A nice place to die

Thirty years later, Gram Parsons’ legacy lives on — in Joshua Tree, Waycross and beyond

“Time can pass and time can heal, But it don’t ever pass the way I feel, You went away a long time ago, And why you left I never knew”

-- Gram Parsons, “Still Feeling Blue”

Traffic roars past the Joshua Tree Inn on California’s busy Twentynine Palms Highway, leaving only moments of the quiet and serenity that guests experienced at the same spot 30 years ago. On Sept. 19, 1973, the life of country-rock innovator Gram Parsons — which began 27 years earlier in Waycross, Ga. — came to an end in Room 8. The Inn, like the nearby Mojave Desert, provided an oasis for Parsons. It was a place of wonder where the legendary singer/songwriter liked to go to explore the nether regions of his fertile mind, as well as the dangerously beautiful terrain of the Joshua Tree National Monument.

The Joshua Tree Inn has become the destination of diehard Parsons fans, many who make the pilgrimage just to sleep in Room 8 and commune with the spirit of the man who inspires them. Says Inn manager, C.J. Stolman, “We get anywhere from 15-20 calls a week asking for information about staying in Room 8. A lot of people just want to come by and look at the room, and spend a few minutes in there. We don’t mind if it isn’t occupied. They love it, and many people say they can feel his energy.”

The lobby contains scrapbooks, framed mementos and a few Gram Parsons T-shirts on sale, and the room has a guest book containing messages from people, some of whom traveled halfway around the world to sleep in this personal sanctuary. “We get lots of Europeans who come here just to stay at Joshua Tree Inn,” Stolman says. He admits, “Not everyone is impressed with it, as we get a few, you know, grumps.”

In the years before his death, Parsons and his friends used the Inn as home base for trips wandering through the vast Joshua Tree forests, climbing the unique rock formations, getting high on life and various other chemical accoutrements. At night, the California sky comes alive with the stars of the Milky Way, the moon providing just enough light to see the way back home.

He loved the place so much that one day, while attending a funeral, Parsons made a pact with one of his closest friends, Phil “Road Mangler” Kaufman. Whichever one died first, the other would make sure he was cremated and had his ashes spread in the desert.

Parsons had just ended a tour with his band, the Fallen Angels. He had completed the recording of his posthumously released classic, Grievous Angel, in just two weeks in early September 1973. When he finished, Parsons and a trio of friends left L.A. for the desert. Following a day and night of hard partying with marijuana, liquor and morphine, Parsons was found unresponsive in Room 8. A local hospital later declared him dead from an accidental overdose.

Keeping his promise, Kaufman and a crony stole Parsons’ body from a local airport, took it to the Cap Rock formation in Joshua Tree National Monument, and torched it. It wasn’t a smooth heist, as Kaufman recalls. “Things didn’t go quite like we planned it, it was sort of like an episode of ‘Laurel and Hardy steal the stiff.’” They got caught and arrested. Parsons’ partially burned remains were transported to family members and interred in a New Orleans cemetery.

Grand Theft Parsons, an independent film telling the story of Kaufman’s adventures in the desert with Parson’s body, is being released this year. The film stars Johnny Knoxville (of MTV’s “Jackass”) as Kaufman. Kaufman himself served as associate producer and a consultant on the film, and also has a cameo. “When I met Knoxville,” he says, “I was so impressed I let him use the actual Levi jacket I wore when we stole the body.”

So who was this handsome young Georgia boy who wanted to blend the sweet sounds of country and the rich emotion of soul and gospel with the devilish noise of rock ‘n’ roll? How was his destiny shaped by his gothic Southern roots, coming from a family where alcoholism, suicide and the stigma of old money set the conditions for eccentricity?

“Gram wasn’t a professional Southerner,” says author Stanley Booth, who also grew up in Waycross. “I think if he had grown up in California or England, he would have been much the same. However, his growing up in the South made him, I believe, a much deeper and more compassionate person. He was a Waycross resident whose vision of others was not ruled by race, very nearly one of a kind. Gram grew up in a segregated environment without being himself a racist. This to me is something of a miracle.”

Kaufman recalls his friend as “a little rich kid with a great talent. His money allowed him to hang out with people like the Stones, who treated him like an equal, not a straphanger.” Parsons’ Southern charm came in handy in many situations. “It came natural to him,” Kaufman says. “It was his values. He was very soft spoken, but knowledgeable, respectful and very genteel with women.”

Born in Winter Haven, Fla., where his mother’s wealthy family took her to get better medical care, he was named Ingram Cecil Connor. As Booth recalls, “Gram’s father was a Boy Scout leader in Waycross. He taught Gram about hunting, fishing and wildlife and so on. He also blew his brains out the Christmas Gram was 12. I think Gram’s father came to feel profoundly unnecessary. Gram must have recognized this reality but somehow he didn’t become bitter because of it.”

