ND friends: In an effort to introduce you to this new and different look at the influence of the South in Gram Parsons' music and legacy, in this blog I'll be excerpting some content from the book. We begin, appropriately, with chapter one...
In Gulf Shores, Alabama, on a sun-drenched sliver of white sand, sea oats, and rolling dunes, Avis Johnson Bartkus opened up about being part of her Uncle Gram Parsons’s complicated legacy.
After he died, Bartkus’s mother, Gram’s baby sister, would never play his records, or the Rolling Stones. Bartkus was thirty-four years old the first time she heard her uncle’s pioneering music.
“She never talked about any of it,” Bartkus reflected while gazing at the restless Gulf of Mexico. “It was painful for her to listen to.”
Pain and tragedy run like perilous fault lines through three families that make up Gram Parsons’s family tree: the Connors of Tennessee, the Parsons of Louisiana, and a wealthy central Florida citrus family, the Snivelys. Within all of them, addiction has taken a toll like canker to an orange crop.
Bartkus’s mother and grandmother were also named Avis. “Avie” as friends call her, does not suffer from addiction as her mother and grandmother did. Avie has her own family and can file away her late mother’s bad memories and poignant writings about family struggles. Occasionally, Avie questions where her uncle would be now if he’d made it out of the desert of addiction alive.
“His heart was back home in the South,” she said. “I think there was definitely some draw in Tennessee and Nashville and that area.” In 1973, at just twenty-six, Gram Parsons came back south in a box. The circumstances surrounding his death explain why some blood relatives like Avie, aren’t fully aware of his importance to the world of contemporary music.
It’s far too simplistic to say Gram Parsons is the father of country rock; many artists share that distinction. Beginning in the late 1960s, Parsons spearheaded the cultural desegregation of both idioms. At the height of America’s generational firestorm over Vietnam and civil rights, his vision helped heal the bitter divide between peacenik, hippie rockers, and the conservative America-love-it-or-leave-it crowd. Given his musical, freewheeling young adulthood and upper-middle-class southern upbringing, Parsons was an amalgam of both.
Parsons never wanted to be anointed the avatar of country rock, a label he didn’t care for. In the early 1970s, he thought music from groups like the Eagles to be “plastic” and not true to the soulful, bluesy side of country music. That’s what people didn’t understand; Parsons was actually playing pure country with contemporary lyrics and attitude. He retained a deep admiration for the purveyors of so-called “white man’s blues,” authentic American artists like George Jones and Merle Haggard.
Gram Parsons referred to what he was doing as “Cosmic American Music.” Many of those close to him, including former collaborator Chris Hillman, have been at a loss to define what he meant.
What Parsons called Cosmic American Music was born in the mid-1950s; its own roots can be traced to hymns and sacred spirituals sung for generations in southern churches. In the middle of the twentieth century, artists like Ray Charles and Elvis Presley brought a blending of seemingly disparate musical styles that accelerated purely through the magic of invisible radio waves.
“Radio did not obey the law,” wrote journalist and scholar William McKeen. “Radio travelled through the air and the air did not recognize arbitrary lines drawn by men. Radio did not respect Jim Crow laws so it became the great unsung subversive force that brought about social change in America.”
The force filtered its way to teenagers through another crucial innovation. “The transistor radio was a big breakthrough,” declared Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Roger McGuinn. “It gave kids the ability to listen to what they wanted to when they wanted to as opposed to what their parents wanted them to listen to.”
The music they heard on the radio brought young people together and provided hope for a way out of the hardscrabble towns where so much of it was born. Children of the South like Parsons didn’t need to choose between the music of Ray Charles, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, or Bob Dylan. To them, it was all good.
Despite violence and intimidation, in the segregation era courageous folk musicians performed alongside black artists. During the Vietnam War, Cosmic American Music for the first time brought California folk rockers to the ultraconservative Grand Ole Opry; hippies and cowboys found common ground in Austin, Texas; and outsider country artists no longer had to adhere to the slick Nashville way.
The South, where Gram Parsons grew up, is Cosmic America—a region rife with musicians and storytellers spinning tales of sin and redemption, love and heartache, troubadours and reprobates. This definitive region produced a gumbo of musical styles rooted in places like Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Nashville, New Orleans, Austin, Way-cross, Macon, and Winter Haven. There’s Mississippi Delta blues, the Chitlin’ Circuit, New Orleans jazz, traditional country, rockabilly, and now something we’ll call the youth center circuit.
