The Holy Grail of Cosmic American Music – Gram Parsons Journal
Around the corner from Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, a bunch of lucky Americanafest goers found ourselves in the presence of the holy grail of Cosmic American Music, which, on September 14, transformed the Hard Rock Café on Broadway into our own little church. A long-forgotten journal filled with handwritten notes, lyrics, drawings, and set lists had once been held in the hands of Gram Parsons. Turning the pages (while wearing white “archivist” gloves) became a near-spiritual experience for Shilah Morrow, Queen Bee of Sin City Social Club, and me, a longtime fan and chronicler of Gram’s music.
This opportunity arose, due to a bit of cosmic intervention: In Seattle, No Depression’s Kyla Fairchild recently heard about the notebook from Floridian Jeff Nolan, Hard Rock Café’s historian of music and memorabilia, via a mutual friend of the two who’d connected them. In his job as the company’s archivist, Jeff had stumbled upon the beat-up bound book stashed away in the Hard Rock’s massive warehouse of music artifacts in Orlando. When he opened the unlabeled journal’s metal hinged fastener, Jeff’s heart beat faster as he flipped through its pages. As soon as he saw the handwritten lyrics to “$1000 Wedding,” he knew it had belonged to Parsons. The Hard Rock had purchased the journal at a Christie’s auction in the 1990s; it had previously belonged to Rick Grech, a former member of Blind Faith. Gram had visited Grech in England in mid-1971 and the two collaborated on songwriting for a possible Grech recording. (Two years later, Grech would co-produce Parsons’ first solo album.)
Though there are no dates anywhere on the chockful pages, clues suggest that Gram wrote in the book from late 1969 through his visit with Grech in ’71. Several of the lyrics in the journal are of songs featured on the Burritos’ second album, Burrito Deluxe, recorded in late ’69, among them “Cody, Cody,” “Man in the Fog,” and “Older Guys.” Also there: “Wild Horses”—with the chords written in above the words. Keith Richards had sent a tape of the song to Parsons just after the Stones recorded it in Muscle Shoals in November ‘69, and gave him permission for the Burritos to cover it on Burrito Deluxe (their version would be released before the Stones’ on 1971’s Sticky Fingers). Also for Deluxe, the Burritos played a nine-minute version of “$1000 Wedding” for the album’s producer, Jim Dickson, but he rejected it. Gram had written the song not long after his break-up with Nancy Ross, mother of his daughter, Polly. He finally recorded a heartbreaking version of “$1000 Wedding” for his second solo album, Return of the Grievous Angel, released posthumously in 1974.
Set lists include one notated as for the Troubadour; others may have been songs for shows that fall at the Whisky a-Go-Go, the Palomino, the Corral in Topanga Canyon, the Golden Bear at Huntington Beach, and on December 6 the ill-fated Altamont festival. Along with songs from the two Burritos albums, the set lists include such C&W classics as “Together Again” and “Six Days on the Road.” The Burritos returned to the studio in 1970 to record such nuggets as Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” and “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” also name-checked in the notebook.
Intriguingly, the journal includes lyrics for never-recorded songs, including one entitled “Lookin’ for a New Mama.” Which begs the question: Could this journal eventually provide raw material for new Parsons “collaborations,” like those included on The Last Whippoorwill12 years ago? That album was inspired by an earlier Parsons notebook in possession of guitarist John Nuese, who’d played with Gram in the International Submarine Band in the mid-1960s. Nuese rounded up such artists as Jim Lauderdale to write music to go with lyrics in that book.
What’s also exciting is reading Gram’s ideas for his never-heard first solo album, recorded in 1970 with Terry Melcher. The tapes were checked out from A&M in October ‘70 and vanished. A&M recording logs include some of the songs listed in this notebook: the Parsons original “Brass Buttons,” Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby,” and Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.” Also jotted down are studio ideas like “Keith’s slide guitar,” “ask Clarence 4 Nash guitar,” “Jr. Parker–sax,” and “4 harmonies of voices.”
At the convivial event organized by Kyla, Shilah, and Jeff, guests got to view all the journal’s pages scanned onto iPads, which were passed around the room, and projected onto large screens. The original journal sat under glass, its pages open to “$1000 Wedding.” Also sponsoring the event was the Gram Parsons Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up by Polly Parsons, to assist artists with addiction and recovery issues and to offer prevention and education via programs for teenagers (www.gramparsonsfoundation.org). Jim Lauderdale, Tim Easton, Brendan Benson, Honeyhoney and other artists performed Parsons songs, including some of the ones in the notebook. Lauderdale also played “Blessing for Being,” his contribution to The Last Whippoorwill.
Next year will mark 40 years that Gram Parsons died in the desert near Joshua Tree. His legacy remains, as proven so often during the rich musical performances over five days of the 2012 Americana Music Festival. But nowhere was his presence felt more deeply than at this gathering, where we could personally experience the pages where his ideas once flowed.