David N. Meyer, Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music
(Random House, 2007)
With the disaster of foreign occupation and the U.S. dollar on the dole, it is hard to believe in an ethos of curiosity, ingenuity, and panache—in the American dream, out in the wild world, hatbox and guitar in hand, wayfarers covering its whiskey-soaked eyes.
Yet one ambient corner of the map continues to celebrate this figure of the dream. It is the musical heritage of America, and while—judging from the recent spike in available testaments to it, e.g., anthologies, documentaries, biopics, new releases from old masters—the need for it is commercially viable, the yearning for it runs deeper than that.
David N. Meyer inhabits this corner of our culture with his Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music. A biography of a troubled 1960s-musician/self-made musicologist/addict who sought innovation to the ruin of all else, the book taps into something more enduring than rock n’ roll fantasy haunted by tragedy. Following Parsons’ trail, from his childhood in the South to his teenage years in Cambridge, MA and New York City to his remaining years in L.A. (Parsons only made it to age 26,) Meyer documents the creation of a sound that demanded a student with the gumption and wherewithal to intuit it, with “an unerring instinct for the zeitgeist.” Out of every iconic musician of that era, Parsons, he says, was the one most attuned to the waste in perpetuating divisive musical forms and conducts. Via Parsons and his gnarled family tree, Meyer also achieves a compelling portrait of the appearances and shadows of family life in mid-20th-century rural America.
For Parsons, rural life was posh. Born to parents whose ancestors began their American success stories as far back as colonial Pennsylvania, Parsons grew up with every advantage (his mother’s father made his fortune during the 1950s citrus and tourism boom in Florida; at one point, his company controlled twenty percent of the state’s citrus industry) and more than his fair share of trauma (alcoholism killed Gram’s mother on the day of his high school graduation; his father, a World War II-veteran, committed suicide at Christmastime.) From an early age, Parsons’ escape from the cushy nightmare of home was music—blues, country, rockabilly, old and new folk, and all the rest.
Meyer doesn’t discriminate with his scholarly energies; whether chronicling Gram’s life among family, friends, and teachers, or his dissipation among loafers and scenesters at the Chateau Marmont, the quantity and synthesis of personal testimony, background, and insight is striking; at points, challenging. His knowledge of Parsons and the texture of American music scenes is best displayed in the examination of the figures supporting Gram’s quest. Describing “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow, pedal-steel player for the Flying Burrito Brothers (and Gumby animator), Meyer writes that “Sneaky took country roots and—utilizing his weird tuning and rococo playing style—made the pedal steel cosmic. Cosmic as in the Sun Ra sounds he emulated, cosmic as in the modal free jazz of John Coltrane…cosmic in the Gram Parsons mode: basing a new sound on a scholar’s knowledge of roots.”
Everywhere he was, Parsons played with the tightest musicians around. Before the end of his life in 1973 he reached a creative apogee with Emmylou Harris, the eminent country-based singer, then a struggling folk musician. Meyer’s portrait of Emmylou—an untouchable, empowering voice in American music—makes contrasting tales of female subservience within Gram’s milieu harder to bear. Meyer infers, “The men were irresponsible and the women devoted;” this division is vouched for by Gram's source Pamela Des Barres (then dating Gram’s band mate, Chris Hillman): “I was trying to do what they wanted: clean up and stay out of their way while they play[ed] poker.”
Parsons’ mores were flawed, including the attitude toward gender to which he subscribed. Yet for all one may disapprove of in a fortunate son who “threw it all away,” Parsons’ receptive approach to music represents something admirable: a style of perception that is mindful of the past, yet wears the fringes of a hipper future. Gram’s story has its roots in a weirder, cooler America; his narrator finds him there.