In the 1960s, Florida youth centers incubated what came to be known as southern rock from the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Outlaws. Hybrid artists Gram Parsons, Jim Stafford, and Bernie Leadon played this circuit. Mainstream rockers like Tom Petty, Don Felder, Stephen Stills, and Les Dudek honed their chops in Florida youth centers as did traditional country musicians and writers like Bobby Braddock and John Anderson. No matter how big or small, towns and cities all over Florida had their own teen centers where underage kids had a chance to get paid to play, and where nationally known artists came to perform. This youth center circuit is the Sunshine State’s great unsung musical tradition.
What lies ahead is an examination of Gram Parsons’s own Cosmic American roots, planted deeply within the Georgia red clay and Florida myakka. This is literary journalism: a serendipitous adventure through Parsons’s myriad southern musical stopping-off points and beyond. Even at a young age, Parsons had an uncanny ability to surround himself with musicians far better than he, immersing himself in important music scenes in a Forrest Gump-like way.
Once Parsons moved away from Florida to pursue musical fortunes in Cambridge, New York, and eventually Los Angeles, he came back south to perform, gain inspiration, collect trust fund payments, and recruit musician friends to play on his recordings. His landmark solo records included an all-star cast of southern studio players. Jim Stafford, one of his most important influences, was like an older brother. Bluesy baritone and south Florida folk legend Fred Neil was another key influence.
In early 1968, Parsons brought his bold creative vision to the most influential rock-and-roll band in America, the Byrds. When that confederation split apart, Parsons co-founded the archetypal “country rock” band with a more hip, California attitude, the Flying Burrito Brothers. Years later, Parsons hit his stride with a southern musical soul mate, Emmylou Harris, and seized on the opportunity to express his pioneering vision as a solo artist.
“I don’t know if I’m playing with fire or if I’m doing the right thing even,” Parsons once told an interviewer. “I think I am. When I say that longhairs, shorthairs, people with overalls, people with their velvet gear on can all be at the same place at the same time for the same reason, that turns me on.”
Parsons committed to country music while few thought of it as a cool thing to do. During the peace and love era, he became the movement’s standard bearer along with other highly influential hybrids like Linda Ronstadt, Bob Dylan, Richie Furay, Gene Clark, Doug Dillard, Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Mike Nesmith, Bernie Leadon, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dickie Betts, and the Band.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the idea of Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant recording alongside a country singer like Dolly Parton would have been about as likely as the Eagles playing country rock in matching business suits.
Forty years later, the mainstream music establishment lavished upon Plant and bluegrass belle Allison Krause a bushel basket of Grammys for their collaboration. Is it any wonder Plant had taken to wearing a Gram Parsons T-shirt?
When Tom Petty re-formed his own central Florida youth center circuit-era band Mudcrutch, he invoked the name of Gram Parsons as an inspiration. Musicians as diverse as Elvis Costello, Dwight Yoakum, Ryan Adams, Patty Griffin, and Steve Earle have also paid homage to alt-country’s patron saint, the Cosmic American hipster.
Emmylou Harris’s Country Music Hall of Fame catalog is rich with Gram Parsons songs and his seminal influence. That alone is validation of his legacy.
It’s impossible to tell a Gram Parsons story without taking a serious and sober look at the devastating effects of drugs and alcohol. Within the context of Parsons’s contemporaries who survived, we’ll consider the notion of surrendering to addiction and finding redemption. Descendants like Avis Johnson Bartkus know all too well how Gram Parsons’s extended family has been ravaged.
So now we travel the road a little deeper, to many southern people and places that shaped the life of a Florida boy with deep Georgia roots. Through a newly discovered group of historic images of Parsons, dozens more rare photographs provided by Parsons’s family, letters, and many new primary source interviews, you’ll meet the remarkable array of musicians and regular folk with whom Parsons collaborated and from whom he gained inspiration. You’ll travel to the most important stages in Gram Parsons’s fleeting career: some hidden, others only a memory.
Most chapters begin with what we’ll call a “revisit” to persons or places important to this story. Together we’ll feel the vibrations of history as we go back to where Parsons and his friends wrote, played, and performed.
Find out why Gram Parsons, like so many other southern kids who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, had a singular focus and burning ambition to be like Elvis. Relive the remarkable opportunity Parsons had to see the King of Rock and Roll and a stellar roster of greats who appeared with Presley. In the place it happened, we’ll speak with a legendary performer who was there.
Take a trip to rock and roll’s most important region, the Cosmic American South. Wait and listen for all those forgotten, far-off voices crackling in via AM radio. Remember the sweet smell of citrus, hickory, and evergreen wafting through the air, slight and vague, but cherished like a distant memory. Run the dusty back roads and orange groves with barefoot children, climb on top of the boathouse, and gaze at the stars framed through strands of Spanish moss.
Come along now, to a long-gone era in the low country, with a few detours to points northeast and west. That’s where we’re headed.