Country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons dies

On September 19, 1973, 26-year-old musician Gram Parsons dies of “multiple drug use” (morphine and tequila) in a California motel room. His death inspired one of the more bizarre automobile-related crimes on record: Two of his friends stashed his body in a borrowed hearse and drove it into the middle of the Joshua Tree National Park, where they doused it with gasoline and set it on fire.

Parsons’ music helped define the country-rock sound, and his records have influenced everyone from the Rolling Stones to Wilco. But like many musicians of his generation, Parsons struggled with drugs and alcohol. His childhood was unhappy: His father committed suicide when he was 12, and his mother died of alcohol poisoning on the day he graduated from high school. He dropped out of Harvard and moved to California, where he played with bands like the Byrds (on their seminal album Sweetheart of the Rodeo) and the Flying Burrito Brothers and released two celebrated solo albums with the then-unknown Emmylou Harris singing backup.

At a friend’s funeral a few months before he died, Parsons made a drunken pact with his road manager Phil Kaufman: If anything should happen to one of them, the other would take his body to Joshua Tree and cremate it. And so, after Parsons’ overdose, Kaufman and a roadie named Michael Martin met his coffin at the Los Angeles airport (for complicated reasons involving a disputed inheritance, his stepfather had arranged for it to be flown to Louisiana for a private funeral) in a borrowed hearse with broken windows and no license plates. (The hearse belonged to Martin’s girlfriend, who used it to carry tents and other gear on camping trips.) They convinced the airport staff that the Parsons family had changed its mind about the flight, loaded the coffin into the car, and drove 200 miles to the Mojave Desert, stopping along the way to fill a five-gallon tin can with gasoline. They drove into Joshua Tree and dragged the coffin to the foot of the majestic Cap Rock, where they doused it with the gas and tossed on a match.

What’s up with the strange end of country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons?

Dear Cecil:

While watching a recent interview with Emmylou Harris, I was horrified when a member of the audience asked a rather personal question about Gram Parsons ("Why did Gram Parsons kill himself at such a young age?"). Ms. Harris handled the question gracefully and moved on to other, more pertinent topics (the sad state of commercial country music), but the question got me thinking. I've been a fan of Parsons's music but don't really know all that much about him as a person, other than he died young and there was some controversy surrounding his death. Can you fill me in?

Jamie D., East Lansing, Michigan

Glad to. Some guys lead weird lives, some guys have weird deaths. Not everybody has a weird cremation.

Gram Parsons has become something of a cult figure in the music business. He never hit it big, and few outside a small circle remember him now. But people who ought to know say he was one of the pioneers behind the country-rock phenomenon of the late 60s and early 70s. A member of the Byrds for a short time, Parsons was the creative force behind their 1968 country album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which many consider a classic. He went on to form the Flying Burrito Brothers and later invited then unknown Emmylou Harris out to LA to sing on his solo album, GP (1973), helping to launch her career. He hung out with the Rolling Stones (his influence can be heard on several cuts from Exile on Main Street) and had a big impact on Elvis Costello, Linda Ronstadt, Tom Petty, and the Eagles. Remember New Riders of the Purple Sage and Pure Prairie League? They owed a lot to Parsons. He’s received many posthumous honors and musical tributes Emmylou Harris is working on a tribute album now, 25 years after his death. Best of all, he was born Ingram Cecil Connor III (Parsons came from his stepfather), and you gotta love a guy with a name like that.

Parsons wasn’t a suicide, but he killed himself all right. Blessed with charm and cash (his mother’s family had made a pile in the citrus business), he got into booze and drugs early. In September 1973 he finished recording an album and went with some friends to an inn at Joshua Tree National Monument, one of his favorite places. The group spent much of the day by the pool getting tanked. By evening Gram looked like hell and went to his room to sleep. Later, on their way out for some food, his friends were unable to rouse him, so they left, returning a little before midnight. By that time Parsons was pretty far gone. Taken to a hospital, he was pronounced dead shortly after midnight on September 19. A lab analysis found large amounts of alcohol and morphine in his system apparently the combination killed him. News coverage of his demise was eclipsed by the death of Jim Croce around the same time. Parsons was 26 years old.

So far, your typical live-fast-die-young story. Then it gets strange. Before his death Parsons had said that he wanted to be cremated at Joshua Tree and have his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there. But after his death his stepfather arranged to have the body shipped home for a private funeral, to which none of his low-life music buddies were invited. Said buddies would have none of it. Fortified by beer and vodka, they decided to steal Parsons’s body and conduct their own last rites.

Having ferreted out the shipping arrangements, Phil Kaufman (Parsons’s road manager) and another man drove out to the airport in a borrowed hearse, fed the poor schmuck in charge of the body a load of baloney about a last-minute change of plans, signed the release “Jeremy Nobody,” and made off with Parsons’s remains. They bought five gallons of gas, drove 150 miles to Joshua Tree, and by moonlight dragged the coffin as close to Cap Rock as they could. Kaufman pried open the lid to reveal Parsons’s naked cadaver, poured in the gas, and tossed in a match. A massive fireball erupted. The authorities gave chase but, as one account puts it, “were encumbered by sobriety,” and the desperadoes escaped.

The men were tracked down a few days later, but there was no law against stealing a body, so they were charged with stealing the coffin or, as one cop put it, “Gram Theft Parsons.” (Cops are such a riot.) Convicted, they were ordered to pay $750, the cost of the coffin. What was left of Parsons was buried in New Orleans.

So, youthful high jinks or breathless stupidity? All I know is, I’d want my friends to show a little more enterprise keeping me alive than torching my corpse.

