A Denver Tribute to Gram Parsons Featured Two of His Original Bandmates
Gram Parsons final tour, in 1973, began in Boulder.
In 1973, Gram Parsons went on tour with his band, the Fallen Angels. That tour, which only lasted six weeks, has become something of a legend for fans of authentic country music. Local musician Casey James Prestwood, and his backing band The Burning Angels, paid tribute to the tour, song by song, at Park House over the weekend. The night included not only Prestwood's band, but two members of the original lineup from the 1973 tour -- Neil Flanz and Jock Bartley.
Casey James Prestwood and The Burning Angels.
John Macy, a pedal steel player in the Burning Angels, was in the audience 41 years ago when Parsons played in Boston. Macy was twenty years old, playing in country bands around New England, and knew the significance of seeing Parsons, who played six nights in Boston on that tour. Macy was at all six shows.
At that time, Parsons had just left his previous band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and was forging a solo career. His status as a cult figure in country music was already beginning to solidify.
"It was a packed house," Macy says. "It was pretty surreal because there wasn't a lot of country music that came to Boston. There were lots of musicians there. The cult thing was pretty big. I don't know how famous he was, looking back, but if you knew who the Flying Burrito Brothers were, then you knew what was going on."
The cult status surrounding Gram Parsons has grown over the years, and Parsons is today seen as an influential figure in country music and legions of fans.
"We followed him as a kid," Macy says. "Ever since his he was in the Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds. But that tour was when he had really broken off on his own and had his first solo record. We were just huge fans."
Years after the 1973 tour, Macy moved to Denver and reunited with Jock Bartley, Parsons' guitar player, and the two kept in touch. Bartley lived in Boulder, and after seeing Parsons there (the first two shows of the tour were played in Boulder), he ended up joining the band. The tour later hit Austin and Houston -- then Boston, where Macy saw those six shows at Oliver's, a small music club across the street from Fenway Park.
Macy is still a musician, playing guitar with Prestwood, and their band regularly performs covers of Parsons songs. Last year, Macy travelled with Bartley to Nashville to play Gram International, a music festival dedicated to Parsons and his music. Since he was still friends with Bartley, who played with Parsons on that 1973 tour, he decided to start his own tribute show--in Denver.
"We were just riding in the car," Macy says, "and I said, 'We should just start one here, because there's a huge Parsons fan base here.'" Macy did some digging and found the set list for the dates at Oliver's in Boston. Macy got back in touch with Neil Flanz, the pedal steel player on the tour, who now lives in Austin. Franz agreed to fly to Denver for the show.
Macy and Prestwood learned all the songs and replicated that concert in it's entirety -- a fitting tribute, since the concert took place the same week as Parsons' birthday.
Parsons died soon after those Boston shows. Two shows later, he was found dead on September 19, 1973, the result of an overdose of morphine and alcohol. "He lived a pretty rough life." Macy says.
"Gram was pretty out of control at that point," Prestwood says. "The drugs and alcohol were pretty deep. On that tour he was partying pretty hard. He had gotten clean to make Grievous Angel album, and when he passed away he was supposedly going to the desert to dry out but that didn't quite happen. I think that one of the reasons that tour is so important is because he was really hitting his stride as a songwriter and finding that country style that some of those other bands wouldn't necessarily let him be himself in."
Keep reading for more on the weekend's reenactment of Parsons' tour.
Parsons toured with Emmylou Harris in 1973 and died later that same year. He was 26 years old.
"There's a giant legion of fans that revere Gram and have bootleg recordings of the '73 tour," Macy says. "It was a pretty big deal."
"Most Gram fans have never seen Gram," Macy continues. "I think he's still opening people's ears to country music, because he was so real. He's probably more popular now than he was back then."
"For me," Prestwood says, "Gram just kind of helped me find my own voice, and made me want to be myself, instead of being a back-up guy my whole life. He inspired me to want to write and really say what was on my mind."
Casey James Prestwood and The Burning Angels played a set of their own first last night, though it included several Parsons songs. Later, Prestwood joined original tour members Flanz and Bartley to play their reenactment of the tour. The Burning Angels featured Prestwood and Macy, and also Adam Lopez on guitar, Kevin Finn on drums, Jeffery Martin on bass guitar, with Lauren Michaels singing backup vocals.
There was no cover, but the encouraged donations went to Derry Down Project, an effort to restore the music hall in Winter Haven, Florida, where Parsons was born. Derry Down is considered a launching pad for Parsons' musical career.
"It's where he cut his musical teeth,"Macy says.
As a follow-up to the concert, the Denver Steel Guitar Social Club meets tonight, November 10, at the Park House. Jock Bartley will participate in a jam session from 6 till 7:30 pm, and will be featured in a live video interview afterwards. Admission to the session and interview area also free. • BACKBEAT'S GREATEST HITS •
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