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God's Own Singer

Jason Walker talks to Triste about "God's Own Singer", his biography of Gram Parsons

God's Own Singer Cover

Triste: What first inspired you to write about Gram Parsons?

Jason Walker: The inspiration to write about Gram came from my own lack of knowledge about where he came from, musically and personally. Youth had a little bit to do with it too in terms of my feeling that perhaps we had something in common as people, which I guess we did. And that something was a love of country music. I think I felt that I could do the story justice, from the point of view that I was a musician and aspiring singer too, and I had felt the disappointments of a 'could-have-been'. Plus his life was so damn interesting.

Triste: You wrote the book over a period of some seven years.To what extent did it dominate your life and work over that period?

Jason Walker: For the period of 1996-2002, it completely dominated my life. Everything I did hinged upon the availability of working computers and printers so I could work on it whenever I wanted. I even started working on it during my day job, which was really taking the piss. I almost got fired.

Triste: Did you ever doubt that you'd eventually complete it?

Jason Walker: I did doubt I would finish it - a few times, although never in the last three years. I lost an early version of the manuscript after the PC I was using failed to back up and then melted down when I tried to reboot. That set me back a year or so. Eventually, I came to believe in the project so completely that I can't imagine I ever doubted my ability to finish this work.

Triste: What were your feelings when the final words were written?

Jason Walker: I was actually very emotional for about a week. I kept going back to the completed final chapter, and I decided there was nothing I could add to it that was going to make me happy, so it was clear at that point that I'd done it as well as I could have. Of course, there are now a hundred things I want to change and rewrite, but at least I experienced some satisfaction over it.

Triste: How difficult was it to find a publisher?

Jason Walker: Finding a publisher was completely accidental. For years, I sent out copies of the synopsis to publishers, who praised its pleasant tone and grammar. Finding a publisher willing to take a punt on a music biography, particularly of such an unknown artist, was proving to be difficult. Most asked question at the point was; why don't you write something on Sinatra, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones? In other words, something that will actually sell a few copies. Early in 2000, I was a guest on a radio show here in Sydney talking about the Flying Burrito Brothers, when the guy on the microphone, Mickey Stranges, said, 'How come you know so much about Gram Parsons?' I said, 'Well, I've been writing this book…' and his answer was, 'I know a publisher in the UK who might be interested.' Within weeks, I had an offer to publish from Helter Skelter Books in London, which was just the most amazing feeling I've ever had.

Triste: You interviewed many of Gram's colleagues and collaborators - did you find that most of the people you approached were happy to talk about Gram? Did you encounter any reluctance? (ie is there a group of people whose "fame/self-worth" relies on being a part - even if a minor part - of Gram's life and so are protective of outsiders?)

Jason Walker: Most of the people I approached were only too happy to tell me everything they knew about Gram. People like Frank David Murphy, Paul Surratt and Peter Kleinow talked to me for hours and sent me lots of great material to work with. They are great people. I encountered great reluctance on the part of Gram's wife Gretchen. I was actually standing next to the telephone when she called at Paul Surratt's house to find out more about me. Rather than talking to me directly, she asked Paul to ask me the questions - so I stood there answering them as best I could, but in the end the risk was too great for her. And I don't blame her. She has a terrible reputation among Gram's female fan base for obvious reasons. I don't think she's quite the monster she's been made out to be - to quote Perry Richardson, 'we forget how young everyone was'. Gretchen was a kid when she married Gram - literally. There most certainly is a group of people whose self-worth and image are entirely dependent on their relationship with Gram, and they are all nice, decent people who had an amazing young friend that got famous after he died. They can be defensive with people like myself - who are truly part of the peanut gallery - but I think in the main, if they knew him (and there are some prominent names who didn't know him half as well as they claim to), they should be proud of the association. He was quite a guy by all accounts.

Triste: Much has been made of Gram's relationship with Keith Richards. They clearly influenced each other's music but it seems that KR had an influence on Gram's lifestyle that was not particularly positive. Do you think his life may have turned out differently had he not met Keith Richards?

