Cosmic American Tragedy

To his champions, Gram Parsons was a cult hero, musical genius, and the primary inventor of "country rock." But he was also a tragic figure who died prematurely, an artist whose work has never been properly appreciated.

To his critics, Parsons was a spoiled rich-kid wastrel who rode his good looks, marginal talent, and insider connections to a promising career. But he ultimately pissed it all away through selfishness, out-of-control drug abuse, and reckless sexual liaisons.

Both groups will find plenty to admire as well as debate in Twenty Thousand Roads, a huge credit to author David N. Meyer, who has written an engrossing and detailed look at Parsons' life and music. It's the definitive account of a man whose work may have appeared on only six records during his lifetime but whose influence has outshone his own contributions.

The book begins with a page-turning, can't-make-this-stuff-up account of Parsons' upbringing and Southern gothic/Tennessee Williams-style family history. Born into a wealthy (and elegantly wasted) Florida citrus power family, Parsons lost his father to suicide and his mother to alcoholism — the latter dying the day of his high school graduation. Although a generous trust fund ensured that Parsons would never have to work, it was also a gift that allowed a general laziness with regard to his career and easy access to the very substances that would kill him. The book wonderfully charts Parsons' developing musical sense and efforts to meld rock and country through stints with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and finally two solo records.

Meyer dissects Parsons' symbiotic friendship with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and the two men's almost strange way of morphing into the other in looks and mannerisms. Though largely based on their mutual high drug intake and fascination with country music, it ended abruptly during the infamous French recording sessions for Exile on Main Street. As Meyer points out, when Richards is concerned that you're doing too many drugs, that alone says something.

One of the cornerstones of Parsons' legend is, of course, his death brought on by a motel room overdose of morphine at age 26. Meyer delves into the circumstances of his death, even finding two women who were in the hotel with Parsons when he expired. The Cult of Gram continues to this day. A recent double-CD release of a 1969 Burritos show was not-so-subtly titled GRAM PARSONS With the Flying Burrito Brothers, featuring a picture of only the shaggy icon on its cover. But regardless of whether readers think Parsons gets too much or too little credit for his musical direction and catalog, Twenty Thousand Roads is an amazing, rich biography of a man who knew you didn't have to pick among Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and Merle Haggard. You could love them all.

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Bob Ruggiero