Country soul of rock 'n' roll / Gram Parsons has long passed on, but local rockers plan to bask in his spirit at the Sleepless Nights tribute concert

** FILE ** Country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons is shown in this undated file photo. The life of Parsons is the subject of two films being shown at the Nashville Film Festival in Nashville, Tenn. April 26-May 2. (AP Photo/The Rhino Records, File) Ran on: 06-09-2006 Gram Parsons, a pioneer in the genre of country-rock music, who died in 1973. Ran on: 12-29-2006 Sarah Chang appears with the San Francisco Symphony. Rhino Records

7th Annual Sleepless Nights Gram Parsons Tribute Concert

Eric Shea became fascinated with Gram Parsons about 10 years ago. The San Francisco musician, best known as lead singer of Mover and Parchman Farm, took an indirect route into his obsession with the late, bedeviled singer-songwriter, who earned his "father of country rock" title for his work in the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, his solo recordings and his influence on everyone from Emmylou Harris and the Rolling Stones to Son Volt and Ryan Adams.

"I got into the Flying Burrito Brothers from listening to Teenage Fan Club records," Shea says. "I think they did a cover of 'Older Guys,' and I remember talking to a friend about bands like (England's) Mojave 3 that were starting to sound a little more country and were reminding me of that later Byrds stuff. And he said, 'Oh, yeah, that whole post-Gram Parsons thing.' Gram Parsons -- I'd heard that name dropped a thousand times, but I hadn't really sat down with his music and checked out his whole vision. And when I did, it totally changed my life."

In the late '80s and early '90s, Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks, the Bottle Rockets, the Old 97's and other bands launched the indie alt-country movement that bolstered the legacy of Parsons, who had done himself in with tequila and morphine in 1973 while vacationing near Joshua Tree National Monument. By 1995, Parsons was being memorialized in a Cosmic American Music Festival, a.k.a. Gram Fest, in Joshua Tree (San Bernardino County). A few years later Shea inaugurated the local San Francisco version, the Sleepless Nights Gram Parsons Tribute Concert -- in its seventh incarnation Saturday at the Great American Music Hall.

"My old band Mover was trying to contact somebody about playing Gram Fest," Shea says, "and I'd cold-called some answering machines and . no one got back to me. So I thought, Why don't we just do one here?" He has never had a problem finding musicians to fill the bill, which this year benefits the Pat Spurgeon Kidney Foundation (the Rogue Wave drummer needs a kidney).

Participants include Dave Gleason's Wasted Days, Red Meat, Elisa Randazzo and Ben Ashley, the Real Sippin' Whiskeys, Paula Frazer and Patrick Main, Sweetbriar and a Mover reunion. Musically, the common denominator is a respect for such Parsons songs as "Brass Buttons," "Return of the Grievous Angel" and "In My Hour of Darkness."

"His music was an influential combination of country and rock 'n' roll and soul," Shea says. "But it was his lyrics, which had this burning urgency of emotion and power that just kind of sucker-punched me. He had a simple way of saying things that makes you say, Wow, I wish I'd written that first."


Rock and roll has usually been seen as a combination of rhythm and blues and country music, a fusion particularly evident in 1950s rockabilly. [4] There has also been cross-pollination throughout the history of both genres however, the term “country-rock” is used generally to refer to the wave of rock musicians of the late 1960s and early 1970s who began recording rock songs with country themes, vocal styles, and additional instrumentation, most characteristically pedal steel guitars. [1] John Einarson states that, "[f]rom a variety of perspectives and motivations, these musicians either played country with a rock & roll attitude, or added a country feel to rock, or folk, or bluegrass. There was no formula". [5]

Origins Edit

Country influences can be heard on rock records through the 1960s, including the Beatles' 1964 recordings "I'll Cry Instead", "Baby's in Black", "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party", and their 1965 recording "I've Just Seen A Face", the Byrds' 1965 cover version of Porter Wagoner's "Satisfied Mind", or the Rolling Stones "High and Dry" (1966), as well as Buffalo Springfield's "Go and Say Goodbye" (1966) and "Kind Woman" (1968). [1] According to The Encyclopedia of Country Music, the Beatles' "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party", their cover of the Buck Owens country hit "Act Naturally" and their 1965 album Rubber Soul can all be seen "with hindsight" as examples of country rock. [6]

Former TV teen idol & rockabilly recording artist Ricky Nelson pioneered the Country Rock sound as the frontman for his Stone Canyon Band and recorded the 1966 album "Bright Lights & Country Music" and the 1967 album "Country Fever". Bassist Randy Meisner joined briefly in 1970 after leaving Poco and before joining Eagles.

In 1966, as many rock artists moved increasingly towards expansive and experimental psychedelia, Bob Dylan spearheaded the back-to-basics roots revival when he went to Nashville to record the album Blonde on Blonde, playing with notable local musicians like Charlie McCoy. [7] This, and the subsequent more clearly country-influenced albums, John Wesley Harding (1967) and Nashville Skyline (1969), have been seen as creating the genre of country folk, a route pursued by a number of, largely acoustic, folk musicians. [7]

Dylan's lead was also followed by the Byrds, who were joined by Gram Parsons in 1968. Parsons had mixed country with rock, blues and folk to create what he called "Cosmic American Music". [8] Earlier in the year Parsons had released Safe at Home (although the principal recording for the album had taken place in mid-1967) with the International Submarine Band, which made extensive use of pedal steel and is seen by some as the first true country-rock album. [1] The result of Parsons' brief tenure in the Byrds was Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), generally considered one of the finest and most influential recordings in the genre. [1] The Byrds continued in the same vein, but Parsons left before the album was released to join another ex-Byrds member Chris Hillman in forming the Flying Burrito Brothers. The Byrds hired guitarist Clarence White and drummer Gene Parsons, both from the country band Nashville West. The Flying Burrito Brothers recorded the albums The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969) and Burrito Deluxe (1970), which helped establish the respectability and parameters of the genre, before Parsons departed to pursue a solo career. [1]

