When it comes to early deaths in the world of musicians and celebrities, it’s easy to look back at a life and conjure up a positive perspective of a particular artist’s legacy and output. That’s not to say the outpouring of love and support that traditionally follows an untimely passing is ingenuine – it almost always certainly is – but it is hard to objectively analyze and understand something in the immediate moments after the emotional distress of losing someone.
The irony in Gram Parsons’ enormous influence on popular music is that it predominantly occurred after he died. And in considering Gram’s career-adjacent acts who were heavily inspired by his unabashed love for country, they all achieved far more commercial success and notoriety than he ever did.
On the surface, the most obvious ripple effects of his ventures with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers happened alongside him in Los Angeles, with Buffalo Springfield, Dillard & Clark, Neil Young, Poco and the Eagles. Each of these acts played country to varying degrees, glossing up their own brands of Americana with pop, hard rock and bluegrass.
Gram’s audiences in L.A. clubs frequented Jim Morrison, Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne. Elsewhere along the way, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin all became fans. While Gram was alive and active, a select and special audience became aware of his mission, though the world at large was extremely naive to how the synthesis of country-rock was truly laid out. After Gram migrated to Los Angeles, his group of intimates included actors and counterculture icons like Brandon deWilde, Peter Fonda, the future Bianca Jagger, Marlon Brando and others. His outgoing style and natural likeness for fitting in among interesting crowds made him extremely fashionable with high-minded individuals everywhere.
Gram and his crew of Hollywood libertines shared a love and passion for music. At one point, both deWilde and Fonda even recorded songs written by Gram. What should not get lost in this arch of inter-celebrity mingling, is that Gram played true country music. His repertoire of songs was vast and encompassed decades and decades of honky-tonk, folk, blues, soul and gospel, but when it came down to it, his stuff was country through and through.
In the late 1960s, with America on the brink of entering post-hippie depression, country was far from cool in counterculture circles. If you were a hippie or had long hair, you did not play country music. If you played country music, you did not have long hair nor did you believe in hippie ideals. Gram was all the above. He smoked pot, was shaggy-headed and exalted George Jones and Merle Haggard as godly figures.
When The Byrds flocked to Nashville to record Sweetheart of the Rodeo, they were taking a leap of faith. The reactions from both rock and country crowds ranged from disgusted to lukewarm. They were mocked on public radio and in the press, booed at The Grand Ole Opry, and by Byrds standards, their album hardly sold a penny. As bleak as Sweetheart‘s impact seemed at the time, it was still a “Byrds album” and the record turned some heads, even if only a few. Alongside The Byrds at the end of the decade and plunging full steam into creating country music of their own were Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead. Into the 1970s, everyone followed suit.
By the time Gram died in 1973, his melting pot of American sounds was being fattened up and served to the mainstream and in huge helpings. However, while his impact during the time he was alive felt rather small, Gram’s inner circle of country converts would go on to alter the country and rock music industries immensely. Whether it was Emmylou Harris or Keith Richards, Elvis Costello or Lucinda Williams, Gram’s wide-spanning knowledge of American roots music along with his persistence to inject his songs with honest truth would lead songwriters across different genres and multiple generations to understand the emotional potency of country and create their own chapter within its book.
In observing Gram’s influence, there is no more significant and immediate artist to begin with than Emmylou Harris. Prior to joining Gram in the studio and on the road with The Fallen Angels, Harris was a folk singer meandering around the east coast in search of artistic direction. After being invited to join the sessions for Gram’s first solo album, her path would change forever and country music was all the better for it.
Harris’ contributions to Gram’s two solo albums cannot be understated. Her harmonies were a steady component of the music and at times, their beauty was overwhelming. As David N. Meyer writes in Twenty Thousand Roads, Harris “could harmonize with a barking dog and break your heart.” Her signature angelic soprano vocals were the perfect compliment to Gram’s weary, philosophical tone.
