Gram Parsons, Joshua Tree and his enduring musical legacy 50 years after his death

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Editors note: This story was originally published September 2013, on the 40th anniversary of his death in Joshua Tree.

"He's dead."

There's only so much Phil Kaufman will say about Gram Parsons these days. But 40 years ago, the man with a reputation as a rock star wrangler/road manager was among Parsons' inner circle of friends.

"People have an obsession for Gram Parsons, and they should have an obsession with life," said Kaufman. "Get a life, as people say. Gram's dead now, move on."

On Sept. 19, 1973, Kaufman arrived at the Joshua Tree Inn to find the musician unresponsive.

At age 26, Parsons was dead.

The official cause of death was listed as "drug toxicity, days, due to multiple drug use, weeks." Nothing unique for rock musicians of that era, but it would be what Kaufman did next that ultimately propelled Parsons' name into legend.

At the time, Parsons didn't enjoy the same popularity as friends and collaborators like Keith Richards and Roger McGuinn. And while many of his peers appreciated his musical contributions while he was alive, it wouldn't be until years after his death that Parsons would be properly recognized.

Even today Parsons' legacy is two-fold — there's the rock star who died too soon, and the artist who blended country, rock, blues, soul and folk into what he dubbed "Cosmic American Music."

Part of what has kept Parsons' name recognizable is the bizarre series of events following his death. Various accounts have been told in movies and books, including Kaufman's 2005 memoir, "Road Mangler Deluxe."

Upon learning of the scheduled departure of Parsons' body from LAX for intended burial in New Orleans, Kaufman decided to follow through on a deal he made with the musician earlier that year: "The survivor would take the other guy's body out to Joshua Tree, have a few drinks and burn it," Kaufman said.

And that he did.

After dodging police and stealing the body, Kaufman drove out to Cap Rock in Joshua Tree National Monument (it was declared a U.S. National Park in 1994), where he ignited Parsons' remains and ultimately created a shrine.

"There's an organization of people out there — I call them Grampires," said Kaufman. "Grampires," according to the former road manager, are fanatics that seek details of Parsons' death, those who dwell on the musician's demise, upset and unable to move forward. "The Grampires are still up there, still whipping that dead horse," he said.

But not every fan is a Grampire. There are those who fell in love with Parsons' music and the movement he helped create: a fusion of country and rock in a time when country and rock didn't mix.

"What I found was here you had this legacy of a guy that was involved in the music scene in L.A. and incorporated a lot of music and a lot of different acts, and the only thing he was remembered for was being burned in the desert," said Jon McKinney. "It's kind of a sad punctuation on your life."

McKinney wasn't around when Parsons frequented Joshua Tree, but he grew up listening to The Byrds, which sparked an interest in country rock. McKinney would go on to create an annual music event in Joshua Tree called Gram Fest, also referred to as the Cosmic American Music Festival.

"If you talk to people about Gram, they thought you were talking about Graham Parker from England," McKinney said. "They didn't know anything about him other than that he was burned in the park."

Gram Fest was created to celebrate Parsons' musical legacy, and the movement he helped inspire.

"The reason I did the Gram Fest, in a nutshell, was to try to bring the music to life and give a little bit more of a legacy to who the guy was," said McKinney. "And that's what we did in 1996."

Blending genres

Parsons was born on Nov. 5 1946, in Winter Haven, Fla., and raised in Waycross, Ga. It was with the International Submarine Band that he wrote one of his best known songs, "Luxury Liner," from the group's 1967 album, "Safe at Home." But Parsons is probably best known for his short stint with the seminal '60s folk-rock group The Byrds, during which he shifted the band's sound to country.

"A lot of people cite that album, 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo,' to be what they feel as the first country rock record," said Shilah Morrow, a childhood friend of Parsons' daughter, Polly.

"Now if you go back to the late '60s and early '70s, country on the social side of things leaned towards the conservative, and Gram was a long-haired hippie boy," said Morrow, who now runs Sin City Social Club, a music marketing business inspired by Parsons. "Stylistically he explored traditional country music. Not just country music but soul music and stuff coming out of Stax Records in Memphis. He was blending genres of music that had always been segregated."

