The Genius of Gram Parsons: Making the Uncool Cool

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I was doing my tour of duty in the waiting room at the dentist’s office this morning when “the music snob within” reared its ugly head.  I’ve tried hard to overcome this personality flaw, and I like to think I’ve made some progress over the years from my original “disco sucks” snobbery, but today, being forced to listen to modern country music brought about a snobbery-relapse.

At first, I tried to overcome it with reason…“Now, Marie, just keep an open mind.  You might hear something you like.”  Wrong.  Each song seemed to be worse than the one before.  Looking around at the faces of the other waiting room inhabitants, it didn’t seem to be bothering anyone else.  One might even think they were enjoying it.  I, on the other hand, was gritting my soon-to-be-examined teeth and reading the same magazine paragraph over and over.

“What”, you may ask, “does this have to do with Gram Parsons?”  I’m glad you asked.  There’s always been a cultural divide between rock fans and country music fans.  Although it exists to this day to some extent, the division that we have now pales in comparison to the musical enemy camps that existed during the sixties and seventies.  There’s a whole history lesson in the multiple reasons for this, but for fear of slipping into my professorial persona and losing you altogether due to mind-numbing boredom, suffice it to say that it had to do with the fierce societal clash created by the post-war cultural revolution and political climate.

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These two camps now live in a state of musical détente, cooperating and collaborating, crossing-over and synthesizing.  Not so in Gram’s day.  These two “diametrically opposed” forms of music represented an utter and insurmountable (so it appeared) cultural, political, economic, and age-based chasm.  It was not a matter of simply changing the radio station – your choice of music was fundamentally connected to your identity in the world.

Into this deeply divided music scene appeared Gram Parsons, a son of wealthy citrus growers in central Florida who was a well-trained musician and a highly intelligent Harvard dropout.  It’s been conjectured that Gram brought an appreciation of country music to the Laurel Canyon musicians (The Byrds, etc.) simply because he was from the south, having lived in Florida and Georgia, but I don’t really agree with this.  Middle-and-upper-class kids from the south in that era generally didn’t listen to country music any more than kids in the rest of the country (trust me, I was there), and Gram was definitely from an “upper-class” family.

His early music career consisted of playing standard rock-pop tunes of the day, but he later began to investigate country music and became fascinated by the intense pathos of the music.  Country music in those days was much more reflective of its origins in the emotional Scotch-Irish ballads and folk tunes of immigrants in the southeast region of the U.S.  It was a far different animal than the one that is forced upon us at the dentist’s office today.  Gram looked past all the “enemy camp” craziness and sought to bring the elements that made this music so appealing to so many to the “rock camp”, thereby introducing a new sound to a new audience.

In other words, he had the courage to go against the flow, to risk having his “cool badge” revoked, in order to bridge the chasm. His legacy is multi-layered.  On one hand, without Gram, it’s possible that country music wouldn’t have evolved to the hybridized genre that it is today and would have remained true to its original roots to a greater degree, but on the other hand, without Gram, there would have been no Eagles, no Outlaws, no Pure Prairie League, no Marshall Tucker Band, no Charlie Daniels – and the list goes on.  Or at least, they probably wouldn’t exist in the form in which we know them.  And you know that country twang you hear in some Stones songs?  That might not be there either.  Gram was buddies with Keith Richards, and apparently was quite an influence on him.  (We won’t get into the whole “Wild Horses” controversy, but it’s worth looking up if you’re interested.)  It’s truly not an exaggeration to credit Gram Parsons as the “father of country rock”.

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Going back to the whole music snob thing, in actuality, it’s perfectly fine to have musical preferences, of course – we all do.  It’s when these preferences result in an overly-derisive attitude toward other types of music that we have a problem. That mentality only serves to reinforce musical enemy camps and increase cultural divisions, as history has taught us.  It also means that we may miss out on some great tunes. So with Gram as my example, I’ll keep fighting the “music snob within”.  With that said, however, I’ll be bringing my earphones (or earbuds, if that’s the current term, I never know) to the dentist’s office next time.

The song I chose for this post is “A Song for You”.  Gram’s genius and contributions can be seen and summed up in his pronunciation of one word – the word dance, pronounced daynce.  The first time I heard this song, I did a mental double-take.  I couldn’t believe he said daynce.  I’d bet my bottom dollar that he did this intentionally and for a purpose.  Remember that he was a smart rich kid who was widely travelled and well-educated – he knew what he was doing by using the industrial-strength southern pronunciation of that word.

Of all the linguistic/speech patterns and colloquialisms of my regional culture, daynce was one of those that used to make me cringe the most.   For example…“Well, Marie, did you have fun at the daynce?  Did you do any dayncin‘? I bet you daynced all night.”  I made darn sure that I didn’t say daynce myself.  That way of speaking was a source of shame and embarrassment to me, and I consciously trained myself to speak differently.  And then, all of a sudden, this super-cool rock-dude, a former Byrd, was saying daynce?  Openly and in public?  In front of non-southerners?  Wow.  Courage, for sure – and pure genius.

Through this song and others, Gram took what was perceived as profoundly un-cool (and still is, really) and made it okay. He took the shame away that shouldn’t have existed in the first place.  I strongly suspect that Gram knew all about those feelings (he was a southern boy at Harvard, after all) and was thumbing his nose at that whole condescending attitude that made people like me (and him, maybe?) feel embarrassed about their southern roots.  Thank you for that, Gram.  I think you were wise beyond your years.

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     Enjoy this sublimely beautiful song and the pictures of old Florida.  It’s a different place now – this is a glimpse into a world gone by.   There is a brief excerpt from an interview with Gram at the beginning, which explains the meaning and background of the song.  Oh, take me down to your daynce floor…

As an added bonus, I am including one of my favorite songs that can be considered part of Gram’s legacy, what I believe to be among the “cream of the crop” – the incredible “Green Grass and High Tides”, by The Outlaws.  I recommend high volume for this gem.  And if you’ve never heard it before – hang in there; the song builds to a crescendo, and the ending may just wow you, like it does me.

Finally, I highly recommend the Gram Parsons biography, “Twenty Thousand Roads”, by David Meyer.  I enjoyed this book greatly and some of the things that I learned from it about Gram’s life are discussed in this post.

gram bio

Thoughts or Comments?  Please share! 

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “The Genius of Gram Parsons: Making the Uncool Cool

  1. Years ago I compiled a cassette (remember them?) for my (now ex-) Brother-in-law, a farmer and genuine Aussie cowboy/plantation owner, entitled “Another Country”. It included Flying Burrito Bros, Poco, Steve Stills, even some Dingoes (Aussie Country Rock). Don’t think he ever played it, but it was a fun ‘music snob’challenging exercise for me! Nice piece. Thanks.

  2. Ah yes, the old “mix tape”. I was a mix tape maven back in the day. 😉 Thanks for reading my post – it’s probably one of the longest ones I’ll do. I had a lot I wanted to say about G.P., as you see. 🙂

  3. Great article, Marie. I know the name, Gram Parsons, but not much about the man. The good die young they say, what was he, 26, when he died?
    I think Emmylou Harris still champions his music.
    Tape mixes? Good fun in days long gone. I can remember compiling tapes of the best tracks from my vinyl albums and creating a ‘super album’.

    • Thanks, Jamie – I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Yes, Gram died way too young – drug overdose, unfortunately.

      I miss making the old “mix tapes”, as we called them. I used to make them for Christmas presents back in the “starving student” days. 😉

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