Expansion Edit

Country rock was a particularly popular style in the California music scene of the late 1960s, and was adopted by bands including Hearts and Flowers, Poco (formed by Richie Furay and Jim Messina, formerly of the Buffalo Springfield) and New Riders of the Purple Sage. [1] Some folk-rockers followed the Byrds into the genre, among them the Beau Brummels [1] and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. [9] A number of performers also enjoyed a renaissance by adopting country sounds, including: the Beatles, who re-explored elements of country in songs such as "Rocky Raccoon" and "Don't Pass Me By" from their 1968 self-titled double album (often referred to as the "White Album"), [10] and "Octopus's Garden" from Abbey Road (1969) [11] the Everly Brothers, whose Roots album (1968) is usually considered some of their finest work John Fogerty, who left Creedence Clearwater Revival behind for the country sounds of the Blue Ridge Rangers (1972) [12] Mike Nesmith, who had experimented with country sounds while with the Monkees, formed the First National Band [13] and Neil Young who moved in and out of the genre throughout his career. [1] One of the few acts to successfully move from the country side towards rock were the bluegrass band the Dillards. [1] Doug Dillard left the band to form the group Dillard & Clark with ex-Byrds member Gene Clark and Bernie Leadon. [14]

Peak Edit

The greatest commercial success for country rock came in the 1970s, with the Doobie Brothers mixing in elements of R&B, Emmylou Harris (the former singer with Parsons) becoming a star on country radio, and Linda Ronstadt, the "Queen of country-rock", creating a highly successful pop-oriented brand of the genre. [15] Pure Prairie League, formed in Ohio in 1969 by Craig Fuller, had both critical and commercial success with 5 straight Top 40 LP releases, [16] including Bustin' Out (1972), acclaimed by Allmusic critic Richard Foss as "an album that is unequaled in country-rock", [17] and Two Lane Highway, described by Rolling Stone as "a worthy companion to the likes of the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo and other gems of the genre". [18] Former Poco and Buffalo Springfield member Jim Messina joined Kenny Loggins in a very successful duo, while former members of Ronstadt's backing band went on to form the Eagles (two members of which were from the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco), who emerged as one of the most successful rock acts of all time, producing albums that included Desperado (1973) and Hotel California (1976). [15] However, the principal country rock influence in the Eagles came from Bernie Leadon, formerly of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Eagles are perceived as shifting towards hard rock after he left the band in late 1975. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils had hit singles “If You Wanna Get To Heaven” (1974) and "Jackie Blue" (1975), the latter of which peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975. The Bellamy Brothers had the hit "Let Your Love Flow"(1976). In 1979, the Southern rock Charlie Daniels Band moved to a more country direction, released a song with strong bluegrass influence, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia", and the song crossed over and became a hit on the pop chart. [19]

Outside its handful of stars, country rock's greatest significance was on artists in other genres, including the Band, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones and George Harrison's solo work. [1] It also played a part in the development of Southern rock, which, although largely derived from blues rock, had a distinct southern lilt, and it paved the way for parts of the alternative country movement. [1] The genre declined in popularity in the late 1970s, but some established artists, including Neil Young, have continued to record country-tinged rock into the twenty-first century. Country rock has survived as a cult force in Texas, where acts including the Flatlanders, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and California-based Richard Brooker have collaborated and recorded. [1] [20] Other performers have produced occasional recordings in the genre, including Elvis Costello's Almost Blue (1981) [1] and the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand, which was one of the most commercially successful albums of 2007. [21] In 2013 British country rock band Rocky and the Natives released Let's Hear It for the Old Guys with two American members, drummer Andy Newmark and acoustic guitarist Bob Rafkin. Rafkin had written "Lazy Waters" for The Byrds from the 1971 album Farther Along, and Andy Newmark had played on the 1973 Gene Parsons album Kindling. Later in 2013 Rocky and the Natives' country rock cover of John Lennon's "Tight A$" was included on the Lennon Bermuda album.

Remembering Country-Rock Pioneer Gram Parsons 10:49

This article is more than 8 years old. Country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons is shown in this undated photo. (The Rhino Records/AP)

His career was brief, but his influence is still being felt.

Musician Gram Parsons is often called the father of country rock, but he called it "cosmic American music," and he made it with groups like The Byrds.

He released his first solo record "GP" 40 years ago this month, but later that same year he died of a drug overdose.

Today, his daughter Polly runs the Gram Parsons Foundation, an organization that tries to help musicians deal with the substance abuse issues that took her father's life.

She spoke with Here & Now's Alex Ashlock.

Songs in this piece:

You're Still On My Mind, written by Luke McDaniel, performed by Gram Parsons and The Byrds.
Still Feeling Blue, written and performed by Gram Parsons.
Luxury Liner, written by Gram Parsons, performed by Gram Parsons and The International Submarine Band.
One Hundred Years From Now, performed by Gram Parsons and The Byrds.
Torn And Frayed, written and performed by The Rolling Stones.
Return Of The Grievous Angel, written by Gram Parsons and Thomas Brown, performed by Gram Parsons.
$1000 Wedding, written and performed by Gram Parsons.

"Biography reveals talents of country rock pioneer 'Hickory Wind' looks at Gram Parsons' life"

Telegraph – Herald (Dubuque)
by Dennis Healy

Through the years I have read biographies of a number of rock and roll luminaries, among them Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and the seminal heavy metal band Led Zeppelin.

Recently I read Ben Fong-Torres’ 1991 biography of Gram Parsons, “Hickory Wind.”

