TOM AND GRAM AND JOSHUA TREE
by Norman Warwick
Tom Russell (left, born in Los Angeles in either 1947 or 1948) is an American singer-songwriter from California, currently living in El Paso, Texas. His music incorporates elements of folk, traditional country & western, border and cowboy music of the American West. Russell’s songs have been recorded by artists such as Johnny Cash, Ian Tyson, Nanci Griffith, Dave Alvin and others. In addition to his music, he is also an artist and published author.
In the nineteen nineties Russell made a number of solo albums, collaborated with blues singer Barrence Whitfield on two albums, and also recorded an acoustic album mixing original material with his favorite cowboy-themed songs. His albums include several guest appearances from other folk, country, and Americana artists, such as Chris Gaffney and Dave Alvin. His song “Outbound Plane”, co-written with Nanci Griffith, became a Top Ten country hit for Suzy Bogguss (right). His most significant album from this period is the 1999 folk opera, The Man From God Knows Where.
His more recent albums include “Blood and Candle Smoke” (2009) and “Mesabi” (2011).
However, it was an event In Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn on Sept. 19, 1973, Gram Parsons died of an overdose, a combination of morphine, pills and tequila. Parsons had, who, through work with The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and his brief solo output. and collaboration with Emmylou Harris, pioneered the genre of country rock.
The body of the 26-year-old singer then was abducted by close friend and road manager Phil Kaufman (right) . Along with another buddy, Kaufman (per an informal agreement between him and the singer) borrowed a hearse, stole Parsons’ coffin from LAX, where it was waiting to be shipped to his stepfather in New Orleans, and drove out to Joshua Tree National Park. There, they doused it in five gallons of gasoline and set it aflame. (The caper was memorialized in the 2003 Johnny Knoxville film, Grand Theft Parsons.)
This year marks 40 years since Parsons’ passing. His legacy is his music, a crossing of country and rock & roll, which is considered the DNA for popular acts such as The Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. His influence nowadays can be heard in acts such as Wilco and hordes of younger musicians. Joshua Tree, meanwhile, has become a magnet for Parsons aficionados.
The Joshua Tree Inn is ground zero for Parsons tourism. A single-story, modest, cozy motel with 10 units and four bungalows on Twentynine Palms Highway, it boasts a memorial that bears his name, and you can purchase a Gram Parsons T-shirt in the motel’s lobby. Room 8 still exists, but the only piece of furniture dating back to Parsons’ death is a round mirror at the foot of the bed. A painted portrait commemorates Parsons and on a nightstand there’s a guest book in which visitors can write messages. Joshua Tree Inn owner Margo Paolucci says she gets guests from around the world looking to stay in Room 8.
“When we have a walk-in, we never give them this room,” she says. “It’s only somebody that requests it because they know something about Gram or they’d love to learn about Gram.”
Some claim to have seen apparitions or heard strange knockings. Dee Dee Rusich, who manages housekeeping and staffs the front desk, says she’s heard the shower turn on and the front door lock on its own. She adds she’s witnessed guests performing séances.
A few paces from Room 8 out in the courtyard, a slab of concrete gives way to a guitar statue erected by a local artist. Fans have placed tribute items at the base: hats, flowers, candles, coins, sunglasses, harmonicas, pipes, guitar picks, notes and a small boot.
Paolucci, who has owned the inn since 2002, is quick to note that she’s not seeking to exploit Parsons’ legacy. “[But] the fans are diehard.” From 1996 to 2006 Gram Fest — an annual concert in Parsons’ memory — drew musicians and fans to Joshua Tree to pay tribute, and the inn will host a memorial concert for Oct. 5.
One devotee who connected with the spirit of Parsons in Joshua Tree is singer-songwriter Laura Harmondale. She now lives in Memphis but is originally from Cleveland, where a boyfriend gave her a copy of a Gram Parsons anthology. She was 23 at the time, and she was sold. Looking for a change, Harmondale in 2005 moved to Joshua Tree, where she lived for five years, working part-time at the inn. She spoke with guests about Parsons, and ultimately wrote and recorded an album titled Spirit of ’73, which nods in Parsons’ direction with its alt-country vibe. The video for her song “Crowded Highway” was filmed in part at the inn and in the park.
