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The Cult of Gram Parsons Lives on in Joshua Tree 

Forty years after his sensational death, the country-rock pioneer remains beloved in the desert

Thursday, Aug 15 2013
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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.

The body of the 26-year-old singer — who, through work with The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and his brief solo output pioneered the genre of country rock — then was abducted by close friend and road manager Phil Kaufman. 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.

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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.

"He's 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 songwriting, stage presence and, well, singing became evident. Confident and good-looking, he'd pose in his favorite Nudie suits, 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 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."

Reach the writer at fulton.robert.r@gmail.com

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