Fong-Torres’ book documents the mystery surrounding Parsons’ immense talent and his relative obscurity in both rock and country music circles. The subtext of Hickory Wind is that fame is fickle and illusive.

Parsons grew up a privileged child of the South. His family became so wealthy in the citrus business that Gram lived off a trust fund until he died at 26.

Fong-Torres relates a defining moment in young Gram’s life when, in 1956 at age 9, he met Elvis after a concert and got his autograph.

After that, Parsons became interested in music, influenced by the traditional country music of Hank Williams and the Rockabilly music of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and other Southern performers. These two musical forms would define Parsons’ musical direction.

Although born into money, Parsons was not without hardship early in life. His father, Cecil “Coon Dog” Connor, committed suicide when Gram was 12, and his mother, Avis, died of complications of alcoholism when Gram was 19. His family’s history of alcoholism dogged Gram for the rest of his life. When he died in 1973, Gram had a blood alcohol level of .21 and had levels of cocaine, amphetamines and morphine in his system as well. In a bizarre twist to his death, his bodyguard abducted his corpse, took it to Joshua Tree National Monument, and burned it, supposedly according to Gram’s wishes.

So why would Fong-Torres write a biography of a relatively unknown country-rock musician who, like Joplin, Morrison and Hendrix, died ignominiously from substance abuse?

The answer, perhaps, is that Parsons’ style of music did not fit into either traditional country music or progressive rock circles of his time. He alienated the Nashville establishment with his long hair and hippie lifestyle, and he alienated the progressive rock crowd with his country rock style, which he called “Cosmic American Music.”

He was an artist without an audience – none of his albums sold – yet the updated (2004) Rolling Stone Album Guide asserts that Parsons “virtually invented country rock.”

Fong-Torres’ list of musicians influenced by Parsons includes: Dwight Yoakam, Tom Petty, Vince Gill, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett. Groups heavily influenced by Parsons’ sound include The Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo, Sun Volt and Wilco.

A great irony of Parsons’ life is that his singing partner on his last two albums, Emmylou Harris, went on to a highly successful solo career performing the cosmic American music which Parsons championed. Fong-Torres notes in the biography “while Gram’s albums peaked with sales of about 40,000,” Emmylou’s third album, “‘Luxury Liner,’ issued in 1977, gave her her first gold record, for sales over 500,000.”

I have many friends who are country music fans, and few of them know of Gram Parsons.

Fong-Torres’ biography does its best to resurrect the charred legacy of his subject, but the only sure way to capture the life of Gram Parsons is to listen to his music. Country music fans who allow themselves the opportunity to hear, in Parsons’ own words, “a country boy/His simple songs confess/And the music he had in him/So very few possess,” have a pleasant surprise awaiting them.

Country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons dies - HISTORY

It’s a bizarre story that could form the basis of its own fanciful film, but the fateful history of futuristic fantasy movie Saturation 70 has long intrigued curious music fans who doubted its existence.

There are a substantial amount of rumours and mysteries that surround the late country rock pioneer Gram Parsons, who died of an overdose aged just 26 in 1973. His all-too-brief career was cut short before he finally gained the recognition he deserved as the catalyst that fused authentic American country music with the cool strut of rock and roll, but in his lifetime he drastically altered the direction of ’60s superstars The Byrds, seriously influenced Keith Richards and The Rolling Stones, and set the template for the likes of The Eagles, who’d dominate the ’70s with the sound he envisioned. Now considered a cult artist, fans have very few tangible remnants of his life. It’s with great interest, therefore, that evidence has finally emerged of a movie project he was apparently involved in, and it’s there for all to see at London’s Horse Hospital this month.

It began around 1969, on the cusp of Parsons’ departure from his group The Flying Burrito Brothers. His friend, writer/producer Tony Foutz, who had just completed work on a film commissioned by and for The Rolling Stones, had conceived a script for a sci-fi film on ecological destruction, to be filmed around a UFO convention that was being held at Giant Rock, in the Mojave desert. Its plot told of a group of aliens (the Kosmic Kiddies, who also included The Mamas And Papas bombshell Michelle Phillips) who arrive on Earth, intent on saving the planet from the deadly pollution that’s killing its population, and in the process come to the aid of a five-year-old boy (Julian Jones, son of The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones), who’s travelled through time from via a wormhole to a decadent, dystopian Los Angeles.

Updating The Wizard Of Oz for the ’60s counter-culture, the experimental Saturation 70 was co-produced by Douglas Trumbull, whose special effects were recently employed on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and filmed guerrilla-style by British cinematographer Bruce Logan, who’d later direct the special effects on Star Wars and Tron. Its agitprop concepts predated Blade Runner by a decade.

Gram Parsons was due to provide the film’s soundtrack, composing it alongside ex-Byrds colleague Roger McGuinn. However, funding for the film fell through, and eventually the footage was destroyed.

Subsequently, Saturation 70 became part of the Gram Parsons myth, with very few clues as to its existence (The Flying Burrito Brothers are pictured in the Kosmic Kiddie’s decontamination suits on the back of their second album, ‘Burrito Deluxe’, for example).

A new exhibition at The Horse Hospital in London, however, uncovers the fated movie’s background with exclusive production photos, stills, scripts and - most excitingly - the only surviving footage that remains: a five-minute compilation of scenes accompanied by the Burritos’ version of the Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’. Parsons is of course concealed by his suit, but the walls are adorned with unseen images of the artist, alongside portraits of his co-stars Michelle Phillips, Stash Klossowski de Rola (a notorious confidant of Parsons’ and the Stones), and Nudie Cohn, originator of the lavish ‘Nudie’ suits that adorned the Burritos and countless country stars.

