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The heir to a parent

Gram Parsons' daughter, Polly, works to keep the musician's spirit alive.

July 08, 2004|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Several times a year, Polly Parsons drives from her L.A. home to the high desert and checks into the motel room where her father died 31 years ago. There, in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn, she puts up some pictures of her dad and listens to his records -- music that for most of her life she couldn't hear without crying.

"Some people think it's really morbid," says Parsons. "They go, 'You stay in the room where your dad died?' Well, dude, if your dad died at your home you'd still go home and stay at your house, right? When I'm there I feel like I'm at my folks' house."

Fair enough. When your young life is as fractured as Polly Parsons' was, you take your contentment where you find it.

Parsons' father was Gram Parsons, the country-rock avatar who opened vast new territories for pop musicians in the late '60s and early '70s. Charismatic and undisciplined, brash and brilliant, this scion of a wealthy Florida family cut a memorable swath through the Los Angeles music scene, making a strong first impression by stealing David Crosby's girlfriend, Nancy Ross. Polly, born in 1967, was their only child.

It all ended when he was 26, dead in his beloved desert from an overdose of morphine and tequila. Though he didn't sell many records, Parsons has become a semi-mythic figure whose influence has grown over the years.

Just look at some of the musicians who are playing the tribute concerts Polly is presenting this weekend at the Santa Barbara Bowl and Universal Amphitheatre: Veterans Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle are longtime disciples, while Norah Jones and indie-rocker Jim James (from the Louisville band My Morning Jacket) demonstrate his allure to a younger generation.

But it's a rare solo appearance by the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards that represents the shows' spiritual core. Polly had never met the guitarist, a friend and musical soul mate of her father's, so when the Stones played Staples Center two years ago, she managed to get backstage passes and arranged an unannounced introduction.

"I had to sit down and really pray a lot," Parsons says. "I had to sit down and say, 'OK, Daddy, this is it, I'm gonna meet your best mate, please show me what to do and be with me.'

"I got into that room to see Keith, and he put his hands on my cheeks and he said, 'You're the last little bit of your father on this planet,' and he got choked up. Right at that minute I knew something had to come out of my mouth that had some weight to it, and I said, 'I'd love to do a tribute to Dad. If I could possibly ... put a concert together that would be of the magnitude that you would be there, would you please come?' And he said, 'If I do it for anybody, little girl, it'll be for you.' "

Gram Parsons called the music he made with the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and as a solo artist "cosmic American music." It includes such genre standards as "Hickory Wind" and "Sin City," a template for the Eagles' studies of innocence and temptation, but Parsons' greatest effect may have been his ability to melt all borders with the intensity of his musical vision.

"To me he just represents the magic of something that you can't control," My Morning Jacket's James says. "I don't think he was aware of it. I just think it's something that was beyond his control and beyond everybody's control, and I just pray and hope that sometimes a little of that magic can be passed my way."

Polly Parsons knows what it's like to have a little of Gram passed your way. "I inherited a creative gene that doesn't shut up," she says. "I inherited a mind that constantly creates things and hears things that other people don't hear and notices things that other people don't see."

Sitting in her old duplex in the Fairfax area, Parsons exudes quiet intensity and speaks in a precise, little-girl voice. She's had her own problems with drugs; she got help from the Musicians' Assistance Program, and she's donating the concerts' proceeds to the organization.

When you're Gram's heir, you inherit it all, not just the image of an overdose death but also the bizarre aftermath, when his friend and road manager stole his body and partially cremated it in the desert. All that on top of a Parsons family history oozing tragedy, adultery, suicide, alcoholism, even whispers of murder.

So these shows, dubbed "Return to Sin City: A Tribute to Gram Parsons," were more than an exercise in concert production. "For me it was an emotional journey, to come full circle, to understand who I was and my legacy," Polly Parsons says. "Right around three years ago I hit a wall emotionally where I couldn't go any farther until I turned and faced this head-on.... When I was a child all I knew was that my father was burned in the desert. That's all I got. And so I shut down pretty immediately after that."

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