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Articles

Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel
By Heather Johnson
June 5, 2006 - 10:19 PM PDT


"It's really hard to overcome your childhood."

Ingram Cecil Connor, III wanted to be a rock star. While he never did achieve that type of fame, Connor, who would later take the name Gram (short for Ingram) Parsons, became known as the father of country-rock, influencing the likes of The Eagles, The Byrds, and the Rolling Stones, as well as later bands such as R.E.M., Sun Volt, The Jayhawks, and Wilco, among many others. During his 26 years, he never sold a lot of records or amassed hordes of screaming fans, but his peers revered him and the alt-country movement likely wouldn't exist without him. During the late '60s and early '70s, he and the groups he was a part of -- International Submarine Band, The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers -- were some of the first rock bands to don rhinestone-studded Nudie suits and weave country music into their sound. Neither Nashville nor L.A. knew quite what to make of him.

By the time they caught on, he was gone.

In true "live fast, die young" rock 'n' roll fashion, Parsons died in 1973 of a drug overdose, leaving behind a timeless song catalog, as well as one of the more tragic and twisted life stories in rock history.

Countless magazine articles and a few unauthorized biographies have chronicled his life and death with varying effect and accuracy -- with good reason. It's a story that reads like a Southern gothic novel, full of dark characters and a morbid conclusion. But producer/director Gandulf Hennig's documentary Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel -- which originally aired in the UK on the BBC in 2004, and makes its U.S. DVD debut on June 20 via Rhino Home Video -- is the first film adaptation of his life story. (You could almost count the low budget Grand Theft Parsons, but that began where Parsons' tale ends, and starred Johnny "Jackass" Knoxville. So scratch that.)

Hennig, a Berlin-based filmmaker and musician, spent years compiling candid interviews with artists such as Keith Richards, Chris Hillman, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, former bandmate James Burton, duet partner Emmylou Harris, road manager Phil Kaufman and several members of his family, including window Gretchen Parsons Carpenter, his half-sister Diane Parsons, and his niece, Avis Bartkus Parsons III. Hennig weaves these interviews in with live performance and interview footage, rare home movies, childhood photographs, and naturally, a lot of great music. The end result is to dispel the many rumors that have snowballed through the years, while tastefully emphasizing his music, career, and family history, and concluding with the fatal drug overdose and his hijacked body.

Parsons tried to escape the insanity of his privileged, but deeply dysfunctional, Southern family upbringing through music, which eventually took him and his International Submarine Band to Los Angeles, which he then left to join the Byrds. As the Byrds' Chris Hillman says in the film, "we were hiring a keyboard player but we got George Jones in a rhinestone suit." He became instrumental in their classic "Sweethearts of the Rodeo" album, convincing them to record in Nashville and add steel guitar. They soared to new heights with Parsons under their wing, but he quit the band (two hours before departure) rather than play a gig in apartheid-plagued South Africa.

He and Hillman reconciled, and later formed Flying Burrito Brothers, a critically revered combo that released only two albums with Parsons on board, which contain some of his best work.

Not long after the release of his second album, "Grievous Angel," in 1973, Parsons overdosed from large quantities of morphine and alcohol. He died in a hotel on September 19, 1973, near one of his favorite places -- Joshua Tree National Monument in the southern California desert, where he was partying with friends. His family wanted a "proper" burial in New Orleans, stepfather Bob Parsons' home base. But Gram Parsons had made a pact with Kaufman, his road manager, a few years earlier stating that, when he died, he'd rather be cremated and have his ashes scattered at Joshua Tree than be buried in the ground. Kaufman attempted to honor that pact, and the story gets weirder from there. Even after death, Parsons could not escape melancholy and tragedy.

Hennig started developing the project seven years ago, on his own time, with funds he managed to save from his editor job at a Berlin television station. Five years later, he received the grant funding needed to finish the job, as well as an offer from the BBC to co-produce the film. He then partnered with writer Sid Griffin, whom he had met early on in his research process, and editor Birgit Mild, who helped condense more than 90 hours of footage into a mere 103 minutes.