The exhibition was launched this weekend with an acoustic set by legendary troubadour Donovan, who became Julian Jones’ stepfather in 1970. Performing on the intimate venue’s makeshift stage, his stripped versions of hits including ‘Catch The Wind’, ‘Sunny Goodge Street’, ‘Sunshine Superman’ and ‘Season Of The Witch’ were interspersed with personal recollections that heightened the spiritual genesis of the movie and the era in which it was created.

“It was a most fulfilling evening for me to perform in the art space of The Horse Hospital,” Donovan later told Clash. “The exhibit resonates with my family, who were so much a part of Saturation 70, the pioneering movie by Tony Foutz that pointed the way forward for so much that would follow in mythic sci-fi.”

An extraordinary insight to a lost ’60s relic and an overdue celebration of the avant-garde work of a group of like-minded creatives, Saturation 70 continues at The Horse Hospital until September 27 th .

Saturation 70
Sept 6 th - 27 th
Monday to Saturday, 12-6pm

The Horse Hospital
Colonnade, Bloomsbury
London WC1N 1JD

Words: Simon Harper

Get Clash on your mobile, for free: iPhone / Android

How I Stole Gram Parsons’ Body

The strange theft of Gram Parson’s corpse – told by the people who were there.

Late in the evening of September 20, 1973, two drunken men wearing rhinestone jackets and cowboy hats drove a hearse into Los Angeles Airport and stole the corpse of country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. In the hours that followed, one of the most bizarre adventures in music history unfolded.

Parsons had found success as the man who steered The Byrds into country rock in 1968. He then took the new genre further with the Flying Burrito Brothers and, through his friendship with Keith Richards, significantly influenced the Stones’ classic 1972 album Exile On Main St. Hugely gifted as a songwriter and singer, he was also a tortured soul whose relationship with his wealthy family caused him no end of grief.

By 1973, heroin addiction and a serious alcohol problem had reduced him to a low ebb, his marriage was in tatters, and death seemed to be frequently on his mind. In one of his last interviews he declared: &ldquoDeath is a warm cloak, an old friend.&rdquo Within weeks he was dead. But that was just the start of the story.

Phil Kaufman (Parsons’s road manager): Just a couple of months before he died, Gram and I went to the funeral of The Byrds guitarist Clarence White. We’d had a few sherbets before we went, and we were saying that if Clarence had his choice he wouldn’t have chosen that kind of high-mass Catholic funeral with all that mumbo jumbo. So Gram said, you know: &ldquoThis is bullshit. If I die I want somebody to have a few beers, take me out to the desert and burn my body.&rdquo I said: &ldquoAll right, it’s a deal. But would you do the same for me?&rdquo He said: &ldquoYeah.&rdquo

Several months later, when we had finished his new album, Grievous Angel, he went out to the Joshua Tree desert to celebrate and kick back while I was in LA putting his next tour together. Gram often used to go to Joshua Tree. He just loved that area. He’d spent some time there with the Stones, and we’d also done some filming there. So he booked a couple of rooms in the Joshua Tree Inn with [Parsons associate] Michael Martin and his girlfriend Dale McElroy. She was a well-travelled woman who, at that time, had unlimited funds because she had inherited Caterpillar stock, which gave her a good, guaranteed income.

Dale McElroy (Michael Martin’s girlfriend): Gram drove down in his Jag with [his ex-girlfriend] Margaret Fisher and we met him at the motel.

Phil Kaufman: As Gram’s road manager I spent a lot of time finding his drug stashes and getting rid of them, but he could always get more. In Joshua Tree he ran into the singer Scott McKenzie’s ex-wife, who could supply him, and spent the day drinking and doing drugs. Margaret was on the same drugs as Gram, and they were pretty far gone by the evening.

Dale McElroy: A few hours later, Margaret rushed up to my door in a panic and told me that Gram had overdosed, and to go get some ice cubes and meet her in Room 1.

Phil Kaufman: Margaret was familiar with the effects of heroin and morphine. She knew heroin is a downer, it makes your body lethargic, and an ice cube suppository shocks the body awake again.

Dale McElroy: Margaret quickly took down his pants and pushed two or three ice cubes up his ass. To my astonishment, in a matter of seconds he had regained consciousness, had made some joke about what we were doing with his pants down, had gotten up and was walking around the room. I’d never seen anything like this in my life.

Phil Kaufman: Michael, meanwhile, had gone back to LA to get more drugs, so it was only Dale and Margaret.

Dale McElroy: I saw how completely wrecked Margaret was, and asked what they had taken. She told me it was morphine.

Phil Kaufman: But Gram told her he was okay and he went back to his room.

Dale McElroy: After an hour or more, Margaret came back to my room and told me she wanted to go out and get some food for Gram. The last thing she said was to keep an eye on Gram. I took a book into the room and found Gram passed out on the bed. After about 20 minutes his breathing started to change, it became very laboured and I became scared. I wondered what to do – should I get some help, or just stay with him and give him artificial respiration.

Phil Kaufman: Dale tried to save his life by giving him mouth-to-mouth but it didn’t help. Then Margaret came back and they got the people in the hotel office to call for an ambulance.

Irving Root, MD (pathologist): He was taken to High Desert Memorial Hospital where he was admitted at 12.15am.

Donna Johnson (registered nurse): I was working in the emergency room that night. I do remember that there were attempts to resuscitate him, but there was never any response.

Bill Hill (coroner): Cardiopulmonary resuscitation measures were started with intracardiac adrenalin. At 12.22 defibrillation was attempted twice with calcium glucose, intracardiac. The subject was pronounced dead at 12.30am.

Margaret Fisher (ex-girlfriend): If there was a day in my life I could take back, it would be that day. To see the light go out in somebody’s eyes is not something… to be shared.

