Book Review: Gram Parsons- God’s Own Singer

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July 7, 2012 by Dan Swinhoe

Had Gram Parsons lived he would have been 65 years old by now, but instead biographies recounting the man’s short but explosive life are being released. Widely known as the founder of Country-Rock despite hating the term, Parsons died aged 26 in 1973 after destroying himself with booze and drugs. Though he saw little acclaim or success in the few years he was making music, he managed to create a legacy that still resonates today.

But his personal life wasn’t never as smooth as his music; a rich boy who’s father committed suicide when he was twelve while his mother slowly drank herself to death, his life was filled with constant ups and downs. Addiction and loss were commonplace throughout his time, as was a longing to succeed that was never fully satisfied. This book documents the man, the music, and his early and unfortunate burn-out.

The author Jason Walker, a Kiwi based in Sydney, spent seven long years writing this, his debut book. His thorough research paid off though, melding the details with the great narrative smoothly, and the interviews with people who’s lives were touched by Gram speaking honestly about how much he meant to them. It sheds some light on the relationship between Parsons and his singing partner Emmylou Harris, the latter giving some insight into how much he meant to her.

Walker admits in the epilogue this was a fanboy project, and at times his writing becomes more excited and you can see where he almost gets carried away with himself. But this adds to the reading experience, making it more readable, especially for those new to Parson’s music. Although the mid chapter reviews are perhaps over complimentary for a biography, especially with a full account of his discography provided at the end, it’s a small price to pay when his excitement takes you along for the ride.

Originally released in 2001, God’s Own Singer was hailed as the definitive Gram Parsons biography. This new edition provides a new bizarre twist to the man’s legacy, with Walker including a new interview with Australian Michael Martin, one of the men who were responsible for stealing Gram’s body  after he died and cremating him in the Joshua Tree National Park in accordance with the singer’s wishes.

The new interview is clearly a draw for fans, but the whole book is a great read. Parsons life was a contradicting roller-coaster; a rich boy playing music of the poor man, constantly lauded for his talents but success constantly out his reach. For every victory or good thing that happened, the Jinx of Parsons would strike, and he’d be left back at square one. Sometime fate was against him, sometime his own self-abuse, selfishness or stupidity would cause him problems. Yet everyone interviewed talks of his kind nature and charm, making it difficult to dislike him, despite his flaws.

God’s Own Singer  provides a full account of Parsons’ life, from his rich boy beginnings and early careers with the Shilos and his interest in folk, his time in the Byrds and Flying Burrito brothers, to his obsession with Keith Richards and his solo albums with Emmylou Harris. While Parsons’ music had been lauded since his death, his personal life has been surrounded in myth. Tales about Lost tapes, sex, drugs and rituals have all been weaved in at various points, and it was never helped by the man’s taste for exaggeration and storytelling. But Walker avoids the sensationalism, instead providing the honest facts, and doing his best to put the rumours to rest.

The up and down nature of his story means that despite the short time he was making music, it makes an engrossing read. The warm touch the Walker and the interviewees provide mean once you’ve put the book down, at once you want to both listen to Paron’s work that inspired so many and find out what happened to Emmylous Harris, the rising star who helped Parsons realise his potential. She carried on making music, and still is today, which is the closest Gram’s life can get to a happy ending.

To order a copy, head to Soundcheck Books

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