Gram Parsons was born Ingram Cecil Connor III, in 1946 in Winter Haven, Florida, to Coon Dog and Avis Connor. By his death at the age of twenty-six, he had forged a beautiful union of the infantile urges of rock and roll and the timeless wisdom of traditional country music. Parsons just knew that these distinct American art forms were a natural fit, if not a marriage then a fine affair, and he pulled on his Nudie suit, grabbed them both by the neck, and made it so…an unlikely accomplishment and, all in all, a good life’s work.
“Cosmic American Music”, Gram called it, and in the beginning it existed only in his restless imagination. But it was the beginning of the sixties, the world around him was diving off the cliff of what-was into the churning sea of what-will-be, and by the age of sixteen the boy from Florida was playing folk music in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village coffee houses. While attending Harvard for a semester in 1965, the vision was cemented when he had the chance to see Merle Haggard perform, and by 1968 he had joined The Byrds and influenced their album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which is generally considered the first major “country rock” album. Also in 1968, to the consternation of Ralph Emery and the Nashville establishment, Parsons and The Byrds were the first “hippies” to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.
In short order Parsons and Chris Hillman left the band to form The Flying Burrito Brothers and released two more milestones of early country rock, The Gilded Palace of Sin and Burrito Deluxe. Then he moved to France to hang out with Keith Richards for a while, coming back inspired to begin a solo career and with the help of a young Emmylou Harris, released two albums of original work and covers, GP and Grievous Angel, before succumbing to the typical excesses of the time in September of 1973. The story of his death is a sordid tale and the stuff of legends.
Parsons made country music cool for an entire generation of longhairs and rock and rollers. He was a courageous advocate of the pure joy and beauty of this preeminent American folk music, and while he left a relatively small body of original work, his music is still beloved and celebrated, his contributions to the art of songwriting deep and profound. If ever there was a fallen angel, it was Gram Parsons.
Three things to know about Parsons: (1) he met Emmylou at a music club in Washington, D.C., (2) just prior to his death, he played to loving crowds at the Armadillo World Headquarters and Liberty Hall in Houston, and (3) for a decade an annual festival called Gram Fest was held at Joshua Tree, California.