By Jake Dromgoole
In a café down in New Orleans, Louisiana, some 15 years ago, I sat with my family as we recuperated after a long day of sightseeing. Sometime after I ordered what would be first of many beignets, a musician took the stage with his guitar. “Hi,” said the guitarist, “let’s do a little Gram Parsons.”
The musician began singing the Dan Penn / Chips Moman classic, “The Dark End of the Street.” The lyrics (about two people sharing a forbidden love) just spoke to me for some reason (I was 17 at the time), and I was hooked. I had never heard of this Gram Parsons, but I wrote his name down and was determined to learn more about this new artist.
Parsons (born Ingram Cecil Connor III) was born on Nov. 5, 1946 in Winter Haven, Florida, to parents Ingram and Avis Connor. The boy’s mother, Avis, was the daughter of the extremely successful, and magnificently wealthy Floridian citrus farmer, John A. Snively. Like many young men born during this time period, Parsons was drawn to the early sounds of rock and roll, mainly that of a hot new recording artist from Memphis, Tennessee, named Elvis Presley. Forming his first bands while still in high school, the young Parsons began to have aspirations of fame, fortune and a life of rock and roll.
After high school, Parsons was admitted to the prestigious Harvard University, but dropped out after one semester to pursue a career as a musician. Parsons then formed the highly influential International Submarine Band and released their only album: 1968’s Safe at Home. This album contained four Parsons-penned songs, including “Luxury Liner,” which would go on to be the title track of country legend Emmylou Harris’ 1976 album. The song was even recently covered by rising country star, Margo Price.
After the breakup of the International Submarine Band, Parsons was recruited by Chris Hilman to join the legendary Los Angeles band, the Byrds. Bringing his love of country music to the band, the Byrds released Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968. Though originally intended to be an album that would explore various genres of American music, Sweetheart had developed into a full-blown country-rock album, thanks to Parsons’ influence.
Standout tracks from this album are the Bob Dylan-written opener, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” the Merle Haggard-penned “Life in Prison” and finally the Parsons original, “Hickory Wind.” This song, wistfully written about Parsons’ days as a youth growing up in the South, was Parsons’ vocal debut with the Byrds, and was even played by the band on their Grand Ole Opry appearance 1968. Though the album received mixed criticism at the time of its release, Sweetheart has gone on to achieve legendary status, and is often considered popular music’s first “country-rock” album.
While on tour with the Byrds in the UK, Parsons met Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Sharing a mutual love for classic American country artists, they quickly became best friends, with Richards even convincing Parsons not to participate in the Byrds’ upcoming tour of South Africa due to apartheid concerns. Parsons, along with fellow Byrd Chris Hillman, left the band and returned to California where they would form a new group: The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Keep an eye out for part two of this series, where we’ll talk about Gram’s post-Byrds work with the Flying Burrito Brothers, The Rolling Stones and Emmylou Harris!