"Biography reveals talents of country rock pioneer; 'Hickory Wind' looks at Gram Parsons' life"

25 Feb "Biography reveals talents of country rock pioneer; 'Hickory Wind' looks at Gram Parsons' life"

Telegraph – Herald (Dubuque)
by Dennis Healy

Through the years I have read biographies of a number of rock and roll luminaries, among them Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and the seminal heavy metal band Led Zeppelin.

Recently I read Ben Fong-Torres’ 1991 biography of Gram Parsons, “Hickory Wind.”

Fong-Torres’ book documents the mystery surrounding Parsons’ immense talent and his relative obscurity in both rock and country music circles. The subtext of Hickory Wind is that fame is fickle and illusive.

Parsons grew up a privileged child of the South. His family became so wealthy in the citrus business that Gram lived off a trust fund until he died at 26.

Fong-Torres relates a defining moment in young Gram’s life when, in 1956 at age 9, he met Elvis after a concert and got his autograph.

After that, Parsons became interested in music, influenced by the traditional country music of Hank Williams and the Rockabilly music of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and other Southern performers. These two musical forms would define Parsons’ musical direction.

Although born into money, Parsons was not without hardship early in life. His father, Cecil “Coon Dog” Connor, committed suicide when Gram was 12, and his mother, Avis, died of complications of alcoholism when Gram was 19. His family’s history of alcoholism dogged Gram for the rest of his life. When he died in 1973, Gram had a blood alcohol level of .21 and had levels of cocaine, amphetamines and morphine in his system as well. In a bizarre twist to his death, his bodyguard abducted his corpse, took it to Joshua Tree National Monument, and burned it, supposedly according to Gram’s wishes.

So why would Fong-Torres write a biography of a relatively unknown country-rock musician who, like Joplin, Morrison and Hendrix, died ignominiously from substance abuse?

The answer, perhaps, is that Parsons’ style of music did not fit into either traditional country music or progressive rock circles of his time. He alienated the Nashville establishment with his long hair and hippie lifestyle, and he alienated the progressive rock crowd with his country rock style, which he called “Cosmic American Music.”

He was an artist without an audience – none of his albums sold – yet the updated (2004) Rolling Stone Album Guide asserts that Parsons “virtually invented country rock.”

Fong-Torres’ list of musicians influenced by Parsons includes: Dwight Yoakam, Tom Petty, Vince Gill, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett. Groups heavily influenced by Parsons’ sound include The Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo, Sun Volt and Wilco.

A great irony of Parsons’ life is that his singing partner on his last two albums, Emmylou Harris, went on to a highly successful solo career performing the cosmic American music which Parsons championed. Fong-Torres notes in the biography “while Gram’s albums peaked with sales of about 40,000,” Emmylou’s third album, “‘Luxury Liner,’ issued in 1977, gave her her first gold record, for sales over 500,000.”

I have many friends who are country music fans, and few of them know of Gram Parsons.

Fong-Torres’ biography does its best to resurrect the charred legacy of his subject, but the only sure way to capture the life of Gram Parsons is to listen to his music. Country music fans who allow themselves the opportunity to hear, in Parsons’ own words, “a country boy/His simple songs confess/And the music he had in him/So very few possess,” have a pleasant surprise awaiting them.