Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music: by David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer has such colorful characters to work with in his eloquent exhaustive biography of Gram Parsons, Twenty Thousand Roads becomes an uncanny reflection of his subject.

In his depiction of the well-to-do Southern upbringing of Gram Parsons, Meyer never lets his formality betray him. The colloquial tone he adopts at various points only serves to focus his scholarly approach. The author enlarges the man’s myth rather than detracting from it even as he suggests his life and death was fated to happen as it did.

Accordingly, the portrait Meyer paints of this Florida-born trust fund kid, his addictive tendencies equaled by his gentlemanly charm, becomes as unique as the style he referred to as cosmic American music. Forging a fusion of country and soul music, Parsons embarked on a career in which he ingratiated himself with stellar players just long enough to further his concept. Gram may not have evolved into a great musician himself perhaps, but he remained undoubtedly a man of great ideas gifted with a voice designed to convey emotion at its most raw and vulnerable.

Methodically but suspensefully, Meyer depicts what almost seems a predestined sequence of events in which Gram Parsons transformed himself into a nexus of counterculture and traditionalism. As he moved to California after time spent in Boston (at Harvard) and New York, Parsons might have seemed to purposely undermine his ambition by his inclination to self-destruction. Yet he was, in fact, making progress step-by-step, through his assembly of the International Submarine Band, his short-lived but ground-breaking tenure in The Byrds, his founding of The Flying Burrito Brothers and finally a solo career working with Emmylou Harris that distilled his musical concepts to their essence (for which Gram pulled his tongue out of his cheek and hired members of Elvis Presley’s band).

While offering some candid critiques of contemporary musicians such as the Eagles, Meyer generally remains dispassionate about the main characters in his story. That said, his lack of acknowledgment to Chris Hillman is egregious: the former Byrd collaborated with Gram fully and patiently on The Burritos and, even after their falling out, displayed a professional generosity of spirit in tipping Parsons to Harris. Repeated references to Rolling Stone Keith Richards’ stall on producing Parsons’ first solo work carry an implicit allegation of selfishness and the only hint whatsoever of “what might’ve been.” Both are justified.

While the detail in this book is as voluminous as the shortage of photos is odd (most may have been reserved for Parsons’ daughter Polly’s Grievous Angel), the one virtue balances out the shortfall. Alternating accounts of personal and professional activity allows David N. Meyer to pace The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music extremely well. Consequently, even if you know the denouement, right down to death by overdose and the bizarre cremation in the desert, the drama grows inexorably. At the very mid-point the title Twenty Thousand Roads begins to sound ironic, it becomes virtually impossible to put the book down—unless you’re putting on one of Gram Parsons’ recordings.

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