After Gram passed in 1973, she carried his torch, establishing herself in Los Angeles and around country music by forming her own band and popularizing the work of Gram and the country greats whom he loved so dearly. Her first three country albums, Pieces of the Sky, Elite Hotel and Luxury Liner announced an incredible interpreter of pop, rock, folk and country, a trend that would continue through the next several decades, culminating with Red Dirt Girl, widely regarded as Harris’ masterpiece and the first record featuring all original songs co-written by her, in the year 2000.
As she grew in popularity, Harris became a shining example of how to maintain artistic integrity and freedom while gaining commercial and critical acclaim. She never lost sight of Gram’s vision the entire way, recording dozens of his songs, along with other country standards she grew to love following his light.
Emmylou Harris is the most obvious and clear descendant of Gram’s country music family tree, but the magnitude of his influence stretches far beyond the Los Angeles scene he and Harris were a part of. What makes Gram’s music all the more significant are the ways in which his brand of country evolved through the different lenses of those he was closest to and impacted the most. However much his contemporaries and successors would borrow from his music and vision, they all eventually expanded upon the framework of his Cosmic American Music in ways perhaps even Gram would have never thought imaginable.
During his lifetime, Gram saw groups like the Eagles and The Rolling Stones adopt bits and pieces of his own philosophy and completely reshape them in their own ways. The Eagles, who were founded on the concept of being a rhythmic-based vocal outfit that blended rock, country and bluegrass, took to the increasingly popular country-rock stylings of The Flying Burrito Brothers and polished off the product for a pop audience. Ultimately, they became one of the most iconic American rock bands in history and played a significant role in shaping the slick and harmonic sound of Nashville in the new millennium.
Some of Gram’s most well-known cohorts, The Rolling Stones also took to the country boom in their own unique way. As far as rock bromances go, Gram and Keith Richards’ relationship is well-documented and fondly remembered. In between Gram’s firing from the FBB and his solo works, he spent extended periods of time with Richards living in Europe. The two would sit for hours at the piano trying to figure out different licks and tunings as they cycled through Gram’s encyclopedic assortment of country songs. Out of Gram and Richards’ relationship, Keith and the Stones were introduced to new worlds. Their musical umbrella expanded even further. Their subsequent works, notably Exile On Main St., exemplified that in every quality.
About Exile, David N. Meyer writes “Over its four sides, Exile did more than embrace Gram’s Cosmic American Music; Exile proved it existed. As Gram had always preached was possible, the Stones subsumed gospel, country, R&B, soul, honky-tonk, blues, roadhouse, boogie-woogie and rock into their own sound. What they created was Stones music rooted in the broad embrace of Americana that was Gram’s passion and expertise.”
In the same way the Stones manifested the musical melting pot Gram was so passionate about, other acts like Delaney & Bonnie and former Byrd Gene Clark also carved out their own lanes by submersing themselves in a multitude of American genres. This proved that Gram’s philosophy was far from singular, even in his time, but it wasn’t until the next generation of songwriters that his mindset would once again be tackled head on through a country-based approach.
The ’80s and ’90s introduced a new wave of underground country. Officially dubbed “alt-country,” the new format being played by bands such as Uncle Tupelo, Cowboy Junkies and Whiskeytown, and adopted by singer-songwriters like Lucinda Williams, approached elements of classic country with a modern attitude that was equally interested in punk, roots rock and other alternative styles.
Many alternative country acts had little to do with Gram’s exact sound and aesthetic. Where Gram became a major point of inspiration, is in the ambitious fusing of country with other prevailing trends, and especially by way of his weary, lonesome lyric writing. Perhaps the first group to truly dawn the alt-country label, upon their arrival, Uncle Tupelo introduced a completely new brand of genre-blending madness. Their debut album No Depression presented country ballads played with the fury of hardcore while representing the moral attitudes and values of the Midwestern United States. They took this practice even further on future records, March 16-20, 1992 and Anodyne, fully embraced the heart-wrenching stories and down-trodden essence of traditional country music, even as their sound resembled it less and less.
