Staff Picks: 'Twenty-Thousand Roads—The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music'

Armed with my Ferrante (Elena) and my Levi (Carlo) and various guides and phrasebooks, I had plenty of Italy-specific reading to enjoy while visiting the southern region of Puglia last summer. Instead I spent most of the time with the biography of a singer-songwriter from Winter Haven, Florida, who died of a drug overdose when I was eight years old.

Ask ten music fans about Gram Parsons and you’re likely to get eight negative responses, at least some of those hostile. But I’ve long been hooked on his music, the blend of country, western, and rock he christened “cosmic American.” But I knew far less about his life. There's the post-war, Southern-gothic, baby-boom upbringing (father a suicide at Christmastime; mother perishing of alcoholism the night of his high school graduation; a doting, flashy, and alcoholic stepfather who lent Gram his surname but helped plunder the family orange-grove fortune). There's the stint in the University Heights section of the Bronx while fronting the short-lived International Submarine Band. There's his “collaboration” with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, his symbiotic “involvement” with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones around the time of Exile on Main Street, and his “discovery” of Emmylou Harris (quote marks, because the stories are complicated).

After Parsons’s death in 1973 in a California hotel room, a group of acquaintances intercepted his body on its way to the funeral home, brought it to Joshua Tree National Park, and set it ablaze, purportedly to grant Gram his wish to be cremated in the high desert—a tale author David N. Meyer positions as the comi-tragic climax to this thoroughly researched, novel-like bio. No besotted fan, though, he leaves it to the reader to decide where Parsons went right and (sadly all too often) wrong.

Parsons’s harshest critics have called him a poseur and manipulator, a good-looking rich boy whose wan musical progeny include groups like The Eagles. Others point to his talent for wedding un-weddable genres and note we’d otherwise not have had the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo and their progeny (Wilco, Sun Volt), or performers like Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle, and Lucinda Williams. Read Twenty-Thousand Roads for the story of Parsons’s life and music; hold onto it for the end notes, discographies, and Meyer’s own extensive (and, I’ve found, indispensable) listening guide.

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Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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