Gram Parsons Was a Desert Rat

Gram Parsons in his beautiful Nudie Suit, which is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

Thirty-nine years ago today, Gram Parsons departed this world at Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn outside of his favorite place in the world, Joshua Tree National Park. His music changed rock and roll forever. The album The Guilded Palace of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers, his band with Chris Hillman after they both left The Byrds, is undeniably one of the top rock and roll records of all time, and has some of the earliest country rock ever recorded. His influence is still felt in music today, and his early departure from the scene at age 26 only leaves a yearning for more of his music, and gaping holes in the fabric of the rest of the 1970s.

He launched the career of Emmylou Harris and was a big influence on The Rolling Stones’ delightful affair with country music in the early 70s. Most notably, Gram was given permission to record “Wild Horses” on Burrito Deluxe. His music is a precursor to The Eagles, and his spirit is certainly felt on the Grateful Dead album Workingman’s Dead, as well as so many other country, alt-country, rock, and bluegrass albums.

To this day, the park service will not discuss the episode that was a fulfillment of Gram’s wishes–that he be cremated at Joshua Tree, a place he loved to visit and write music, camp and look for UFOs. A friend did, in fact, get Gram’s coffin out to the park and set his remains on fire. Things only went downhill from there. His step-father was able to eventually retrieve his remains, and had him interred in New Orleans.

Gram Parsons and Keith Richards at Joshua Tree, photo © Michael Cooper

Gram and Keith enjoying the sunrise at Joshua Tree.

The Joshua Tree Inn and the spot inside Joshua Tree National Park where he was cremated (sort of) now draws tourists, groupies, fans, and seekers from around the world to the desert he so loved that no doubt inspired his music.

Watch the entire documentary about his life, career, music, and his untimely death–and the weirdness that followed.

On a happier, more celebratory note, check out some of his music (the video above includes footage from the band’s photo shoot in the desert with their cool Nudie suits) and his music performed by others below:

Christine’s Tune, an early video by The Flying Burrito Brothers, featuring Gram in all his glory.

Sin City by J.D. Crowe and The New South, featuring Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, and Ricky Skaggs (being a huge bluegrass fan as well, I can’t love this enough).

$1000 Wedding, a song from Gram’s solo album Grievous Angel, which features the lovely Emmylou belting out the harmony (when I hear this song I’m not sure why it evokes such strong childhood memories, because the song’s story does not bear any relation to my life or anyone I know, it’s just the music and his voice, I think. Plus, it’s a song I think my friend Nancy would like).

Hickory Wind, performed by Emmylou Harris. Gorgeous. This was Gram’s first big hit, which was on The Byrd’s album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.




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