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Fifty Years After a Bizarre Death

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn now marketed as where Gram Parsons "went from rock star to rock legend"

It is 50 years since the death of Gram Parsons, an event so bizarre it would forever overshadow his achievements as not only one of the pioneers of country rock but also as someone who would introduce the music world to the legendary Emmylou Harris.

Parsons died at the age 26 on September 19, 1973, as a result of a drugs overdose in a motel near the picturesque Joshua Tree National Park, south-eastern California. He had become a big name associated with the emergence of country rock and his death would have been seen as just another sad sex-drugs-and-rock’n roll cliché of the 1970’s had it not been for the grotesque events associated with the tragedy.

Exhausted by the recording and post production of his second solo album Grievous Angel in September 1973, Parsons decided to spend a relaxing weekend with his girlfriend and two friends at his adopted sanctuary, the Joshua Tree Inn in in the High Desert of California. On his second day there, Parsons – a problem drinker and drug-user – overdosed after mixing copious amounts of tequila with morphine. He could not be revived.

On hearing of his sudden death, close friend and sometime tour manager Phil Kaufman remembered a drunken pact he once had with Parsons whereby they agreed that whoever died first would have their body cremated in the Joshua Tree Park. Kaufman discovered that Gram’s stepfather had arranged to have his body flown to Louisiana for burial and it was currently at L.A. Airport en route to New Orleans.

In his autobiography Road Mangler Deluxe, Kaufman details how he knew that another associate of Parsons, Michael Martin, had access to a hearse. The pair drove to LAX where they convinced the authorities that the burial plans had changed and they were to transport the body. The pair then headed into south-eastern California with their kidnapped cargo. When they arrived at Cap Rock, a prominent feature of the Joshua Tree Park, they placed the open coffin on the ground, poured five gallons of petrol over it and ignited it all in a ball of flames.

Before the bizarre ritual could be completed, Kaufman and Martin, were disturbed by approaching car headlights and, fearing it was the police, fled into the night.

Kaufman wrote: “People said Cap Rock was Gram’s favourite place and Gram wanted to be buried there. But we were too drunk to go any further and it was a large enough place that we could turn around to make our escape.”

The partly-crèmated body was found by a road maintenance crew early the next morning and Gram was eventually buried in the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Metairie, Louisiana. Kaufman and Martin were arrested several days later, but because there was then no law in California relating to stealing a corpse, the pair were only charged with the theft of a coffin. They were both fined $300 plus damages for the casket.

Kaufman, who, at 88, has long outlived Parsons, would become a colourful figure in the music industry, working closely with not only Parsons and Harris, but the likes of the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Frank Zappa and Etta James. However, he had earlier found true infamy by befriending cult-leader Charles Manson at a time when both were prison inmates in Los Angeles in the mid-1960’s – a few years before Manson and his followers were convicted of mass murders, including the killing of film actress Sharon Tate.

As might be expected, much of the coverage of the 50th anniversary of Gram’s death in the media revisited the sordid events in the Joshua Tree National Park, with L.A. Times writer Robert Annis returning to Cap Rock where he found a makeshift memorial to Parsons in the form of a crude cross made of dark stones below a scribble of orange graffiti.

Picturesque Cap Rock in the central part of Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Annis wrote: “Parsons’ fans often leave guitar picks, handwritten letters, empty whiskey bottles and, at least one time, a life-size papier-mâché statue of the singer. Unfortunately, some also spray-paint the rocks, which is more difficult to clear away.”

Annis reported that Park officials have long debated how to acknowledge the sordid event. For many years, the official policy was to ignore it, but that stance had softened in recent years, especially as the 50th anniversary approached. Park guides are given the option to tell the story during tours, but there is no mention of the botched cremation in official maps or brochures.

In complete contrast, the motel where Parsons died, the Joshua Tree Inn, has, in recent years, fully embraced the notoriety of the sad event. Located in the small town of Joshua Tree, the Inn has built a massive shrine to the singer, with concert posters and hand-drawn art of Parsons covering nearly every wall.

