Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music
It took Gram Parsons just over six years to change the face of American music. Parsons brought fresh force to country tradition with the International Submarine Band, remade the Byrds in his own image on the classic Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, founded the Flying Burrito Brothers, and recorded two solo albums of aching beauty, all before his death in 1973. He was 26.
Along the way, he taught the Rolling Stones about country music, discovered Emmylou Harris singing in a nightclub in Washington, D.C., wrote a handful of songs — “Sin City”, “Hickory Wind”, “Brass Buttons” — that stand as classics of down-home American country soul, and, by all accounts, ingested more alcohol, cocaine and heroin than seems possible. It would be hard to overstate his influence on country, alt-country, Americana, roots music, and all their permutations.
Despite his towering legacy, the most complete biography Parsons has received until now is Ben Fong-Torres’ well-intentioned but slapdash Hickory Wind (1991). Fong-Torres has a keen sense of Parsons’ music, but he scrambles to keep track of the myriad musicians and scenesters who moved in Parsons’ orbit, and his narrative feels choppy and rushed.
With Twenty Thousand Roads, Parsons has finally received a book equal to his musical accomplishments and outsized personality. David N. Meyer’s biography is an exceptional piece of research and writing, lucid and penetrating about the music, fair-minded yet tough about Parsons’ shortcomings and wasted potential. Meyer has tracked down and interviewed hundreds of Parsons’ associates, some of whom have never spoken on the record before, and his synthesis of these sources is fluid and absorbing.
Meyer has gone further than anyone else in understanding the roots of Parsons’ self-destructive tendencies, tracing them to his upbringing in a rich southern family haunted by suicide and alcoholism. He also debunks many of the myths that have grown up around Parsons, and provides as objective an account of his doomed last night at the Joshua Tree Inn and its notorious aftermath as we will ever have.
For the most part, Meyer’s analysis of Parsons’ music is articulate and perceptive, with the exception of his dismissal of the Fallen Angels, the pickup band that toured with Parsons in 1973. (Meyer faults drummer N.D. Smart for his inability “to play anything other than a 4/4 shuffle,” even though Smart’s drumming on the waltz-time “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” is sprightly and swinging.)
Meyer’s book is otherwise especially illuminating about the technical aspects of the music Gram made his own, whether explaining the difference between Nashville and Bakersfield country or discussing the intricacies of pedal steel guitar playing. As a bonus, the book includes a comprehensive and often droll encyclopedia of Parsons’ contemporaries. (Keith Richards is identified as “the only man who can play a Chuck Berry song worse than Chuck Berry.”)
The true strength of Twenty Thousand Roads, however, is its insight into how Parsons’ demons and excesses were inextricably linked to the greatness of his music. Meyer is clear-eyed and occasionally brutal about Parsons’ drug use, wobbly work ethic, and callow self-absorption, but he refuses to romanticize his subject’s excesses or exploit them for prurient effect. In the end, Meyer’s book betrays a deep sense of sadness over what could have been. That sadness is part of what made Gram Parsons’ music so moving. It is also part of what killed him.