The two-year delay between the UK and U.S. release actually became a blessing in disguise. While Hennig buried himself in paperwork to secure all of the necessary copyright clearances and permissions for the music-filled documentary's DVD release, he made contact with Avis Parsons' daughter, who provided enough background material and interview footage to warrant a complete re-edit. The U.S. version of Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel, contains 15 additional minutes of footage. [The film also screens at San Francisco's Roxie Cinema, Thursday, June 8 through June 15. A Q&A with Hennig will follow the 7:30 pm screening on June 8.]

Heather Johnson caught up with Hennig at his second home, Nashville, to talk about country-rock's "Grievous Angel," and the making of the documentary.


Sid Griffin wrote Gram Parsons: A Music Biography, one of the first books written on him. Aside from lending his encyclopedic knowledge of Parsons, how did Griffin contribute to the project?

He helped me to meet the guys in charge with the BBC. And I took him on the road with me when we shot the movie, so he was with me when we did the interviews, and asked a good part of the questions. He also had some contacts that really helped, like Chris Hillman. [Griffin] had written about his career for years and years, and I think that helped open the door.

How difficult was it to land the Keith Richards interview?

That was the toughest one to get, as you might imagine. It took us two or three years. First we never got a response, then we were turned down. In the end, a phone call came, and the interview had to be shot the next day. The BBC provided a crew in London, and Sid did the actual interview. I couldn't make it because I was in Germany, so Sid got to meet Keith Richards that day.

How did you find the video and live footage?

There isn't much footage of Gram. We found everything that is accessible. There was a home movie that Avis [Bartkus Parsons III] found in a barn and it had just fallen apart. It was footage of Gram and Avis when they were children, but it had just rotted away so we couldn't use it.

But we found a lot that people haven't seen before. Great footage of Gram and the Burritos on the Train Tour - Michael Vosse, their 'executive hippie' at the [record] company, shot that. He had the vision to ask his boss for a Super 8 camera. We're talking about the 1960s. These days every high school band has some friend following them with a video camera, but back then? I thought that was pretty visionary. He wasn't the best director of photography; it was all blurred and shaky, but it's perfect. It really fits the context.

Performance footage came from professional archives. But I had to track that down, too -- footage from local TV shows from the '60s. I spent a few years trying to find footage.

This is the first time Parsons' family has spoken on camera. Had they talked with the media much before?

Some of them have. Gretchen talked to an author who wrote a book on Gram before, but she felt what she said was not represented the way she wanted it. The general feeling of the family was "whenever we open our mouths, we look like the bad guys or like we're stupid. So we don't want to talk anymore." Diane, Gram's little sister, had never talked to the press at all. She chose to lead a life that is completely nonpublic. But they all were kind enough to talk to me on camera. It was difficult in the beginning, but I think they saw that we weren't trying to bullshit them in any way, or trying to exploit the story. But it was still a big step on their part to trust us, because I didn't have an impressive track record as a filmmaker that Americans would have heard about. I could have just been a flake, or some guy just looking for a scandalous story to exploit. I'm glad that they're all happy with the results.

When you finish a film like this, you've got to take care of a lot of things. You've got to make sure you meet the deadlines, you've got to hope that the commissioning editor -- in this case from the BBC -- will like it, that it doesn't demand any changes, and then, just on a moral level, you're scared shitless that the people who put their trust in you will like the result. Especially with so many hurt feelings involved. But they're all really happy and that made me very happy.

Gram's sister, Avis, died before you had a chance to speak with her.

In a boating accident. With one of her daughters. The karma in that family...

