Film and Documentary

Gram Parsons: A Life Cut Short

Gram Parsons’ star blazed bright, but sadly, burned out far too soon. Born Ingram Cecil Connor III in Winter Haven, FL, his early life was badly shaken when his biological father committed suicide when he was 12. His mother quickly remarried, and young Gram took the surname of his step-father, Robert Parsons. For a time, the family found a stability of sorts. They were later torn apart in early 1965, when Robert became embroiled in an extramarital affair and Avis’ heavy drinking led to her death from cirrhosis on June 5, 1965, the day of Gram’s graduation from Bolles Academy in Jacksonville Fl.

Parsons found his salvation in music, which he discovered at an early age after seeing Elvis Presley perform in 1956, when he was 10. After honing his craft, he later performed in a variety of local bands anywhere that would allow them to play – mostly coffeehouses, and high schools auditoriums. It was later, during a short stint at Harvard University that Parsons developed an interest in country music, after hearing Merle Haggard play.

After dropping out of college, and then relocating to Los Angeles in early 1967, Parsons had come to the attention of The Byrds’ bassist, Chris Hillman, via their business manager as a possible replacement following the departures of David Crosby and Michael Clarke from the group. In February 1968, he auditioned for the band, being initially recruited as a jazz pianist but soon switching to rhythm guitar and vocals. While he was an equal contributor in the band, he was not considered a member of the Byrds. In later years, this led Hillman to state, “Gram was hired. He was not a member of The Byrds, ever. He was on salary, that was the only way we could get him to turn up.” While in England with The Byrds during the summer of 1968, Parsons left the band due to his concerns over a planned concert tour of South Africa. After speaking to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards about the tour, he cited the move as opposition to that country’s apartheid policies. He then moved in with Richards, and the two developed a very close friendship.

After returning to Los Angeles in 1969, Parsons sought out Hillman again, and they reconciled, forming The Flying Burrito Brothers. Their music took on a variant of Buck Owens’ popularized “Bakersfield sound,” with which they achieved a modicum of success. However, drug use was rampant by this time, and Parsons was eager to partake. He was frequently indulging in massive quantities of psychedelics and cocaine, so his performances were erratic at best. Other band members fell by the wayside due to their partying habits as well, but Parsons remained functional – barely. His own use of drugs had increased so much that new songs were rare, and much of his time was devoted to partying with the Stones, who were about to embark on an American tour. It was Mick Jagger who stepped up and reminded Parsons of his obligation to the band. They continued, even playing the ill-fated Altamonte concert with the Stones as headliners. Disenchanted with the band, Parsons left the Burritos in mutual agreement with Hillman, citing creative differences. In a recent interview, Chris Hillman explained that “the greatest legacy of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram is we were THE alternative country band. We couldn’t get on country radio and we couldn’t get on rock radio! We were the outlaw country band for a brief period.”

Enter aspiring actress Gretchen Burrell. She became Parsons’ girlfriend, but their often toxic and vitriolic relationship created havoc with both his friends and other bandmates. However, Parsons stubbornly married Burrell in 1971. Allegedly, the relationship was far from stable, with Burrell being overly needy, while claiming Parsons quashed her burgeoning film career. In the summer of 1973, Parsons’ Topanga Canyon home burned to the ground, the result of a stray cigarette. Nearly all of his possessions were destroyed with the exception of a guitar and his prized Jaguar. The fire proved to be the last straw in the relationship between Burrell and Parsons.  It was rumored  that Parsons was preparing to commence divorce proceedings at the time of his death; the couple had already separated by this point.

It was during a trip to his favorite place, Joshua Tree, that Parsons overdosed, and was declared D.O.A. at High Desert Memorial Hospital on September 19, 1973, in Yucca Valley. The official cause of death was an overdose of morphine and alcohol.

Parsons’s relatively short career has been described by several publications as “enormously influential” for both country and rock,” fusing the two genres to the point that they became indistinguishable from each other. He popularized what he called “Cosmic American Music”, a hybrid of country, rhythm and blues, soul, folk, and rock. Parsons was 26 when he died, just a few months short of 27.

Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of Operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected].

I founded PopDaze to celebrate the music, entertainment, and pop culture of the 60’s through the 90’s. In doing so, I have found my passion to cr...