Annis himself returned to the motel, seeking out the infamous room 8. “For devoted fans, Room 8 is a site akin to Jesus’ alleged crucifixion site on Golgotha. For $198 a night — with a two-night minimum — you can stay within these off-white cinder-block walls, but it’s often booked well in advance.” Annis added that the inn has a couple of acoustic guitars that guests can take back to their rooms to play.

Other music writers marked the anniversary by trying to deliberately ignore the circumstances surrounding Gram’s death, instead concentrating on the music he left behind.

A New York Times feature on Parsons was headlined: “Enough About Gram Parsons’s Death. It’s Time to Celebrate His Music.” But that didn’t prevent pop critic Lindsay Zoladz from devoting her first 400-odd words to detailing the cremation she labelled “as sad macabre and sordid enough to have inspired a movie titled Grand Theft Parsons."

Zoladz then asked: “Why has this cultural fixation on Parsons’s death endured for 50 years – now almost double his time alive?”

She sought to immediately answer her question: "Some of it has to do with the posthumous nature of his fame and influence. As his buddy Keith Richards wrote in his autobiography, Life, Parsons 'changed the face of country music and he wasn't around long enough to find out.' Parsons first biographer, Ben Fong-Torres, put it another way in his 1991 book Hickory Wind: 'Life, for him, was a series of incomplete sentences.' For the last half century, then, it's been up to the survivors to finish them."

And to pick up on Zoladz’s conclusion, there are two principal survivors who must be credited with Gram’s posthumous fame as a musician. The first is Chris Hillman and the second – and most significant – Emmylou Harris. One indeed led to the other.

A member of a rich family of Florida citrus orchardists, Parsons found himself at Harvard University, but soon discovered music was his true vocation and he left to form a group called International Submarine Band, along with a bunch of musicians from the Boston folk scene. In 1968, the band cut one album Safe at Home, with four of the 10 tracks being penned by Parsons.

By the time the album was released the following year, Parsons had left the band and migrated to Los Angeles where he had a chance meeting with Chris Hillman, the bassist for The Byrds, one of the hottest acts on the music scene at the time. Within months, Parsons had joined The Byrds following the departure of David Crosby and Michael Clark.

Gram was in the lineup which cut the classic Byrds album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but his influential role was still somewhat diminished by a contractual record dispute which lingered from his time with the International Submarine Band. He still featured as lead vocalist on three songs from Sweetheart, including his own composition “Hickory Wind,” which would be regarded as his finest work.

Parsons lasted only a matter of months with The Byrds. He quit the group while they were in England in the summer of ’68, refusing to take part in a proposed tour of South Africa because of his stated opposition to apartheid. He made his decision after consulting new-found friends - and two of the biggest names in popular music – Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Upon returning to L.A., Parsons sought out Hillman, now also another Byrds exile, and the pair formed The Flying Burrito Brothers with “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow and Chris Ethridge. Parsons cut two distinctive albums, The Gilded Palace of Sin and Burrito Deluxe, with the band in 1969-70. And it is fair to say this output alone was sufficient to - as Richards was to say - “change the face of country music.”

Parsons had a hand in composing 14 of the 22 tracks on the two albums. And some – like “Sin City,” “Wheels,” “Hot Burrito #1,” “High Fashion Queen” – would end up in the catalogues of various alt country artists for years to come. But it was two covers on Burrito Deluxe which would prove most significant in gauging Gram’s enduring influence across the various genres of country music. Each was at a different end of the musical spectrum.

“Farther Along” was a southern gospel song dating back to the early 20th century. It had been recorded by some of the biggest names in music but until now, none had given it the foot-tapping, honky-tonkish flavour that Parsons and co did. It would be yet another cue for artists of future generations to reinvent traditional music.

