Perfect Sound Forever

Gram Parsons

Image courtesy of Rhino Records

James Austin interview
by Jason Gross
(July 2001)

Gram's music was important in American music for a number of reasons. One is that Gram was able to absorb the influences of country music and he had rock and roll sensibilities. I like to say he was one part rock and roll, one part country and two parts heartache. He had all these elements in his make-up. Because of the International Submarine Band, the Byrds and everything else, he was able to assimilate those, especially listening to Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western, both country and rock and roll influences, which was pretty unusual in 1967 and come up with an attitude to combine them into what he called 'Cosmic American Music.' He then put that forth in the International Submarine Band. For people like myself, he really opened the door to a lot of different performers that we hadn't really thought about, like Merle Haggard and George Jones. A lot of us were closet country fans but we were a little reticent to go out there and say 'I like country' because in the late '60's, friends would look at you screwy if you did that. When Gram came along, here was a guy who could sing, he was your age, you could identify with him. He was a hip guy so you could say 'if he likes it, there must be something going on here!' So, he kind of opened the door. He let us walk through it. He was like the Pied Piper who led us down the path. And a better path it is because of him.

 At first, you see a guy who has a good feel for country music but also likes rock and roll. There's a guy who's knee-deep in both aspects of both kinds of music. Later on, he really starts to be much more confident in being a songwriter and projecting his thoughts and his feelings in music. The first thing I thought when I heard GP is 'wow, here's a guy who's not afraid to be country at times and at times he's rhythm and blues and rock and roll and it's all blending together.' When I first heard "We'll Sweep Out the Ashes," I was struck by how country that record sounded at a time for an age-group who for that time, it was uncool to be country. So he didn't have to put rock and roll into every single track to be satisfied. He felt secure. So, there was this level of security in himself in what he was singing about. I'm not saying he was the most secure guy in the world- obviously, he had some insecurities and some demons he was fighting off. But it just seemed like he was able to feel good in some sense about the kind of music that he loved. He became more and more absorbed in that and felt more and more confident in singing that kind of music.

 Gram Parsons knew what his limitations where and he absolutely did the most with them and he was able to lead us and show us the way and how interesting a combination of country and rock and roll and rhythm and blues could be, just like Ray Charles did. So, I think on maybe a lesser level than Ray Charles, because he's the one credited with bringing rhythm and blues and country music together, I think he's a pioneer. I think he was able to show us a kind of freedom of combining genres and singing from the heart and not trying to pigeon-hole himself into one kind of music. Like I said, he really opened the door for a lot of us young kids to country music. It's like he's the pathway. You go to Gram Parsons then you can go to all different kinds of music within what he was interested in and inspired by.

 There's a certain tragic, martyr kind of quality that Gram has. Gram was a tragic figure like Billie was and like other artists who died young like Jimi Hendrix. They burn out quickly. I think, there was such a short period of his life where he was able to produce this music. He died when he was 26 years old and his candle burned out quickly. It was there and gone. To just catch a glimpse of that and to see in that short span of time what he did, he becomes a real kind of charismatic figure and becomes of cult status.

 Also, the guy was great looking! I mean, I've seen him on stage numerous times. When he stepped on stage and started to sing, you knew you were listening to something. His level of charisma really comes through his music, more than anybody I think I've ever heard. When I hear Gram (now), I can still hear the guy singing on stage. I see him that very moment when I talked with him. It all comes back. His music transcended the vinyl format- you could really get a sense of him. It came through the music.

 Whenever you elevate him to the point where he's now on an alter, they're going to want to know him off. And I've already seen that happen. Gram was at mid-status level before. You had to go all these different places to find all his music. Now, we put out an anthology and I'm seeing that there's a couple of people saying 'hey, what's the big deal? I don't get Gram as a country music artist.' That's everybody's right to have their own opinion. Doesn't bother me one bit. It is definitely a danger because once you raise him to such a status, then you get a backlash effect. You get a lot of people saying 'Oh, come on already... The guy put out this amount of music, he wasn't THAT great.' Then there's a backlash. And I'm hoping that doesn't happen. But I'll tell ya, I'm ain't worried because I'll love Gram until the day I die and know he's worth the adulation.

 I think he's going to be remembered as someone who probably who had a lot of demons, who was probably in a lot of emotional pain and he was able to really channel that into his music. And there was some joy that went on in his life. And all of those things, the joy, the pain, whatever he had... I mean, look at his background... But he was able to really channel that into his music, into really enigmatic sounds that you can't country music, you can't call country-rock. It's a unique brand of music. Sure there's country elements, there's rock elements but it's really Gram Parsons' music. To be able to come up with a body of work that's so distinctive, that when you hear it you say 'that's Gram Parsons,' it's pretty amazing. And his ability to have such empathy and feeling for R&B, for country music, folk music (which was his weaker element, from his early years). His legacy is being able to share that what went on inside of him and that which made him his weaknesses and his strengthes. He was able to project that into his unique kind of music.

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