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GRAM PARSONS
The Byrds: 1968


Gram Parsons Discography

Gram Parsons Bibliography






To read about the International Submarine Band, see Gram Parsons & the ISB, 1965-1967.


The Byrds v. 4.0:

At the beginning of 1968, the Byrds were down to two members: Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. The recording of Notorious Byrd Brothers in late 1967 had been harrowing. David Crosby had been sacked during recording, and drummer Michael Clarke had been fired just after the sessions ended. The two brought in Hillman's cousin Kevin Kelley as drummer and toured the college circuit as a trio. Before long they realized they could not get the Byrdsy sound they wanted without a fourth member.
At this point, Parsons and the Byrds shared the same manager, Larry Spector, whom both had met through Peter Fonda. Hillman was aware of Parsons, the International Submarine Band, and the original Flying Burrito Brothers (who inspired the title "Notorious Byrd Brothers." An encounter between Hillman and Parsons at a local bank resulted in an invitation to try out for the Byrds.
McGuinn's vision of the next Byrds LP was a double album spanning the history of American music, starting with old time string band music, through country, bluegrass, rock and jazz rock and ending with the synthesized "space music" McGuinn saw as the future of rock. McGuinn has said many times that he was looking for a keyboardist that could handle some jazz, and that Parsons faked his way through a few bluesy piano riffs. Hillman recalls only that the band needed a tenor voice who could play rhythm guitar. In any event, it's safe to say that when they hired Parsons in late February of '68, neither McGuinn nor Hillman knew just how radically it would alter the band's musical direction.
That's exactly what happened, though, when Hillman and Parsons began to explore their mutual and abiding love for country music. Before long, even McGuinn was swept up in their enthusiasm. The result was a week of recording in Nashville, an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, and ultimately (after Columbia nixed the double album) a single album of country rock utterly different than anything the Byrds had ever released before: Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
The role of Gram Parsons in the Byrds, was, for better and for worse, troublemaker. He and his co-conspirator Chris Hillman very nearly hijacked a top-rank rock band and bent it to their own artistic ends. This sort of troublemaking resulted in a great album, on which the band integrated hardcore country and even a touch of soul music into their sound. But Parsons stirred up other trouble as well -- agitating for a full-time steel player, pushing for a higher salary, and even, at one point, requesting individual billing. He caused so much trouble of this kind that even Hillman was aggravated with him by summer, although at one point he and Parsons had apparently considered either ousting McGuinn from the group or starting their own new band together.*
Unfortunately, Parsons also brought the Byrds legal troubles. Lee Hazlewood was not happy with Parsons for abandoning the International Submarine Band even before the release of their album. He informed CBS that Parsons was under contract to LHI. Before the legal dispute was settled, several of Parsons's lead vocals were rerecorded by McGuinn. As part of the settlement, Hazlewood retained all rights to the Sub Band's name and music. Between the departure of Parsons and the loss of their name, the rump Sub Band had little choice but to disband, only weeks before the long-delayed release of their LP in April of '68.
For more on the tenure of Gram Parsons with the Byrds, see the Sweetheart of the Rodeo profile. The full story of the Byrds v. 4.0 will be told in the forthcoming History section. Worth noting here, however, is the band's European tour in May '68. In London, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who knew McGuinn and Hillman from earlier tours together, entertained the band. Parsons was quite taken with their hosts, and privately spoke to them about the tour of South Africa scheduled for July. Richards remembers talking to Parsons about apartheid and telling him bluntly, "Well, put it this way: We wouldn't go."*
In July, the Byrds returned to England for a charity concert at the Royal Albert Hall, after which they were to leave for South Africa. The night before their departure, Parsons announced he would not be going along because of South Africa's racial policies. In response, McGuinn and Hillman fired him from the band.
None of his friends or associates believed that anti-apartheid sentiment was the real reason Parsons quit, perhaps because of his history of stretching the truth. Hillman, who was furious with Parsons for leaving the band in such a jam, believed that he just wanted to hang out with the Rolling Stones.* Byrds roadie Carlos Bernal, who subbed for Parsons on the South African tour, thought that Parsons quit the band because "he couldn't have things just exactly how he wanted them.... He wanted a steel guitar to do a lot of his tunes. He wanted a lot of things the band wasn't prepared to jump into overnight."*
The most charitable theory was that this was an early manifestation of his fear of flying, triggered by the thought of the long flight from London to Johannesburg via the Canary Islands.* Hillman also thinks this may have been a contributing factor.*
In any event, Parsons retreated to Redlands, the country estate of Keith Richards. There the two got to know each other, while Parsons enthused to Richards and Jagger about his favorite country records.


After the Byrds:

Back home, Nancy Ross had recently given birth to a daughter, Polly Parsons. Parsons had planned a large wedding -- a Hank Williams-style media event -- and commissioned a $1,000 wedding dress from Nudie's Rodeo Tailors. Despite, or perhaps because of, the birth of their child, Parsons and Ross had drifted apart. The dress was never used, though it was immortalized years later in the Parsons song "$1,000 Wedding."
In the late summer of '68, Richards and Parsons rejoined Jagger in Los Angeles, where the Rolling Stones were mixing Beggars' Banquet (Abkco, 1968). Jagger had hired a charismatic ex-con named Phil Kaufman to be his "executive nanny." Kaufman, who would become a close friend of Parsons before long, remembers him giving "country music lessons" to the curious Stones during their '68 visit:
"...Gram was teaching the Rolling Stones country music.... Quite often we'd just sit around the house -- Gram, Mick, Keith and I. They had been to Ace Records and bought every country album they could find: George Jones, Merle Haggard, Dave Dudley, Ernest Tubb -- you name it. Gram would say, 'Here is an example of this,' and he'd tell me which record he wanted and I'd play the record. They'd listen to it, tap their toes to it, listen to the chords and then Gram had me play George Jones, etc... That was what Gram was doing. I recorded Gram and Keith singing together, but sadly those tapes are long gone."*
Kaufman disputes assertions that Parsons was a "Rolling Stones groupie": "Nothing could be further from the truth. Gram was one of the only guys in the world who hung out with famous people like the Stones and who carried his own weight, i.e., he paid his own way. If anything, Keith was the 'groupie' of Gram.... They wanted to learn country music, and Gram had it."*
Before long, Richards and Jagger returned home, and Parsons went back to organizing the long-haired country band he had been planning.




The story of Gram Parsons continues in The Flying Burrito Brothers: 1967-1969. Or pick up the story after the Burritos on Gram Parsons: 1970-1972.



Notes

Troublemaking: Rogan, Timeless Flight Revisited at 257, 260-261.

"...[W]e wouldn't go." Fong-Torres, Hickory Wind at 95.

Hang out: Fong-Torres, Hickory Wind at 95.

"He wanted a lot of things..." Fong-Torres, Hickory Wind at 96.

Fear of flying: Fong-Torres, Hickory Wind at 96.

Hillman thinks: Rogan, Timeless Flight Revisited at 262.

"Gram was teaching the Rolling Stones..." Kaufman at 89-91.

"...Gram had it." Kaufman at 92.


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Band Members | Gram Parsons | 1968

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