RICHARD BAKER WENT TO NASHVILLE...

 

GRAM GETS HIS DUE IN NASHVILLE  

Being an avid Gram Parsons fan since 1968 means that I have not had much company in my admiration for many of those years.  Sure, there has always been the cult following - the musicians and visionaries who bought the 40,000 copies of The Gilded Palace of Sin, the members of the Gram Parsons Memorial Foundation and its publication, The Cosmic American Music News (CAMN), and the Emmylou Harris aficionados, who got into Gram’s music through Emmy’s consistent recognition of Gram’s musical impact – but for the most part, whenever I used to drop Gram’s name, I was met with “Who?”, or “Yeah, I really dig Graham Parker”, or “Wasn’t he with The Eagles?”.

Since the mid-1980’s, however, there has been a gradual but consistent increase in name and influence recognition for Gram.  The Alt-Country Movement (God, he would have hated this moniker) and the Tributes in Nashville from the late 80’s, spearheaded by the late Argyle Bell and Fredda Joiner, gave musicians the opportunity to play Gram’s music live and for the fans to hear it, which was obviously something Gram had been unable to do since 1973. 

In the early-90’s, the last of the CAMN sponsored Tributes occurred in New York City , with guidance and inspiration from the late John DeCesare, Holly George-Warren, and myself.  Tributes at Joshua Tree, San Francisco , and Georgia began to become annual events.  With the publication of Ben Fong-Torres’, Hickory Wind in 1991, a wider market was reached.  The advent of the Internet and Larry Klug’s Gram web site reached a world-wide audience.  And last but certainly not least, there has been the unwavering support of John Delgatto and Sierra Records, who have promoted and produced Gram’s music since their beginnings in the 1970’s.

Despite this gradually widening recognition of Gram and his influence on music, culminating with the Emmylou-inspired Tribute in 1999, Polly Parsons’ recent endeavors, the BBC documentary, Fallen Angel, and the black comedy, Grand Theft Parsons, I always thought that mainstream Nashville would remain closed and hostile to the man who was tweeted off of the Ryman stage at the Byrds’ Opry appearance in the spring of 1968.  Gram committed two Grand Ole Opry taboos during the Byrds’ hastily arranged performance at the Opry when they were in town to work on Sweetheart of the Rodeo that spring.  He sang his own composition, Hickory Wind, rather than a cover of a Merle Haggard song, and he dedicated the song to his grandmother.  I do not believe that Gram ever returned to Music City after the Opry performance. 

Despite the fact that Gram/Clarence Tributes were held in Nashville from 1988-1990, with such outstanding participants as Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, Duane Eddy, Cathy Louvin, Gene Parsons , John Nuese, and Glen Hardin, the events were not embraced by the Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Men of the Gateway to the South. 

Times have changed.  My wife, son, and I recently spent a weekend in Nashville to combat the winter blahs and to see Emmylou and her Sweet Harmony Review at the Ryman, the most famous home of the Grand Ole Opry.  Since 1974, with the advent of the commercially crass Opryland, the Ryman has been infrequently used.  There were tours of the historic church-like facility, but it was not until Emmylou recorded her live album, Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers at the Ryman in 1992, that an upsurge in musical events at the venue began.  Nowadays, the Opry is held at the Ryman in January and February. 

The lineup for January 14 and 15 was intriguing.  Emmylou, Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Patty Griffin, known as Sweet Harmony Review from their 2004 tour were performing both nights.  Marty Stuart, a Nashville icon who happens to own Clarence White’s prototype B-Bender guitar was also playing on Friday and Saturday nights.  Add Rhonda Vincent and the Rage and The Osbourne Brothers and we were sold on the weekend trip.  Besides, we had never been to a show at the revered Ryman, which housed the hillbilly dust of Hank Williams.

As usual, we dragged our son along to continue his religious training in the form of musical education.  Jesse is 16 years old and we are steering him towards Belmont University with its fine music college, which is located in the heart of Music Row.  The students from Belmont use the famous RCA Victor Studio B to hone and practice their engineering and production skills.  Studio B is where Chet Atkins created the pop-oriented Nashville sound in the late-Fifties and early-Sixties.  Countless hits were churned out there by the likes of Elvis, Roy Orbison, Eddy Arnold, Dottie West, The Everly Brothers, and many others. 

As we began to take in the sights, I received numerous positive comments on my Peggy Hanson -created Gram t-shirts.  The comments led to long conversations with people ranging in age from sixteen to sixty.  One young man, who we met on Broadway, was sporting a Sleepless Nights t-shirt.  He was about 20-years old, a GP disciple of two years, having discovered the music through the 2-CD anthology, Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels.  Upon hearing Gram, he said he played the discs non-stop for several weeks.  This encouraged his current pilgrimage from Portland , Oregon to Joshua Tree to Memphis to Nashville .  An avowed Elvis fan, he quickly picked up the Gram/Elvis connection – the look, the attitude, the Cadillac on his shirt, and of course, the band members they shared.  This kid had learned his stuff over a short period of time. 

Before we spent several hours at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a superbly done effort that makes the Rock and Roll Hall pale in comparison, we visited the Frist Art Gallery , which was featuring an exhibit devoted to the work of Manuel the tailor.  Manuel is the disciple of Nudie Cohen and was responsible for the creation of the Burritos’ Nudie suits.  After climbing the stairs to the second floor exhibit, we were greeted by Gram’s headless mannequin, sporting the jacket and pants of the famous suit.  I briefly thought of knocking out the museum guard and absconding with the suit, but I quickly realized it was way too small for me.  What struck me was that Gram’s suit was the featured one among hundreds of jackets and trousers in the exhibit.  When we later visited the Hall of Fame, we learned that Gram’s suit had been borrowed from its display case at the Museum, where it was a permanent feature.  A few years ago, Gram’s Nudie suit was on display at the Rock Hall, along with Hillman’s suit.  Not a bad showing for a dead guy.

The youthful cashiers at the Hall of Fame gift shop complimented my Gram t-shirt, which launched a conversation about how his music has come to be accepted and welcomed in Nashville in recent years.  The gift shop also had both Gram biographies, which were being perused by a young British girl while we were there.  I offered her my opinions on both books.

The Museum itself gave Gram his due in a display that contained the cover of The Gilded Palace of Sin, the guitar that he gave to Emmy, and recognition about his impact on country music.  As noted above, my shirt inspired quite a few Gram-related conversations from the museum goers. 

At the Friday night Opry show, Emmylou thanked Rhino Records for keeping the spirit of Gram Parsons alive.  (Rhino released the Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels anthology previously cited)  There was scattered applause, but no tweeting.  She then launched into a killer version of Love Hurts with Buddy Miller.  Gram’s spirit had returned to Nashville and the Ryman.  Justice will be served when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame.  

Richard Baker

Baltimore , Maryland

January 2005

 

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