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Keith Richards Does Gram Parsons

by PHYLLIS POLLACK

Quoting from the lyrics of “Before They Make Me Run,” a song from the Rolling Stones’ 1978 album, “Some Girls,” Stones guitarist Keith Richards remarked, “Another goodbye to another good friend,” as he segued into his appearance at the Los Angeles tribute concert for the late Gram Parsons. The song was particularly fitting to quote from, especially given its preceding line in its full context, which was not quoted by Richards, “Booze and pills and powders, you can choose your medicine, well it’s another goodbye to another good friend,” as 31 years ago at the age of 26, Parsons died from an overdose of heroin and Tequila. Proceeds from the evening’s concert were earmarked for the Musicians Assistance Program, an outreach for those with drug or alcohol problems.

Richards was certainly no stranger to country music when he met singer/songwriter Gram Parsons in the late 1960s, as evidenced by the unreleased documentary, “Charlie Is My Darling.” In its footage that was recording during the Stones’ 1965 Irish tour, Mick Jagger is seen singing Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” as Richards accompanies him on keyboards. Another country track that was recorded by the Stones was the late Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On,” which appeared on the 1965 release,
“December’s Children.”

It was natural that Richards’ and Parsons’ would bond over their love of music. Within their time spent together, Parsons would visit Richards in France, who was staying at Nelcotte, while the Stones were recording their epic classic, “Exile On Mainstreet.” The Stones guitarist has stated in recent years that while he never copied Parsons, “things rub off,” adding, “it’s not so much a matter of nick that lick or take that thing, it’s like osmosis. We osmosed a lot.”

While Parsons taught various musicians specifics about country music, and shared his vast knowledge of the genre, his influence on them during his short life obviously can’t be scientifically measured. With that as it is, many legends persist about Parsons to this day, and with some of them, it’s hard to know exactly what’s really true. However, one thing that has been proven over the years is that Parsons’ work remains as viable today as when it was recorded.

The July 10 concert at Universal Ampitheatre, billed as “Return To Sin City, A Tribute To Gram Parsons,” featured a diverse line-up of musicians, each offering renditions of Parson’s music. Two musicians were present on stage that had recorded with Parsons, Al Perkins and James Burton. Perkins, who had played with Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers, played pedal steel at the tribute gig. The highly influential and prolific guitarist, James Burton, who played on Parson’s albums “Grievous Angel” and “GP,” was also among those who joined ranks to play at the concert. Burton, a legend in his own right, has played with countless artists, including Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley. Notably absent was Emmy Lou Harris, who had recorded eloquent and stunning duets with Parsons. Also among those not present with whom Parsons had played were members of the Byrds.

Despite his contemporaries who were missing, many others were on hand to make statements about Parson’s music in present tense. Steve Earle pointed to the prescience of the lyrics to the Flying Burrito Brothers’ song, “My Uncle,” recorded during the Viet Nam war, with its references to the draft. Earle also praised the song’s co-writer, Chris Hillman, who had played alongside Parsons in both the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds.

Within the evening’s high points was Norah Jones’ performance of “She.” Jones also delivered Parson’s “Streets Of Baltimore” and “Cry One More Time,” featuring noteworthy elocution from Burton. In a somewhat surreal moment, Jones performed a duet with Richards, “Love Hurts,” which Parsons had performed with Emmylou Harris.

Dwight Yoakum dove into the song “This Old Town,” co-written by Parsons and Chris Hillman, and delighted the audience with “Wheels.”

Among the evening’s best moments, Raul Malo delivered a poignant rendition of “Hot Burrito #1.”

In another pairing, John Doe from the punk band, X, and Kathleen Edwards joined forces for “We’ll Clean Up The Ashes In The Morning.”

Lucinda Williams’ selection included “A Song For You” and “Sleepless Nights,” a Parsons cover, which had also been recorded by the Everly Brothers.

Among others who graced the stage was the House Of Blues Gospel Choir, led by Sylvia James. Jed Hughes and Jim Lauderdale also contributed to the show, as did wailer Suzy McDonald, who belted out “Do Right Woman.”

It was towards the end of the show that Richards made his highly anticipated appearance. “We’re here because of one guyand he’s up theremost of the time,” Richards jested, as he pointed upwards. Richards, playing an acoustic guitar, performed Parsons highly sentimental “Hickory Wind.” A version of “Wild Horses” followed, during which Richards let other musicians take verses.

Parsons’ life has been chronicled in several books, two of which include “God’s Own Singer” by Jason Walker, and “Hickory Wind” written by Ben Fong-Torres. Richards purchased the option to the screenplay rights for the latter in 1991. An independently released film, “Grand Theft Parsons,” was also recently issued, largely based on the Parson’s death, and the legendary theft and torching of his body by his road manager, Phil Kaufman. Parsons had told friends that when he died, he wanted to be cremated at Joshua Tree, where he liked to spend time. It was common knowledge among Parsons’ friends that he would have resented being sent back to Louisiana to be buried by his stepfather, Bob Parsons, with whom he had an extremely ambivalent relationship. The Parsons estate licensed tracks for use for the film’s soundtrack. Despite having come from a wealthy family, Parsons life was tragic in many ways. His mother, who preceded him in death, died from alcoholism.

The concert celebrating Parsons’ music was organized by his daughter, Polly, who was seven years old when he died. The royalties from her father’s music were reverted to her a few years ago, and his widow, Gretchen, also receives part of those, as well. Polly dedicated the concert to her biological mother, Nancy Ross.

A DVD and a CD capturing the evening’s concert will be released this fall.

PHYLLIS POLLACK is a music writer and publicist in Los Angeles.

 

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