Irving Root, MD (excerpts from first autopsy, held in High Desert Memorial Hospital): There are some partially scarred encrusted needle puncture wounds over the dorsum of the left hand… There are several recent precordial needle puncture wounds… There is a small amount of anterior mediastinal haemorrhage corresponding with the needle puncture wounds in the precordial area… Diagnosis and cause of death: drug toxicity, days, due to multiple drug use, weeks.

Dale McElroy: Margaret and I were interrogated in an adjoining room. It was still so painfully obvious that she was loaded, and I figured the police would hold her for sure. I realised that Phil had to know what had happened, so I used the hospital phone to call him.

Phil Kaufman: When Dale called and told me Gram was dead I said: &ldquoNo, no.&rdquo But Dale said: &ldquoGram is dead and they’re taking his body away.&rdquo I said: &ldquoOkay, I’ll be right there.&rdquo It’s about a three-hour drive to get up there from LA. Kaphy Miles, my girlfriend at the time, had a VW bus.

We got to the motel early in the morning and I cleaned the room out. Then, at the hospital, I was told the police wanted to interview the girls again. So I told them who I was and said I would bring the girls in. I got everybody into the car and took them back to LA, out of the local police jurisdiction, so the girls wouldn’t have to be interviewed.

I stayed home at my house on Chandler in LA for a couple of days, but I knew what I had to do. I had to fulfil my promise to Gram. I called the mortuary in Joshua Tree to find out where Gram’s body was. They told me he was en route to Continental Airlines at LAX, from where he would be shipped back to his step-father in New Orleans. As it happened, Dale owned a big Cadillac hearse, so I told her I wanted it, and I needed Michael to help me.

So Michael and I set off in the hearse wearing our Sin City jackets and cowboy hats. Our whole team was me and Michael, assisted by Jose, Jack, Jim and Mickey, [Jose Cuervo tequila, Jack Daniel’s whiskey, Jim Beam bourbon and Mickey Bigmouth beer]. We were pretty well-oiled. They had a holding area in a hangar at the airport where they take the caskets for onward shipment, and we got there about 10 o’clock on the Thursday night.

Bill Hill (coroner): Before the casket could be loaded aboard the plane, two individuals in a funeral coach arrived and told the attendant that the family had decided to ship from Van Nuys airport.

Phil Kaufman: At first he was suspicious. He was looking at the way we were dressed, so I said we were doing overtime, and I basically hustled him into hurrying up. As I’m signing the papers, using the name Jeremy Nobody, a police car pulls up and blocks our exit. The cop gets out and he’s just standing around, so I yelled at him: &ldquoHey, give us a hand with this stiff, will ya?&rdquo And he goes: &ldquoUh, okay.&rdquo And the cop helped us load the body into the hearse. Michael got behind the wheel and as we drove out he hit the hangar door. There was enough space for a plane to taxi through and he hit the door. The cop looked at us and I’m thinking, &ldquoBoy, we’re in trouble now.&rdquo But he moved his car and off we went.

We stopped at a gas station and bought five gallons of gasoline. Then off we went in our drunken stupor, with Gram in the back, and drove out beyond the Joshua Tree Inn – by now it’s like 1am – up into the National Park until we reached Cap Rock, which was about as far as we could go in our state. We opened up the back of the hearse, but the casket dropped as Michael was pulling it out. Michael was really edgy, but I decided we had to say goodbye to Gram so I opened up the casket. And the hinges obviously hadn’t been oiled, so it creaked really loud. Then there he was, laying naked, with surgical tape covering where they had done the autopsy. We used to do this thing, you know, when you’re a kid, where you point to someone’s chest, they look down and you go &lsquozip’ up to their nose? Well, that was the last thing I did to Gram. Michael was going: &ldquoDon’t touch him, man.&rdquo But, you know, he was dead, right?

So then I poured the gasoline all over him and said: &ldquoAll right, Gram, on your way…&rdquo I struck the match and threw it onto the gasoline. And when you do that, it consumes an enormous amount of oxygen and makes a big &lsquoWhooomph!’ As we were watching, the body actually bubbled, and then we saw his ashes flying up into the night. Then we saw some headlights approaching from across the desert. We thought it might be the park rangers so we beat it out of there.

On the way back to LA there was a lot of traffic, there’d been some sort of accident. We rear-ended a car on the freeway, and a cop leaned over and looked in the hearse just as Michael opened his door and all these bottles fell out. The cop says: &ldquoYou two stay here,&rdquo and he handcuffed us together and went off back to his car. Well, Michael was a skinny little guy so he just slipped his hand out of the cuffs, and we took off down the nearest off ramp. When we got back to my house, I got somebody to cut the handcuffs off.

Irving Root, MD: Friday, late morning, a report was made to the Sheriff’s office, San Bernardino, of a casket and body burning in Joshua Tree National Monument. Subsequent investigation revealed an advanced charred body with only a small, residual amount of casket remaining. The metal handles were intact, but most of the wood had been burned away. The body had been previously autopsied and embalmed, and there was evidence that this was the body of Gram Parsons.

Bill Hill: The body was very badly burned. The fingers were gone, as were all facial features. The undersigned [Hill] remembered that, at the request of the wife of the deceased, a ring was left on the ring finger of the left hand of the body of the subject. A yellow metal ring with a red stone was found in the ashes at the left side of the body. It appeared, although badly discoloured by the fire, to be the same ring.

Irving Root, MD (excerpts from second autopsy, held at Wiefel Mortuary, Yucca Valley): All skin has been burned away. The genitalia are not present and all soft tissues of the pelvis have been burned so that sex identification cannot be made on soft tissue parts. The body has been previously autopsied. The organs have been removed and replaced as in the normal fashion of autopsy. The pattern of the autopsy is consistent with the type of autopsy I performed on the body of Gram Parsons originally. The skull has been removed with a saw… many of the organs have been extensively charred away… the cranial cavity has been filled with cotton. The brain has been replaced in the body cavities and portions of this remain. The facial features have been extensively scarred. Almost all soft tissue from the face has been burned away.

