Gram Parsons’ life would have made a perfect Gram Parsons song. The man who merged honky-tonk and rock & roll and invented the beast known as country rock was born into money and raised in Southern Gothic style. (His father, Coon Dog Connor, committed suicide, and his stepfather admitted to the fatal poisoning of Gram’s mother.) When he overdosed in 1973 at the age of 26, Gram Parsons’ addition to his family’s morbid lore was not quite complete; the following day, a friend stole his corpse and burned it in the Joshua Tree National Monument desert in Southern California.
As described by former Rolling Stone writer Ben Fong-Torres in Hickory Wind, Parsons was more than just another colorful rock screwup. Unlike peers such as the Eagles (whom he dismissed as ”bubble gum”), Parsons understood that country music wasn’t about stylish licks or pitch-perfect voices. It was about a particular feel — in his case, a combination of rough-hewn voice, tear-jerking story-songs, and a loony edge. You can hear that feel in his work as a member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and on the albums he made during his short-lived solo career (especially his posthumously released gem, Grievous Angel), where his thin, folkie voice often cracked and his songs were soaked in melancholy. Parsons also thought music shouldn’t be stratified by class — that both long-haired rock fans and truckers should be able to appreciate the same songs.
In the early ’70s, though, very few people subscribed to that notion, and Parsons died a cult figure. His musical crusade wasn’t helped by the fact that he was scattered, self-indulgent, and terrified of commitment, either to a woman or a band. Fortunately, Fong-Torres doesn’t romanticize any of this, and he has done his research, interviewing relatives, musicians who worked with Parsons, and the doomed singer’s cohort in decadence, the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, who denies getting Parsons hooked on heroin. (Unfortunately, Emmylou Harris, Parsons’ duet partner and protégée, declined to be interviewed for the book.)
But Fong-Torres doesn’t embellish the story of Parsons’ life much, either. A tale this deranged needs flair, and there’s not enough of it in Hickory Wind; the writing is often choppy and full of boilerplate prose. The obvious comparison is to Bob Woodward’s John Belushi biography, Wired, another tale of squandered young talent. Yet Fong-Torres doesn’t have Woodward’s storytelling skills or his narrative intelligence.
Even so, Hickory Wind (named after one of Parsons’ most touching and sentimental songs) still manages to fascinate because Parsons’ story is so dramatic and because his two solo albums, recently reissued on CD, still sound contemporary. Fong-Torres’ encounter with Parsons’ former girlfriend, Nancy Marthai Ross, who lives in a Santa Barbara shrine dedicated to Parsons complete with a dome tent out back that she calls ”Gram’s house,” speaks volumes about the singer’s twisted legacy. Her story would make a pretty good song, too. B