PSF: What does Gram's work mean to you, being in the journalistic center of the alt-country movement?
Peter Blackstock interview
by Jason Gross
Personally, I would say he has just been a singer and a songwriter that I've always identified with. I've had a particular affinity for him since about 1990, shortly after the time that GP and Grievous Angel got reissued on one CD. He wasn't somebody that I'd been following since the early '70's, way back. But since I've first heard that, it's been a record that I've come back to fairly frequently.
In the terms of journalistically, professionally, it's pretty clear that he had a significant influence on a wide range of artists that we write about in No Depression. There's a reason that he had him on the cover of one of our issues about 2 or 3 years ago. For the most part, we tend to feature people that are doing something currently or have a new record out. As a magazine, our focus tends to be on something more contemporary going on at the moment. But Gram was somebody whose long-term significance was important enough that it was worth putting him on the cover, just as an acknowledgement of the influence he has on many of the people that we've covered over the years.
PSF: What struck you about Gram's work on a personal level?
More than anything else, it was just the melodies of his songs. There was just this heart-breaking emotional quality, especially to songs like "$1000 Wedding" or "Love Hurts." There was just a sort of spiritualness to a song like "In My Hour of Darkness." It seemed really direct and emotional to me. I really like his voice even though he's not a 'great' singer. There's times that he's straining to hit high notes that he can't quite hit. What he may have lacked technically as a singer, he more than made up for in the feeling that he got when he tried to sing.
In retrospect, he gets a lot of attention for being a country-rock innovator. But that wasn't really what I thought of the first time I heard that record. I wasn't thinking of it in terms of what the style of music was so much as I knew right off there was something about his music that was moving.
PSF: What is it about his work that's made him an icon to so many other artists?
Like any really worthwhile songwriter, the songs last over time. In Gram's case, it wasn't that many songs because he wasn't really around that long. And he was never really as prolific as some of the people he's influenced like Ryan Adams (Whiskeytown). He's 26 right now too but he's probably written about five times as many songs as Gram Parsons ever did or has certainly recorded way more.
But the songs that he did write and that he did get down and did get recorded were of lasting significance. Inevitably, there was going to be a lot of people discovering him over the years, just because of the quality of his writing. And also how well he got some of those songs recorded too. I can't really presume too much about why personally certain artists got into his music but I think the real obvious thing is just that other talented artists gravitate towards really good music. He left some of it behind definitely.
PSF: Stylistically, do you think he was successful with the way he was blending differently types of music?
I think he was pretty successful at what he was doing. I don't think what he was doing was necessarily all that new or different. I don't know if I necessarily concur with the general notion that he was at the forefront of some sort of pioneering synthesis of musical styles. Partly, it's just that's a natural development of all kinds of music over years and decades. Inevitably, there's going to be people who are taking bits and pieces of different sounds and putting them together. Gram was one of those people who did that but I don't think there's any doubt that there were plenty of other people doing similar things as well at the same time that Gram was doing them. I do think he achieved that balance between country and rock probably as good as anybody of his generation did. In a way, it probably did have some role in other people picking up that ball and running with it, both at the time and in retrospective now, twenty or thirty years later.
PSF: What do you think his contribution or legacy might be?
I guess for me, it's still goes back more to the quality of his material and the records he made more than it does as a legacy as a stylistic pioneer. I think probably his reputation is more for being someone who represented some sort of genre that has formed in his wake. To me what's really more significant is just being able to pull out those couple of solo records or the Burrito Records or the early stuff from the Submarine Band... The legacy to me is just the music he left behind more than any sort of galvanizing effect he might have had on those who came after him.
PSF: Is it an overstatement to say that he was a hero of the alt-country movement?
I think it's pretty clear that he did have a pretty big effect. But I think it tends to be sometimes oversimplified, that he was the MAJOR influence on people and that there's an entire genre that's following in Gram Parsons' footsteps. I think sometimes that gets overplayed a bit. But there's no doubt that probably most of the people that we've covered in our magazine have listened to Gram Parsons at one time or another. There is some significance to that certainly. Just as great pop bands will look back to the Beatles as a grounding inspiration for what they're doing, there's a certain amount of legitimacy to Gram's work having its place within the realm of people who are trying to combine country and rock today.
PSF: Where do you think Gram will be placed when people look over the history of country music?
It's my hope that he gets more respect within that realm of country music specifically. I still think that's a place where he's mostly overlooked. I think he's really more respected by people coming from a rock and roll background than a country background. I don't think it would be much of a stretch for Gram Parsons to be inducted into the country music hall of fame someday. But I think the climate of that organization is one in which he would not be seen as having a significance within country music.
Maybe that's partly because country music legends tend to gravitate towards the people who did this for 40-50 years and grew old and gray still doing what they were doing. And Gram obviously didn't have the chance to do that. I think it would be justifiable if he is eventually, 50 years from now, acknowledged as a significant figure in country music history.
PSF: Maybe it's also because he didn't have any hits?
Yeah, that's part of it too- the simple commercial aspect of things. When you don't have number one singles on the country charts and things of that sort, you tend to not get the recognition that Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and various people at the forefront of country music have gotten over the years. But I do think occasionally when enough time passes and enough attention is focused on somebody's work after he's gone, like has definitely been the case with Gram, there can be some room for revisionist view of musical history. In this case, the revisionist view may be more and more accurate in terms of what should have been reflected commercially in the day.
PSF: So how long is it going to take the industry to catch up with him?
(laughs) Probably at least a few decades at least.
PSF: That's sad.
It is but it's not really the point ultimately though. What's maybe more significant is just that all the people who have discovered him in the last 25-30 years since he died. And there's obviously been interest paid to his material than he would have imagined during his lifetime. Even though there can be a lot more that could be done, there's a lot that has happened that's given him some of the credit that he's deserved.
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