Phil Kaufman: Several days later, Gram’s death hit the headlines in the local papers: &lsquoRock star’s body burned in bizarre desert ritual…’ Everybody in Los Angeles knew I did it, so it didn’t take long for the cops to figure it out. The cops came to my house and questioned me: &ldquoDid you have necrophiliac sex with him?&rdquo All that sort of bullshit.

As it happened, Arthur Penn and Gene Hackman were shooting some scenes for a film called Night Moves at my house. As I’m being taken to the cop car, Hackman and Penn are standing watching and they asked Kaphy what was going on. When she explained, Arthur Penn said: &ldquoGene, we’re shooting the wrong movie here.&rdquo Later, when I was driven home, they stopped filming and everybody gave me a round of applause.

Eventually, when we went to court, all they could charge us with was stealing the casket. The body itself had no intrinsic value, so unless someone filed a complaint there was no law broken. They fined us $1,300 – Gram’s step-father had bought the cheapest casket he could get – and Dale paid the fine.

What happened next?

Gram Parsons’s remains were shipped by his step-father to New Orleans for burial at The Garden Of Memories. In Kaufman’s words: &ldquoDying was a great career move for Gram.&rdquo He is now acknowledged as one of the most influential country-rock performers of all time. Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn is now a &lsquoshrine’ dedicated to Parsons’s memory, but it remains available for rent.

Phil Kaufman continues to work as a respected road manager, and is currently in the employ of Nanci Griffith. His autobiography, Road Mangler Deluxe, was published in 1993. The film Grand Theft Parsons, a fictionalised account of Parsons’s death, starring Johnny Knoxville and Christina Applegate, was released in 2003.

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 168.

Rusty Young, Country-Rock Pioneer, Is Dead at 75

As a founding member of the band Poco, he helped define a genre and establish the pedal steel guitar as an integral voice in West Coast rock.

Rusty Young, a founding member of the popular country-rock group Poco and a key figure in establishing the pedal steel guitar as an integral voice in the West Coast rock of the late 1960s and ’70s, died on Wednesday at his home in Davisville, Mo. He was 75.

His publicist, Mike Farley, said the cause was a heart attack.

Mr. Young played steel guitar with Poco for more than a half-century. Along with other Los Angeles-based rock bands like the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco was among the architects of the country-rock movement of the late ’60s, which incorporated traditional country instrumentation into predominantly rock arrangements. The Eagles and scores of other bands would follow in their wake.

Formed in 1968, Poco originally included the singer-guitarists Jim Messina and Richie Furay — both formerly of Buffalo Springfield, another pioneering country-rock band from Los Angeles — along with Mr. Young, the drummer George Grantham and the bassist Randy Meisner, a future member of the Eagles. (Timothy B. Schmit, another future Eagle, replaced Mr. Meisner after he left the band in 1969.)

Poco initially came together for a high-profile show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, not long after Mr. Furay had invited Mr. Young to play pedal steel guitar on his composition “Kind Woman,” the closing track on Buffalo Springfield’s farewell album, “Last Time Around.” The music that Poco made generally employed twangier production and was more populist in orientation than that of Buffalo Springfield, a band that had at times gravitated toward experimentalism and obfuscation.

Mr. Furay’s song “Pickin’ Up the Pieces,” the title track of Poco’s debut album in 1969, served as a statement of purpose:

Well there’s just a little bit of magic
In the country music we’re singin’
So let’s begin.
We’re bringin’ you back down home where the folks are happy
Sittin’ pickin’ and a-grinnin’
Casually, you and me
We’ll pick up the pieces, uh-huh.

At once keening and lyrical, Mr. Young’s pedal steel work imbued the group’s music with its rustic signature sound and helped create a prominent place for the steel guitar among roots-conscious California rock bands.

“I added color to Richie’s country-rock songs, and that was the whole idea, to use country-sounding instruments,” Mr. Young explained in a 2014 interview with Goldmine magazine, referring to Mr. Furay’s compositions.

But Mr. Young, who also played banjo, Dobro and mandolin, was not averse to musical experimentation. “I pushed the envelope on steel guitar, playing it with a fuzz tone, because nobody was doing that,” he told Goldmine. He also played the pedal steel through a Leslie speaker, much as a Hammond B3 organist would, causing some listeners to assume he was indeed playing an organ.

Mr. Young was not among Poco’s original singers or songwriters. But he emerged as one of the group’s frontmen, along with the newcomer Paul Cotton, after the departure of Mr. Messina in 1971 and Mr. Furay in 1973. Mr. Young would go on to write and sing the lead vocal on “Crazy Love,” the band’s biggest hit, which reached No. 1 on the Billboard adult contemporary chart (and No. 17 on the pop chart) in 1979.

He also wrote and sang lead on “Rose of Cimarron,” another of Poco’s more enduring recordings from the ’70s, and orchestrated the 1989 reunion of the group’s original members for the album “Legacy,” which, like the 1978 platinum-selling “Legend,” yielded a pair of Top 40 singles.

Norman Russell Young was born on Feb. 23, 1946, in Long Beach, Calif., one of three children of Norman John and Ruth (Stephenson) Young. His father, an electrician, and his mother, a typist, took him to country music bars, where he was captivated by the steel guitar players as a child.

He grew up in Denver, where he began playing the lap steel guitar at age 6. As a teenager, he worked with local psychedelic and country bands.

