a motel room in Joshua Tree, Calif., his body became the subject of one of the most famous and fantastically weird tales in the annals of rock 'n' roll. Carrying out what he still holds to be a promise to Gram, his road manager, Phil Kaufman, absconded from Los Angeles airport with the body as it awaited shipment to the Parsons family. Kaufman drove it out to Joshua Tree, laid it out in the desert, doused it with gasoline and set it on fire. His stepfather, Bob Parsons, eventually recovered the remains of the remains and delivered them to Airline Highway.
Fallen Angel takes gruesome glee in re-enacting the amateur cremation by Kaufman, who takes the crew by the gas station where he stopped on the way to Joshua Tree with the body ("We got unleaded for the car and high-octane for Gram.") and grimly flicks his Zippo for the camera. The film glosses over his personal life and focuses on Parsons as a dilettantish, hedonistic trust-fund kid, who liked hanging out with the Rolling Stones more than working with his own band. Hotel California is more charitable, citing Parsons as a key catalyst in creating the country rock that would flood California in the '70s; at one point, Hoskyns compares Parsons' frail warble on his solo GP with Billie Holiday's devastated voice in her late recordings.
Parsons' short stint with the Byrds resulted in one of their best albums and their most dramatic departure from type, the excellent Nashville-recorded Sweetheart of the Rodeo. His two solo LPs, GP and Grievous Angel, which contain his legendary duets with Emmylou Harris, are folk-rock masterpieces. On the one hand, history could paint him as a benevolent ghostly influence, bringing the country sounds of his youth to psychedelic L.A. On the other, he could be depicted as a pathological band-quitter with family money and a drug problem. Out of the three artifacts of Parsonsabilia to emerge this year, only one, his Reprise solo box set, lets Parsons speak for himself. Co-produced by Emmylou Harris, it includes remastered versions of GP and Grievous Angel with multiple unreleased tracks and alternate versions, plus some interviews, and it seems like this is where the real Gram shines; whatever screw-ups he perpetrated in life, in music he was a vulnerable heartbreaker with an audibly shining love for the Southern music he brought West.
Peter Holsapple agrees. "To me he really embodied a kind of southern gentleman of rock music," he says. "He seemed very educated in a real formal way about country music, and he was willing to share that through his records ... some people are just catalysts, to get you to think about things differently. And that must have been his mission on Earth."