Twenty Thousand Roads, by David N Meyer

The self-destructive life of a country-rock pioneer
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The Independent Culture

The legend of Gram Parsons is in stark contrast to his catalogue, his short life overshadowed by his death and its bizarre aftermath: an unorthodox cremation in the Joshua Tree National Park. His manager, Phil Kaufman, poured gasoline in the stolen coffin, struck a match and hightailed it into the southern California night.

Without Parsons, the Eagles would not have happened. Parsons is credited with the invention of country-rock and considered its first star. Yet he was contemptuous of the genre, describing it as a "plastic dry-fuck". More than 30 years after their original release, GP and Grievous Angel sound much closer to "traditional" country than they would have in the 1970s.

Had he not been so determined to self-destruct (he told friends he'd be dead by 25), who knows what heights Parsons might have scaled? His is a life of might-have-beens, as David Meyer's detailed chronicle shows. Born Ingram Cecil Connor III, Gram grew up in Waycross, Georgia, a poor little rich kid whose parents indulged in wife-swapping and booze. He and sister Avis were brought up by servants. Scarcely into his teens, Gram could party in his private quarters, safe in the knowledge that his parents were too caught up in their own lives to concern themselves with his. If addiction is indeed inherited, Gram didn't have a prayer.

Two events stand out: in 1956, aged nine, he was taken to see Elvis. Even before the new-born King was deemed a bad influence, Gram was imitating him. Then, for Christmas 1958, Gram's father bought him a tape recorder. He pressed play and heard his father's voice telling him he'd always love him – by which time his father was dead, having pointed a revolver at his right ear.

Gram's distraught mother fell for a man on the make, Robert Parsons, who adopted the children and won them over with grand gestures – not least a VW van to transport Gram and his band, the Legends, to gigs. Parsons wanted to be a star and had the talent; the money helped him on his way. He rubbed shoulders with the Byrds, who, without him, would not have made Sweetheart of the Rodeo. He hung out with the Rolling Stones, a musical influence on Keith Richards. Those close harmonies with Emmylou Harris launched a career. It was, as Meyer shows, a strange and tragic trip, but one sometimes feels that his biographer can't separate the wood from the trees.

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