After moving to Los Angeles, but before joining Poco, he turned down an invitation to become a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers, which at the time featured Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, formerly of the Byrds.

The heir to a parent

Several times a year, Polly Parsons drives from her L.A. home to the high desert and checks into the motel room where her father died 31 years ago. There, in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn, she puts up some pictures of her dad and listens to his records -- music that for most of her life she couldn’t hear without crying.

“Some people think it’s really morbid,” says Parsons. “They go, ‘You stay in the room where your dad died?’ Well, dude, if your dad died at your home you’d still go home and stay at your house, right? When I’m there I feel like I’m at my folks’ house.”

Fair enough. When your young life is as fractured as Polly Parsons’ was, you take your contentment where you find it.

Parsons’ father was Gram Parsons, the country-rock avatar who opened vast new territories for pop musicians in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Charismatic and undisciplined, brash and brilliant, this scion of a wealthy Florida family cut a memorable swath through the Los Angeles music scene, making a strong first impression by stealing David Crosby’s girlfriend, Nancy Ross. Polly, born in 1967, was their only child.

It all ended when he was 26, dead in his beloved desert from an overdose of morphine and tequila. Though he didn’t sell many records, Parsons has become a semi-mythic figure whose influence has grown over the years.

Just look at some of the musicians who are playing the tribute concerts Polly is presenting this weekend at the Santa Barbara Bowl and Universal Amphitheatre: Veterans Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle are longtime disciples, while Norah Jones and indie-rocker Jim James (from the Louisville band My Morning Jacket) demonstrate his allure to a younger generation.

But it’s a rare solo appearance by the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards that represents the shows’ spiritual core. Polly had never met the guitarist, a friend and musical soul mate of her father’s, so when the Stones played Staples Center two years ago, she managed to get backstage passes and arranged an unannounced introduction.

“I had to sit down and really pray a lot,” Parsons says. “I had to sit down and say, ‘OK, Daddy, this is it, I’m gonna meet your best mate, please show me what to do and be with me.’

“I got into that room to see Keith, and he put his hands on my cheeks and he said, ‘You’re the last little bit of your father on this planet,’ and he got choked up. Right at that minute I knew something had to come out of my mouth that had some weight to it, and I said, ‘I’d love to do a tribute to Dad. If I could possibly . put a concert together that would be of the magnitude that you would be there, would you please come?’ And he said, ‘If I do it for anybody, little girl, it’ll be for you.’ ”

Gram Parsons called the music he made with the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and as a solo artist “cosmic American music.” It includes such genre standards as “Hickory Wind” and “Sin City,” a template for the Eagles’ studies of innocence and temptation, but Parsons’ greatest effect may have been his ability to melt all borders with the intensity of his musical vision.

“To me he just represents the magic of something that you can’t control,” My Morning Jacket’s James says. “I don’t think he was aware of it. I just think it’s something that was beyond his control and beyond everybody’s control, and I just pray and hope that sometimes a little of that magic can be passed my way.”

Polly Parsons knows what it’s like to have a little of Gram passed your way. “I inherited a creative gene that doesn’t shut up,” she says. “I inherited a mind that constantly creates things and hears things that other people don’t hear and notices things that other people don’t see.”

Sitting in her old duplex in the Fairfax area, Parsons exudes quiet intensity and speaks in a precise, little-girl voice. She’s had her own problems with drugs she got help from the Musicians’ Assistance Program, and she’s donating the concerts’ proceeds to the organization.

When you’re Gram’s heir, you inherit it all, not just the image of an overdose death but also the bizarre aftermath, when his friend and road manager stole his body and partially cremated it in the desert. All that on top of a Parsons family history oozing tragedy, adultery, suicide, alcoholism, even whispers of murder.

So these shows, dubbed “Return to Sin City: A Tribute to Gram Parsons,” were more than an exercise in concert production. “For me it was an emotional journey, to come full circle, to understand who I was and my legacy,” Polly Parsons says. “Right around three years ago I hit a wall emotionally where I couldn’t go any farther until I turned and faced this head-on. When I was a child all I knew was that my father was burned in the desert. That’s all I got. And so I shut down pretty immediately after that.”

Parsons says her mother “crumbled” after Gram’s death, leaving her 7-year-old daughter in the care of friends. Polly grew up in a Santa Barbara commune, then with friends there until she graduated from high school.

She moved to Los Angeles at 17 and found work in a doctor’s office, eventually becoming a surgical nurse. Feeling a creative urge, she abruptly left that field to work as a film and television makeup artist.

“Then about three or four years ago I realized that I had a responsibility . to my father to do the best that I could to keep his memory alive,” she says. That meant traveling to Winter Haven, Fla., to see his old haunts and meet members of his family.

Her reconciliation with her history was also inspired by the return of Parsons’ musical rights to his heirs 28 years after his death, in accordance with U.S. copyright law. Polly shares those rights with Parsons’ widow, Gretchen. The singer never married Ross, who is now an artist in Santa Barbara and is expected to attend Friday’s concert there, which is dedicated to her.

Polly’s goal now is to bring Parsons’ name to the forefront, not just with the two high-profile concerts but also by licensing his music aggressively and establishing a foundation in his name to work with music business charities. Her Sin City marketing company and record label aim to proselytize for L.A.'s roots-music scene with a zeal she thinks her father would understand.

“I love how fearless he was,” she says. “I love how unapologetic he was about his vision and his passion and his truth. I love that he dragged a little record player around and he would sit in front of Keith Richards and go, ‘You’ve got to hear Merle Haggard and George Jones.’

“I love that he had so much conviction. It’s almost like he was a messenger. It was almost evangelical what he did, and he did what he needed to do and he took off when he needed to take off.”

Watch the video: 100 years from nowGram Parsons u0026 The Byrds (January 2022).