Gram Parsons: a country-rock pioneer who altered the Byrds' path (courtesy photo)

Thirty years after his death, Gram Parsons' imposing legacy is being resurrected

O n the 35th anniversary of The Byrds' seminal album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Columbia Legacy has issued a two-CD expanded version. For those unfamiliar with Sweetheart, it ushered country-rock onto the national music scene. More importantly, the new Sweetheart finally acknowledges the depth of the album's debt to the late Gram Parsons, whose vocal presence was undercut in its initial release.

Parsons, a Southern-bred rich kid who attended Harvard's Divinity School, wrote some of the most original and authentic country music, and he's been a guidepost for iconoclasts like Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Earle, and Beck, among others.

The new Sweetheart gives Parsons his due respect, but the proper thing would have been to release it as Gram Parsons and the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Any doubting Thomas will be easily convinced after comparing Byrds' leader Roger McGuinn's faux country twang with Parsons' perfect vocal appositeness. The common explanation for Parsons' vocals being replaced is that a contractual obligation prevented him from taking such a featured role on Sweetheart. But Parsons' bitterness over the experience suggested that other factors may have been at work.

"They overdubbed Roger McGuinn's voice over mine," Parsons told this reporter backstage after a 1970 performance at San Antonio's Jam Factory, one of the final performances by Parsons' legendary post-Byrds band, the Flying Burrito Brothers.

"The overdubbing happened on 'A Hundred Years From Now' and 'The Christian Life' that everybody likes so much," Parsons said. "I turned Roger on to that song. And it happened on 'You're Still on My Mind.' It ticked me off so much, taking my voice off and putting another one on. The only one that was originally playing was 'Hickory Wind', and they mis-mixed that. 'You're Still on My Mind' came out of the can, it wasn't supposed to go on the album."

For those who feared that the original masters with Gram's vocals were erased, the good news is that all six cuts featuring Parsons have been restored. And, in the liner notes, McGuinn apologizes - sort of. "Gram's vocals were better. He was better at this stuff than I was. When I did 'Christian Life,' it was a parody."

Parsons left the Byrds after Sweetheart and founded the Burrito Brothers with ex-Byrds Chris Hillman and Mike Clarke. That group made a whistle stop in San Antonio on June 26, 1970. By that point, the band's collective energy had waned, and two weeks later, the nomadic Parsons left the Burritos and went solo.

Still, that concert proved magical. The group played 25 songs - including "Wild Horses," a then-unreleased cut by the Rolling Stones, and a gift to Parsons from his friends Keith and Mick for helping them arrange the song "Country Honk."

"San Antone is all right!" Parsons yelled mid-concert as steel player Sneaky Pete Kleinow launched into an incredible version of "San Antonio Rose." Closer to home, Texas musicians Rob Meurer and Steve Earle, then in their teens, were among those transfixed Parsons fans at the Jam Factory show.

"Gram brought the ultimate cool to the genre with the marijuana Nudie suits, the attitude, and of course the meaty songs and torn-heart vocals," says Meurer, a founding member of Christopher Cross and the L.A.-based SoulSkin. "From that Jam Factory concert, and his recordings, I inherited a new ability to see through the crap of country into its core. I understood it for the first time."

Steve Earle had the same reaction. "When I first heard Gram was coming to Texas, I was off like a prom dress down I-10 to San Antonio," Earle recently told Uncut magazine. "Gram's hair was frosted and his fingernails were painted red. He sang through his nose with his eyes closed while the band played catch-up. I left certain of what I was going to do when I grew up."

Thirty-three years ago, as Parsons prepared to leave for a night of conjunto music on San Antonio's West Side, he reflected. "I hope we all regain our egos out of the psychedelic fog and consider - not becoming alcoholics - but consider drinking a little bit because it sustains the ego and psychedelics take it away. And I hope that everybody realizes that. If you don't have any ego, then people are going to kick you in the ass."

Parsons' final moments were spent in the Joshua Tree Inn in California, a region where Mormon pilgrims once trekked. (It was also the setting for the Burritos' first album cover, and in 1987, for U2's iconic The Joshua Tree image.) His death in 1973 from a morphine and tequila overdose remained shrouded in mystery after friends stole his coffin and tried to cremate his remains in Joshua Tree. They ultimately failed.

Today, the site draws pilgrims of another sort who attend a yearly event honoring Parsons, the 26-year-old country music prophet and visionary, who is actually buried in New Orleans. His unadorned headstone reads: Gram Parsons. God's Own Singer. 1946-1973.

Parsons was never honored by the music industry during his lifetime: no Grammy or Country Music Awards. In 2002, his name surfaced as a nominee for the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame, but he still hasn't made the final cut.

That may soon change. Two British film projects are forthcoming. Grand Theft Parsons is a feature film based on the snafu over trying to cremate Parsons. It stars Johnny Knoxville (Jackass) and Christina Applegate. And Fallen Angel, a new documentary on his life, will premiere in January on the BBC.

Vindicated at last? Maybe so. But why can't we honor our musical pioneers before the rest of the world does? •

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