But after "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" flopped, Parsons and bassist Chris Hillman left The Byrds to form The Flying Burrito Brothers, which also featured the late pedal steel player Sneaky Pete Kleinow. Parsons' tenure with the Burrito Brothers was colored by the Bakersfield style of country popularized by Buck Owens.

"They were my favorite band of all time, and my favorite moment of my musical history — which is pretty vast — was Gram playing at The Whisky," remembered former groupie Pamela Des Barres. Having dated Hillman, Des Barres grew close to Parsons and was named Polly's godmother.

"He was singing a George Jones song, 'She Once Lived Here,' and he started crying during the song and wept the entire song. And all this hub-bub was going around him and no one was noticing that he was weeping except me and I was just like, 'He means it. He feels it,' " said Des Barres. "And everything was always about the music for me... So, his music in the Burritos and all the solo stuff touched me more than any other."

In 1973, Parsons paired with then-unknown Emmylou Harris to record his first solo album, "GP," which earned critical praise.

"To me, regardless of the genre it's the spirit of what Gram was doing that I believe is one of his most important legacies," said Morrow. "He was turning people onto country music who maybe always thought they hated country music. That's another huge gift. He was the gateway drug."

Parsons dealt this drug to fellow musicians, including The Rolling Stones.

"I was there and watched him do it. That validated him," said Kaufman. "He was a scraper. We sat down in a living room and I played records that he chose. And they all listened to it and the guitar licks and the lyrics, and he made comments and they absorbed his knowledge of country music. Gram influenced other musicians. He didn't have a large following and he didn't have a large fan base, but you'll see musicians these days and they'll say he was an influence. That's his legacy to the world. He influenced other people through his music."

'The saint of country rock'

It would be 23 years after Parsons' death that the first Gram Fest would again shed light on his music.

"I think that talking about Gram and how his music touched people is something really important for them to share with me. And I'm really honored when they do so," said Parsons' daughter, Polly. "[He inspired] everybody from First Aid Kit to Blitzen Trapper to Wilco, Emmylou Harris, Sun Volt, Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams — he's kind of like a country rock version of Jeff Buckley. Similar vibrations."

Along with world-renowned musicians, local artists are also in tune with Parsons' vibrations. Ted Quinn initially came to the desert with friends visiting sites associated with Parsons.

"It was probably 20 years after he was gone. Being musicians and being fans of the Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons, we would always stop at Joshua Tree Inn and sometimes stay in that room where he allegedly passed away," said Quinn. "I don't know if I'd say Gram Parsons influences me personally so much, but I was definitely intrigued by his legend and his sound. Whatever style of music, whether it's rock 'n' roll or country or folk blues, it's only good if it's really real and from the heart. In that way he is an influence."

While Quinn relates to Parsons' approach, Joshua Tree band Gram Rabbit started out covering Parsons songs.

"When we first started doing the music, I was never really a country person, but eventually learning a bunch of his songs with Emmylou opened me up to stuff like that," said frontwoman Jesika von Rabbit. "It was kind of really strange for me to sing country or like country, but this was folky, country-folky. But it was cool to know that he was out here in Joshua Tree and helped put it on the map, and, of course, it makes you appreciate it more because you're living out here and people are wanting to get to know his music."

The last Gram Fest was held in 2006. The festival had propelled Parsons' legacy, but it also fueled fanatics.

"The thing I regret about the Gram Fest is that people got so fixated on Gram that they missed the whole point of the event, said McKinney. "Gram became a deity. He's the saint of country rock. I like Gram a lot. I'm a fan, but I'm not a fanatic. There was a good legacy with Gram but the legacy was so much deeper and so much richer."

Four decades after his death, Parsons' music and influence live on — something friends and family believe was all he really wanted.

"I think that Gram was a really, really passionate, talented young man," said Polly. "I think he was on a mission and I think that some people historically are brought on to this earth to really change lives. And I think he was one of them."

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Gram Parsons, Joshua Tree and his enduring musical legacy 50 years after his death