‘Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons’ was originally published in 1991 and was, at the time, hailed as the definitive biography of the man most consider to be the godfather of country rock. Since then there have been other biographies of Parsons, some of which have been very good, but this is the book that set the bar and made other books on this fascinating, and tragically short life, possible.
This latest re-issue of Ben Fong-Torres book came out at the very end of 2020, a second re-issue for a book last updated at the end of the 1990s. Unfortunately, given that Gram Parsons died in 1973, not a great deal has happened since the last re-issue in 1998! The author’s update, a chapter entitled ‘Epilogue 2’, was actually written in 2018, in preparation for the American hardback re-issue, and largely addresses the discontent of Margaret Fisher, the friend who was the last person to see Gram Parsons alive, for the way she had been depicted in the book, along with the work of Gram’s daughter, Polly Parsons, and her friend Shilah Morrow, in keeping “the GP flame burning” through Polly’s own book, ‘Grievous Angel: An Intimate Biography of Gram Parsons’ (published in 2005) and the concerts the two friends staged as a tribute to his memory. The author also writes, briefly, about the other books on Parsons that have been written since ‘Hickory Wind’ was first published, the various aborted biographical film projects and the tribute albums and compilations that have been released since the turn of the century. It’s all useful reference material for the serious student of Parson’s brief career but it’s not earth-shattering information and it’s hard to see how the book warranted a re-issue with so little new material to share.
Having said that there is, of course, one very compelling reason for re-issuing this book and that is the continued and growing interest in the music that Gram Parsons was instrumental in bringing about. Parsons’ importance to Americana music could never be over-estimated. He had the vision to combine rock and country in a way that had never been done before and he was a constant champion of both country and American folk music and its relevance in the modern world. It’s impossible to nail down the beginnings of a musical genre like Americana but if Parsons wasn’t the Genesis of the music he was, most definitely, the Revelation that brought it to a wider audience.
Ben Fong-Torres’ book is, quite simply, a must-read for everyone with even a passing interest in this music. Fong-Torres himself is one of the great music journalists, particularly known for his work at Rolling Stone magazine, where he was both a writer and senior editor and recognised for his inciteful and informative interviews. He was exactly the right person to pen a first in-depth biography of such a complex character, particularly because of his skills as an interviewer and his ability to draw out the stories of Parsons, both as a flawed individual and a talented musician. Significantly, Fong-Torres talked at length to key figures, such as Chris Hillman, Keith Richards and, of course, Emmylou Harris, in order to get their perceptions and memories of Parsons as a friend and a colleague; he also talked to other associates as well as Parsons’ wider circle of friends and fans to piece together a gripping story of a life lived in the fast lane. It’s also, of course, a cautionary tale for our times – an indication that a combination of wealth and talent doesn’t always make for a happy life.
Starting with the events that most will have heard at least a little of, Parson’s death and the attempt of his friend and road manager, Phil Kaufman, to honour Parsons’ wishes and dispose of his body in Joshua Tree National Park, Fong-Torres then backtracks to 1659 to tell the story of Parsons’ first relatives to arrive in America before embarking on the life story of the poor little rich boy that Parsons would become, setting the stage for a lifetime, albeit a tragically short one, of trying to escape his privileged background and his family’s expectations of him.
Ben Fong-Torres’ book is a wild ride from start to finish and particularly evocative of the times that Parsons existed in; the heady days of the 1960s and the promises they brought for young musicians and visionaries.
If you haven’t already read this book then you should definitely correct that oversight. If you have read it, and a copy is still on your shelves, then there’s probably not enough in the updated re-issue to warrant purchasing a second copy. If you’ve read it and no longer own a copy of this book then you owe it to yourself to re-stock your library with this biography that was the first to get under the skin of this godfather of Americana. The quote that sticks with me is one from Keith Richards on hearing of his friend’s death – “Well, he was just too good to get old”! A timeless read.