Gram Parsons was born in Winter Haven, Fla., and tried his hand at Harvard, but it was not until he arrived in California that he truly found his voice, and it is California that bears the indelible imprint of his musical legacy.
Parsons' is the sound of early 1970s Los Angeles, of desert heat and sweet Topanga nights, of jasmine and dry scrub and lonesome city streets. California is where Parsons found life and lost it, and for those who love his music, it is the place that clings most tightly to his ghost.
For the last six years, fans have been gathering each fall in the barrooms of Joshua Tree to celebrate the country rock legend, probably best known for "Sin City" and "Hickery Wind." The annual Gram Fest is a loosely organized tribute that occurs close to the anniversary of his drug overdose death near there on Sept. 19, 1973.
"I started this festival because I wanted to make people more aware of Parsons' music," founder Jon McKinney says. "It's not about death. It's about a positive artistic legacy. What I found was that there were more people loving Gram than I could have imagined."
This year's Gram Fest will be held on Saturday, with a long roster of bands doing their best to keep Parsons' "Cosmic American" dream alive. McKinney is hoping to continue in the tradition of musical variation by providing a wide selection of acts, most of them with little in common aside from their love of Parsons' rootsy Cali-country sound.
"The best thing about Parsons was that he wasn't afraid of cross-pollination," McKinney explains. "He knew that there was value in all kinds of different music. I tell the people involved to play whatever they want. Folk, rock, whatever. The point is to break down the cliques and to encourage camaraderie. That's what Gram would have wanted. It's interesting because I think that is happening in music now more than ever."
Polly Parsons, Parson's daughter and a yearly festival attendee, agrees.
"It's strange, because I feel my father everywhere now, " she says, "in the way people dress, in the way they think, in the sort of music that's being made. It's an amazing feeling. Everything he ever wanted is finally happening."
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Most of Joshua Tree's bars will host events, with many at the Hi-Desert Playhouse, 61231 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree. (760) 366-3777.
Also, shows will take place at the Joshua Tree Saloon, 61835 Twentynine Palms Highway. (760) 366-3350; the Crossroads, 61715 Twentynine Palms Highway. (760) 366-5414; the Beatnik Cafe, 61597 Twentynine Palms Highway. (760) 366-2090. For fest information: (909) 795-7359.