Following his mother’s remarriage, his adoption by his stepfather, and his mother’s death from alcoholism, Parsons was a trust fund orphan at the age of 18. With most of his natural family gone, he left the South and never looked back. With enough money to live comfortably, Parsons enrolled in college at Harvard for a while. But making music was his real dream.

Parsons developed a resume that included everything from folk-minstrel groups to bluegrass bands. Later, he worked his way into the Byrds, steering the group’s move away from folk rock toward the country-influenced sound heard on the band’s 1968 Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. He took more of a leadership role with the hippie country band the Flying Burrito Brothers, known for their long hair and Nudie’s suits. He started hanging out with Keith Richards and made some uncredited collaborations to the Rolling Stones (along the way, he’s also reported to have nurtured a nasty drug habit with Richards).

Parsons’ love of artists like George Jones, Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers was an anomaly in the L.A. rock scene of the early ’70s, but somehow this charmer with the Southern drawl managed to ingratiate himself and his musical tastes into people’s lives and work. Parsons’ dream of blending country, soul and rock music into a brand new, unique art form gradually took shape throughout his recordings. He labeled his creation “Cosmic American Music,” acknowledging the traditional roots of the music itself as filtered through the psychedelic enhancements of ’60s counterculture.

As country-rock became a radio staple with the success of artists such as Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Poco and Jackson Browne, many clearly owed a debt to Parsons. Emmylou Harris, who had worked with him on both of his solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel, and Parsons’ final tour, included at least one of his songs on each of her early solo albums. Her records provided many their first exposure to Parsons’ work. In 1980, Elvis Costello recorded a country album called Almost Blue that included two Parsons tunes and introduced the cult hero to a whole new audience.

Heirs to Parsons’ country-rock blend came to include, in the ’80s, Jason & the Scorchers, Rank & File, Lone Justice and Lyle Lovett. Americana, as the catch-all genre has come to be called, rose from the same sources and much in the same manner as Parsons’ Cosmic American Music. And the struggle for recognition and acceptance by mainstream culture goes on.

Parsons, meanwhile, has become an icon in the genesis of alt-country/Americana scene. Music critic/author Holly George-Warren worked with Ben Fong-Torres on a Parsons bio called Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons. She sees a clear link between Parsons’ music and the Americana philosophy. “His imperfect voice, his complete lack of inhibition ... the angst and passion of the words were expressed in his music. This is something that classic hillbilly music has in common with punk rock. Alt-country/Americana musicians grew up with punk rock, so when they discovered country, it’s only natural that they would gravitate to someone like Parsons who bridged the gap between those kinds of music.”

Some Americana artists — Steve Earle or Lucinda Williams, for instance — have earned a degree of mainstream crossover. But most Americana artists cope with the lack of public awareness of their work, limited venues willing to take chances on unknown artists and rigid commercial radio playlists. Part of the problem stems from Americana’s own unresolved identity crisis — it’s too country for the rock stations and too “alternative” for the country stations. It’s almost the same issue that confounded and stifled Parsons’ career over 30 years ago.

In 1999, an informal get-together took place at Austin’s annual South by Southwest Conference to discuss the future of the genre. From that meeting, the Americana Music Association was created. With a membership now totaling over 900 people, the AMA is sponsoring its second major conference in Nashville Sept. 18-20. The event includes panel discussions, a trade show, an Americana music awards show and numerous showcases. According to AMA executive director J.D. May, this year’s conference will include a panel discussion on Parsons’ music and a special tribute to him at the awards show.

Out West, the city of Joshua Tree, Calif., hosts an annual Gramfest, an all-day affair set at several locations near the Inn. This year’s event is scheduled for Sept. 27. Down in Waycross, the sixth annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute is held Sept. 19-20 — at the Ritz Theatre Friday and at Little Knights Bar Saturday. And fans in Gainesville, Fla., have held their own Gramfest for the last four years. The 2003 Gram Parsons Tribute is scheduled for Nov. 2 on the Downtown Plaza.

This month, Columbia/Legacy Records released a two-CD deluxe edition of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Parsons’ seminal work with the Byrds. Included on the second disc are six rare cuts from Parsons’ earlier group, the International Submarine Band, as well as 14 unreleased alternative tracks from the Sweetheart sessions.

The tributes, festivals and reissues validate the relevance of Gram Parsons’ music today. One can only wonder, “What if?”

“What I hear is how many musicians talk about his influence,” says Kaufman. “It might be the Eagles, Uncle Tupelo or BR549. Some of them write songs and then acknowledge Gram’s influence on their work. I am curious about what would have happened to him musically if he had lived.

“If he had just stayed away from Keith, I would probably have known.”

Holly George-Warren figures it all happened just as it was supposed to. “His own particular life — which was a Southern gothic kind of tragic tale — completely colored his music and his world view as one of loss and abandonment,” she says. “He associated the sad, lonesome sounds of Hank Williams and George Jones with that kind of emotion that was the major aspect of his childhood. He lived his life like it was a country song.”