But it was a song at the rock end of the music scale that proved the most significant of Gram’s tenure with The Flying Burrito Brothers. For Burrito Deluxe featured the first recording of the Rolling Stones song “Wild Horses” – some 12 months before the Stones themselves released it on Sticky Fingers. Such an event was extremely rare in pop music at the time, but Keith Richards had given his great mate Gram a demo tape of the song as a goodwill gesture. Parsons needed no hesitation in cutting what is now regarded by many as the definitive country-version of a song which was to become an Americana standard.

There has, over the years, been conjecture that in fact Parsons may have had a hand in writing “Wild Horses” – he and Richards would spend hours swapping guitar riffs. But he never got, nor indeed did he ever seek, a song-writing credit. That remained firmly Richards/Jagger.

But it was Gram’s strong friendship – some would say infatuation – with the Stones that proved his undoing in yet another group. He soon lost interest in the Burritos and would turn up late for gigs, further irking the band by arriving in a flash limousine (his wealthy family trust had by now kicked in). He was eventually fired in June 1970 by Hillman after being so inebriated onstage one night he kept singing the wrong songs.

The only alternative now was for Parsons to go solo. He decided that it would help to have a female backing singer in his line-up and the word went out he was “looking for a chick singer.” Hillman again came to his rescue. He had been encouraged by another associate to seek out a female folk artist at a DC club. Her name was Emmylou Harris.

Within a year, Harris was in Gram’s line-up for his first solo album. She was indeed the only “nobody” in the bunch of musicians Parsons had recruited. Most were from the Elvis Presley band, TCB, including big names Glenn D Hardin (piano, organ), James Burton (electric guitar), and Ron Tutt (drums). An even bigger name, Merle Haggard, was set to produce, but on the afternoon of the first studio session, he suddenly pulled out. Parsons was devastated, but soon found a replacement in former Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech.

The recording sessions took place over two months, September-October, 1972, and when GP was released in January 1973, it failed to reach the Billboard 200, nor would the single, the Parsons/Ethridge-penned “She.” There were five other Gram-composed songs among the 11 tracks.

In hindsight, this country-skewed album would become the classic “slow-burner.” For it would establish not only Parsons as a vocalist of some sway, but introduce Harris and her astonishing voice to the music world. The two proper duets she does with Parsons – “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning” and “That’s All It Took” – are simply sensational and do much to accentuate Gram’s impressive lyrical delivery.

To promote the album, Parsons and Harris set out on a cross-country tour, managed by Kaufman. Gram could not afford the TCB band-members, who also still had contractual obligations to Elvis, so he recruited a bunch of musical journeymen – Neil Flanz (pedal steel), N.D. Smart 11 (drums), Kyle Tullis (bass) and Jock Bartley (guitar). He called them the Fallen Angels.

By all accounts, the tour got off to a rough start, with Kaufman describing it in a 2004 documentary as “just disaster after disaster.” But Emmylou’s influence was seemingly as apparent on tour as it had been in the studio. She started insisting on fixed rehearsals and set lists and soon all were singing from the same sheet – and getting rapturous audience responses.

There is no better proof of this than on Gram’s album Live 1973, not released until 1982. It was recorded during the tour on March 13, 1973, at the Ultra Sonic Recording Studios in Hempstead, New York, and broadcast live on Radio WLIR-FM from Garden City, New York. The show works extremely well – steel guitar, bass et al. And yes, there are times that you imagine the Fallen Angels had just piled off the tour bus, but that is what makes the performance so appealing. Gram’s wacky between-song repartee also helps.

The original Live 1973 release had 11 tracks, five of them from GP. But the true significance of the live album is that it previews the Parsons/Harris duet classic “Love Hurts” which would be the stand-out track on Gram’s next, and final, album Grievous Angel. The live release also features the only solo recording of Harris, during her period with Parsons, where she does a rip-roaring version of “Country Baptizing.”

When the 1973 spring turned into summer, it was time to record his second solo album, with the sessions taking place in Hollywood. But by now Gram’s intoxicating habits were impacting severely on his output and he had a dearth of original material. He did write two original songs – “Return of the Grievous Angel” and “In My Hour of Darkness” - during the sessions, but mainly relied on old songs like “Hickory Wind,” from The Byrds, and ones rejected from previous albums, like “Brass Buttons” from his Boston folk days.