That album received some glowing reviews on social media, with one correspondent saying ´I’m a little tentative reviewing this album, ecause I want to describe it in superlatives that will border on cliché for some people. So having said that, let me now say Laura Harmondale has an absolutely golden voice, clear and pure, but a little worn too, occasionally heart- breaking. It’s timeless music, could be a forgotten gem from the golden age of AM radio. Spirit of 73 is actual country, the lyrics have that immediacy and connection that you only get from someone who really understands idiom of country; why people wrote this music in the first place and why it still matters today. I’ve also got to remark on the quality of the musicianship on this album, especially Gar Robertson doing duty as the man who apparently can play any kinda of guitar; especially great pedal steel there.
Longtime readers know that the more I like something the harder it is for me to write about, so that is about it. This is a fantastic album, something I’d recommend to anyone, even people who’d normally wrinkle their noses at the idea of country music. You should get this.
Spirit of 73 is available on CD from LauraHarmondale.com in a special package made from certified recycled material. Digital downloads are coming soon.
´(Gram) is like a Jesus figure in underground country music´, says Harmondale, who also hosts a weekly show on WRFN Radio Free Nashville, Cosmic American Sundays, named for the genre that Parsons played, which he dubbed Cosmic American Music. “He influenced so many bands.”
Gram Parsons grew up in a wealthy Southern family in Waycross, Ga., and Winter Haven, Fla., heir to a fortune in oranges. He took to music at an early age, playing guitar and organ. He moved to L.A. and joined The Byrds for one album, 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a stylistic shift for the band and the first major release featuring a country-rock aesthetic.
After things soured with The Byrds, Parsons formed The Flying Burrito Brothers, borrowing the quirky name from a friend’s project. The Burritos released The Gilded Palace of Sin in 1969 and Burrito Deluxe in 1970, pioneering what would later be known as alt-country. Parsons also had a pair of solo albums: 1973’s GP and 1974’s posthumous Grievous Angel, which featured a young Emmylou Harris.
Gram Parsons’ talent for song-writing, stage presence and, well, singing became evident. Confident and good-looking, he’d pose in his favorite Nudie suits (left), the popular, audaciously decorated, rhinestone-accented cowboy gear created by designer Nudie Cohn. Things seemed to come easy to Parsons, and because of his family money he never had to perform for his dinner or busk to make rent. He’d been drinking since his teenage years, but after he moved to Los Angeles, his drug use also began to expand, ultimately leading to his final days at Joshua Tree.
While Room 8 is where Parsons left this earth, and New Orleans is where his remains were buried, it’s at Cap Rock — a landmark deep in Joshua Tree National Park, where a boulder rests atop a rock formation surrounded by the park’s namesake trees — that fans pay him respect. Packs of cigarettes and bottles of booze are placed at the site, as Parsons is believed to have been cremated there. The messages “Safe at Home” and “Gram Lives” adorn nearby rocks.
Seeing as the spot at Cap Rock (right) is sheltered and a little longer than a coffin, it looks like the appropriate location. But George Land, the National Park Service’s community-outreach ranger at the park, says it’s not where the cremation actually happened. Land insists Parsons actually went up in flames on a plot of nondescript open desert less than a quarter mile away.
While he acknowledges that Parsons is part of the park’s history, he notes the Park Service doesn’t appreciate the vandalism found at Cap Rock. “We don’t mind people embracing the legend,” Land says. “[Yet] I don’t think Gram ever in his wildest dream wanted to contribute to a situation where people came out and just messed up the place of his ashes. To deface it is not only defacing this gem of nature, it’s almost a slap in the face of Gram.”
Parsons’ legacy seems to be on the mind of many out here in this beautiful, high desert community. A pioneering, talented musician who never realized his full potential, he was never as popular nor as heralded as others of his era, like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix; nor has he been as commemorated. But many argue that his reach and influence was at least their equal.
Harmondale, for one, would like to see him in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“He almost single-handedly created this whole scene,” she says. “It’s a cult, is what it is. The cult of Gram Parsons.”
The prime source for this article was a piece written by Robert Fulton for LA Weekly at
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Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve Bewick, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Four.
As a published author and poet Norman was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (for which he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
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