Friday, November 06, 2009

Parsons Legacy Inspires Words, Music

by Ted Shaw: Windsor Star

The truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels will gather tonight at Phog Lounge.

There's a unique event planned linking popular music to the literary arts, celebrating the music of Gram Parsons in song and the spoken word.

Novelist Ray Robertson, who is in town promoting his latest book, David, at Bookfest Windsor at the Art Gallery of Windsor, will slide over to Phog, 157 University Ave. W., at about 10 p.m. to join a Parsons tribute staged by local musicians, Kelly Hoppe and Greg Cox.

The event was put together by Bookfest, Phog's Tom Lucier, and Robertson's local publisher, Biblioasis Press.

Robertson, originally from Chatham, wrote a 2002 novel, Moody Food, which was based on the life of country-rocker Parsons.

The first line of this column was taken from Parsons' 1974 song, Return of the Grievous Angel, one of the tunes Hoppe and Cox will perform during tonight's set.

"I was a big fan of Gram Parsons all through the wilderness years of the 1970s and '80s," said Robertson, 43, who now lives in Toronto.

During that time, Parsons was often mistaken for the British pomp-rockers, Alan Parsons Project.

But Robertson was a purist who was drawn to Parsons' unique talent for blending many styles of American 20th- century music.

"I was drawn to it because, for me, (Parsons' music) consisted of all the stuff that makes up popular music. It had rock, it had country, it had R&B, it had gospel.

"It also had a quirky, psychedelic vibe to it."

Parsons is credited with being one of the originators of the country-rock sound. Born in Florida in 1946, he formed the Boston group, The International Submarine Band, in 1967, then got hired to join The Byrds the following year.

His time in The Byrds resulted in the seminal album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which pop musicologists regard as one of the first country-rock records.

Parsons was in The Byrds a mere four months before splitting to form The Flying Burrito Brothers with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman and future co-founder of The Eagles, Bernie Leadon.

The wayward Parsons, whose fast life was fuelled and eventually felled by booze and drugs, was also a friend of Keith Richards, and his influence can be heard on The Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street albums.

Parsons died at the age of 26 of a drug overdose in a motel room in Joshua Tree, Calif.

But in his last two years he managed to produce a pair of stunning solo works -- GP and Grievous Angel -- with the help and guidance of Emmylou Harris.

Today, Parsons is a patron saint of alt-country, and his influence is evident in the likes of Old 97's, Drive-By Truckers, Uncle Tupelo, and The Waco Brothers.

In Moody Food, Robertson used Parsons as the inspiration for his fictional character, Thomas Graham. (In a famous Rolling Stone Magazine article at the time of Sweetheart of the Rodeo's release, Parson's first name was misspelled as Graham.)

The novel is set in Toronto's downtown Yorkville neighbourhood in 1966. It was a time of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, and Yorkville was a mecca for aspiring musicians, American draft dodgers, wannabe hippies looking for a score, and college dropouts -- like Bill Hansen, the narrator of Moody Food.

Those who lived through those times have praised Robertson for his accurate portrait of the Yorkville scene in the late-1960s.

But it was all a work of the imagination -- Robertson was born in 1966, so he has no direct knowledge or experience of the period.

The character of Graham, his band The Duckhead Secret Society (Parsons produced the debut album of short-lived New Jersey band, Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends, in 1973), and the formative months in Yorkville are purely fictional.

There is no evidence, said Robertson, that Parsons visited Toronto in the late-1960s, although some of his contemporaries, including Jesse Winchester and Bill King, emigrated north to escape the U.S. draft.

Robertson will read passages from Moody Food at The Phog, and sign copies of the book.

Kelly Hoppe, meanwhile, was only too happy to prepare the musical appetizers.

He and Cox will have acoustic versions of, among others, 100 Years From Now and Hickory Wind, from the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album; Hot Burrito #1 and Dark End of the Street, from The Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace of Sin album; and Return of the Grievous Angel and In My Hour of Darkness from the last two solo records.

"I like Gram Parsons," said Hoppe. "But I don't think of him as a huge influence on my music."

For his inspiration, Hoppe goes back to the same sources, namely the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

Hoppe also uncovered a passion for covers in his research of Parsons' discography.

He will include many of those in the set, such as The Louvin Brothers' The Christian Life (covered by The Byrds on Sweetheart), The Bee Gees' To Love Somebody, and Haggard's Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down.

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