The offspring of Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt and Wilco (each founded by one of Tupelo’s leaders, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy) became highly influential bands of their own. In the same way Gram had coalesced country and rock with The International Submarine Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers, Tupelo, Wilco and Son Volt welcomed edgy country stylings into their music with open arms. Wilco’s mature and baroque sound would evolve past progressive country and into new branches of indie rock, but deep in its roots, it remained in touch with Gram’s Cosmic American vision. They simply updated it for a new time and a new audience within a different genre.
Gram’s songwriting and evocative vocal style proved to be just as, if not more, influential to future generations as his genre-melding music. Among Gram’s most recognizable descendants were Lucinda Williams and Sheryl Crow, both of whom established footing in the worlds of rock and singer-songwriter music for their provocative and abrasive touch. Through them, the honesty of Gram’s music continued to survive and flourish in the hands of the masses. Williams, who has explicitly cited GP among her biggest influences, especially channeled the tormented worldview that made Gram’s music so haunting yet spiritually profound.
The painfully earnest nature of Gram’s writing and singing seeped into other genres as well. Of all his country converts, Elvis Costello came to be among Gram’s most outspoken super-fans. His 1981 album, Almost Blue, was entirely comprised of country covers, including songs by Gram, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and George Jones. Like Ray Charles had done two decades prior, Costello had embraced the sincerity of country and delivered it in in the style of his own confessional outbursts. At the heart of it all were the heartbreaking songs that informed Gram’s very existence. The tender and emotional serenades that were Gram’s bread and butter now lived within pop and soul music, lending more and more credibility to classic country along the way.
The direct line of artists who Gram heavily inspired is long and fruitful. From his immediate successors like Emmylou Harris, to more oblique descendants like Uncle Tupelo, Gram’s championing of country music within the worlds of rock and pop was simply ahead of its time.
The significance of his work came full circle in 1999 on Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons, an entire album of Gram covers featuring household names, including Chris Hillman, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, Wilco, Whiskeytown and others. The album, released as a carefully-crafted broadcast production and CD, illuminated all the elements of Gram’s artistry: the poignant lyrics, the colorful ensemble of instrumentation, and most of all, the enduring beauty of his songs.
Over 50 years after The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers first attempted to persuade rock audiences to believe in country music, the integration of country into different avenues of modern art, both mainstream and underground, is celebrated all around the globe. Where country music was once pigeon-holed into being a rural, conservative and rudimentary art form, Gram projected its honesty and the potency of its simplicity within audiences whom otherwise may have never understood its true essence. His records never sold nearly enough and ultimately, his life and career were far too short for any impact he made to be blatantly visible while he was alive. For all his shortcomings as a person and professional musician, Gram’s quest to spread the gospel of country music was genuine and wholehearted. Five decades later, his enthusiasm thrives in the work of countless modern artists.
Today’s country music embodies an astounding variety of shapes and sounds. From the folk-infused harmonies First Aid Kit to Lola Kirke’s cosmic interpretations of roots rock to Sturgill Simpson’s hard-nosed alternative flair, the world of Americana has never been more equipped with talent and relevancy. It’s safe to say today we are living in the Cosmic American dream Gram once longed for to be real.
Why Gram Parsons has not yet been inducted into neither the Country or Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a regular point of controversy. Even with a shift in popular perception, Gram’s contributions to each institution, especially country’s, go far beyond regular measures and are certainly deserving of grander recognition. Awards and commercial recognition were never the focus of Gram’s mission, but nearly half a century after his passing, it seems appropriate to acknowledge the magnitude of his artistic accomplishments with a definitive enshrinement. Accolades aside, Gram’s musical legacy remains alive and in tact, flourishing in the light of those continuing to share the gospel of country music with the world.
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