Despite Gram’s death in September, 1973, Grievous Angel, was still released the following January. But, according to reports, not before Gram’s widow Gretchen insisted on changes to the cover format and attribution to downplay Emmylou’s role. While the album barely made it into the Billboard 200 – peaking at 195 – it has, over subsequent years, been elevated to Great/All Time top album lists.

And much of this subsequent adulation can be attributed to Harris and how her treatment of Gram’s output would directly integrate it into various musical genres beyond just country-rock.

Some might say it was a no-brainer for the Warner Music Group to rescue Harris from the smouldering ruins, so to speak, of Gram’s life. The Hollywood conglomerate’s record label Reprise had taken a surprising punt on his solo work and Harris was the obvious flashing beacon of light still glowing. Canadian Producer Brian Ahern – the man who made Anne Murray a star – would be enlisted to reignite Emmylou’s career. She had already recorded a somewhat lost-in-the-fog folky album Gliding Bird in 1970.

Harris and Ahern, who would marry in 1977, would make 10 albums over eight memorable years and in doing so create a unique fusion of genres; with material from Lennon & McCartney to the Louvin Bros and from the Carter Family to Springsteen. And all this had its roots in what Parsons was trying to do with his music.

While her first “official” album in 1975, Pieces of Sky, did not include any compositions or past songs by Parsons, it did include Harris’s own, very personal tribute to Gram. Co-written with prolific songwriter Bill Danoff, “Boulder to Birmingham” would become a classic and indeed her signature song – if not for only this immortal line: I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham/If I thought I could see, I could see your face

The Warner Music investment paid immediate dividends, with Pieces of Sky reaching the top ten of the Billboard Country Charts, something Parsons was never able to achieve.

It was a sure sign of things to come! For her next album Elite Hotel, which was released 10 months later, shot to #1 on the Billboard Country Charts. And here, among the 14 tracks, were three Gram co-writes – “Sin City” (Parsons/Hillman), “Ooh Las Vegas” (Parsons/Grech), “Wheels” (Parsons/Hillman). Each of these stunning renditions alone were good enough to win her first Grammy, as Best Country Vocal Performance.

Her next release, exactly a year after Elite Hotel, provided an even deeper connection to Parsons when one of his songs “Luxury Liner” was chosen as the title track. This album, considered by many as her best with Ahern, was a successive #1 on the Country Charts. It also included the Parsons-Ethridge composition “She.”

It would not be until 1979, on her fifth Warner Bros album Blue Kentucky Girl that Harris would release her own version of the achingly-beautiful “Hickory Wind,” considered Gram’s signature song and one he wrote with Bob Buchanan when they played together in the International Submarine Band. Hillman once said: “If Gram had never written another song, 'Hickory Wind' would have put him on the map.” There has been a lingering dispute over authorship of the song - a folk-singer from South Carolina claimed in 2002 that she had written it in the early sixties. But both Buchanan and Hillman remained adamant it was an original song by Gram and Bob.

It is also important note that many of the musicians who Parsons recruited – largely from TCB – stayed with Harris during much of her output with Ahern. Hardin and Burton were still there, along with big names Emory Gordy Jr (bass) and Herb Pedersen (guitar). And when you stack them side to side with emerging greats like Rodney Crowell, Albert Lee and Micky Raphael, the term Hot Band truly applies.

As Harris expanded her performing base across other artists and projects, she still remained under Gram’s musical shadow. Perhaps the best example was when she teamed up with old friends Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in 1987 to deliver the Grammy-winning, Platinum-selling collaborative album Trio. And the final of the 11 tracks would be “Farther Along,” with a stunning country-rock fusion - enough to make the earth move in Gram’s Louisiana grave. And maybe, at the same time, something fluttered in the wind around Cap Rock in the Joshua Tree Park!

Paul Cutler – Editor Crossroads Americana Music Appreciation


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