Jason Walker: If you're asking do I think Keith switched Gram onto smack and coke, the answer is "Heck, no!" When Keith came to Hollywood in 1969 with the Stones to prepare for that starcrossed tour, he made the observation that 'Gram Parsons gets better coke than the Mafia'. Gram and Keith were equals on that level - GP tried heroin for the first time in Greenwich Village, New York in the early 1960s, before even Keith had tried it himself, I think. It was a well-respected folksinger who got him onto it. Keith and Gram spurred each other on to greater lows of abuse but they were well-matched in terms of their ability to withstand binges that would have killed small horses. I think Gram did quite well as a drug user without the influence of Keith in his life and I think it's unlikely his life would have weighed up differently in the final balance.

Triste: In a similar fashion do you think, as Bernie Leadon more or less stated, that Parson's trust fund, whilst financially liberating, encouraged a half-hearted approach to bands and projects?

Jason Walker: Most definitely. The money made it easy for Gram to cop out occasionally, but there is a story that he, not Reprise Records, paid for the use of Elvis Presley's TCB band for his first album - and those guys didn't come cheap, not even in the 70s. His money was the facilitator AND the stumbling block. Gram was very talented and a little jaded, and money doesn't help that at all. Gram was clearly looking for something else to occupy his time and interest, and that something, or someone was Emmylou Harris. I think she would have been his best reason to clean up completely, get well and keep writing songs. But it didn't pan out that way.

Triste: Can you explain why Gram's best-songwriting was done with various partners rather than alone? How good a songwriter was he as such, or did his personality act as a catalyst on those he wrote with?

Jason Walker: The songs that Gram wrote needed the input of others because his vision was always bigger than just being a songwriter. He was an artist, not to put too much emphasis on the term, and he had real ideas that included image, sound and impact. Everything he did was calculated and well thought out, even when those ideas misfired slightly. He was entirely original, a showman and a preacher, and he had charisma like you wouldn't believe. Gram getting famous would have been simply a matter of time. I think he was a great songwriter, not prolific but great nonetheless. Brass Buttons, A Song For You, In My Hour of Darkness, $1000 Wedding - they are all great songs. His best co-writes were with Chris Hillman, whose input on the first Burrito Brothers LP, are so invaluable that it's almost unfair to say who wrote what exactly. They were working that closely. Also Chris Ethridge of the Burrito Brothers worked with Gram a lot on songs, and those songs too, New Soft Shoe in particular, are just unbelievable.

Triste: You mention in your 'Thanks' that the more you found out about Gram Parsons, the less you understood his motives. Could you expand on this a little?

Jason Walker: First, let me say I thought that statement looked good on paper. Secondly, the more I uncovered about Gram Parsons with research, the less I understood why he was so driven to continue creating while living under the sort of circumstances that would disincline one from working so damn hard. Why, if you had all that money, would you not just lie back in a hotel room and abase yourself? I would. Gram actually had a fine work ethic under all the frippery of his life, but he got waylaid, as the best of us do. I wanted to know Gram Parsons and I wanted to understand why he did it that way and where he thought it got him. Since he died when I was five years old, knowing him and knowing why are, as Ralph Wiggum says, unpossible.

Triste: "What-ifs" are always impossible to answer, but what do you think Gram Parsons would be doing if he had lived till his late 50's?

Jason Walker: I love this question. My thoughts are that Gram would have rode through the late 70s picking up the scraps of the Eagles audience when that group took a right turn into MOR Hell. He would have wed Emmylou in the mid-70s. The Urban Cowboy phase would have made him a hero to thousands who wanted nothing to do with John Travolta, and he and Keith would have nailed that elusive solo album by 1979. It would be hailed as the pinnacle of country soul. Gram would convert to Buddhism in the 1980s, produce Steve Earle's first solo record and he would have a social conscience. He would have built metaphorical bridges with Townes and Guy Clark, would have duetted with Willie Nelson eventually and he and Chris Hillman would reform the Flying Burrito Brothers twice a decade and tour Australia endlessly. He would have made a few albums that critics wouldn't mention out of politeness and he might have said some harsh things to John Denver at the CMA Awards. And we'd still love him as much. He would never, under any circumstances, record with Matchbox Twenty.

Triste: One review of your book describes it as the 'definitive' biography of Gram Parsons-a compliment indeed bearing in mind Ben Fong-Torres' and Sid Griffin's excellent earlier books. How do you feel about that?

Jason Walker: I feel very good indeed about that.

Interview by Bill Beaver and Steve Wilcock - Originally published in Triste 5


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