The initial version of the movie dealt with Gram and Avis' relationship but apparently not to a degree that was sufficient. The film was invited to 20 film festivals before it was scheduled to come out in the U.S. and during the Q&A sessions, at every film festival I was asked, "What ever happened to Avis?" If you hear that question once, maybe someone didn't pay attention or get what the film was about, but if you're asked that question at every film festival, you have to admit maybe there's a part of the story you didn't cover well. So I went back and re-edited the movie and shot more footage. I got access to Avis' surviving daughter, Avis III, and she helped a lot with giving me the psychological aspect of the relationship between Avis and Gram, and about how they grew up and the traumatic experiences they went through. Avis' part of the story is much stronger in the [U.S.] version.

We went back to the edit room for almost two months, and invested a shitload of money in re-cutting the film, so this is really a big step forward. There is no way I could have made this film without my editor, Birgt Mild. We worked 112 days, day and night, then another two months editing in Avis' parts.

How did you find Avis?

She saw the initial version of the film at a family celebration that they had. I didn't know her when we made the initial version. She e-mailed me one day and asked if she could have a copy, and I called her back and said, "Sure, you can have a copy, but how about helping me make a better movie?" I was very happy that she said yes.

She's very open on camera about her mother and Gram's upbringing. That had to be hard for her to do.

That's a big process for somebody, even if they just sit down for an hour for an interview. They think about it for days before that. They go through old pictures, old letters, and a lot of feelings get stirred up. It's a very intense thing to do, to talk about your parents or somebody you're really close to when they're not there. So I'm really grateful she did that. And everybody else, as well, but especially the family. There's a lot of heartbreak in it. People are still heartbroken 32 years later.

His wife, Gretchen [Parsons Carpenter] was a widow at age 21. That's tough. I wasn't prepared to be married at 21, but being a widow at that age? She's still taking it hard. I think the film helped them all heal a little bit, which I can't take credit for, but I feel blessed if it did help to heal some feelings.

I appreciate the way the film covered his death. Some of the gory details are tactfully left unsaid.

I just felt that was nobody's business, really. Margaret Fisher, the woman who was with Gram when he died, put it pretty well in the film when she says, "to see the light go out in somebody's eyes, that's not something that belongs to be shared." You can read about those details in the books and the articles. I felt that it's clear enough what happened.


Does his gravesite in New Orleans still exist or did it get washed away when Hurricane Katrina hit?

It's still there. In March 2005 the family put a new rectangular ledger on the grave. It has an image of Gram on it made from bronze or copper. That was a pretty nice thing to happen.

It's interesting that early in the film, he writes a letter to Avis declaring that they will never become as "sick and haunted" as their parents, but he ultimately experienced those same feelings.

Bitterly ironic if you see what happens after that. That's one of the toughest realities of the movie -- to see that it's really hard to overcome your childhood. You don't have to be Freudian to see that. And as much as he wanted to overcome his childhood, he just couldn't. His sister Avis was probably better at that. From what I understand she was a happy person when she died. She didn't die of alcoholism, or suicide, or drug abuse. She died in an accident.

How did you first discover Gram's music?

When I was about 20, a girlfriend of mine made me a west coast mix tape, and it had "Hot Burrito #1" on it from the first Flying Burritos record, and I couldn't stop listening to that song, I thought it was the most beautiful song I'd ever heard. Their playing was sloppy -- they wouldn't make it on American Idol these days -- but that's beyond the point, it's so passionate, so powerful, and so strong, and I wanted to know more about Parsons. So I started to buy his records, which was not that easy at the time. The Burritos album was in print, but the solo stuff wasn't really. I started off with a compilation of the Burritos' and Gram's stuff that was compiled by Elvis Costello. And then I realized that my first contact with country music was when Elvis Costello released "Some Kind of Blue" in 1981. I was a punk rock kid from Germany. There's not a lot of George Jones there. I can't thank Costello enough for that.

I'm glad that even after making this film, I can still listen to Gram's music. The Gram that I found making the movie was not exactly the Gram I had been looking for when we started, but I still love his music, and I'm glad I had the chance to get close to his family.

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"It's really hard to overcome your childhood."

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Heather Johnson
Heather Johnson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Her favorite Gram Parsons song is "Hickory Wind."

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