- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2003

WAYCROSS, Ga. - A few come every year, fans-turned-pilgrims who shuffle into the Waycross Tourism Bureau to the front desk with its stuffed alligator, all seeking the musical roots of Gram Parsons.

Paula Gillis, who manages the welcome center, offers visitors a folder with a few newspaper clippings. When it comes to questions about fellow Waycross native Parsons, that’s all she knows to do.

“I don’t know anything about him and his relationship with Waycross, other than him being from here,” says the 23-year-old Gillis. “There’s not really anything to signify him living here, any kind of memorial or anything.”

Nearly 30 years after he died of a drug overdose at age 26, Mr. Parsons’ posthumous presence in his hometown is as lonesome as the honky-tonk songs he sang in the 1960s wearing long hair and a Jamie Nudie cowboy suit embroidered with marijuana leaves.

Mr. Parsons’ family is long gone from Waycross, a struggling railroad town on the northern edge of the Okefenokee swamp where the singer lived until age 12. No street signs bear his name. His boyhood home was moved from his old neighborhood by a subsequent owner. The local Wal-Mart, Sam Goody and Sounds Good stores don’t stock his music in their CD racks.

“I tried to stock them in the past, but they didn’t move too well,” says Beth Jacobs, manager of Sounds Good.

Outside his devoted cult following, Mr. Parsons has never been a household name — in his hometown or anywhere else. He never had a hit, despite recording six albums with the Byrds, the International Submarine Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers and under his own name from 1968 to 1973. But his crossbreeding of country music and rock ‘n’ roll had an undeniable impact.

He got the Byrds on the Grand Ole Opry, turned the Rolling Stones on to George Jones and introduced listeners to his then-unknown duet partner, Emmylou Harris. His influence has endured in the music of the Eagles, Ricky Scaggs, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Ryan Adams and Wilco to name a few.

“It’s in that area, in his impact on other musicians, that he lives on,” says Ben Fong-Torres, a former Rolling Stone magazine editor and author of the book “Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons.”

“Country music is so political and so tied into what’s seen as hillbilly or hick music,” Mr. Fong-Torres says. “And he embraced it. He had no problem with it. He found the beauty of it.”

Mr. Parsons’ music received one of its biggest airings yet in Waycross over the weekend, with two nights of tribute concerts Friday and Saturday, coinciding with the anniversary of his death Sept. 19, 1973.

But for Waycross native Billy Ray Herrin, one of the concert’s organizers, preaching the gospel of a counterculture cowboy like Mr. Parsons has been frustrating work so deep in the Bible Belt.

In 1991, Mr. Herrin, 50, managed to win the Chamber of Commerce’s approval to stage a Parsons tribute concert during Waycross’ annual Pogofest, its biggest festival. Then Mr. Fong-Torres’ biography, filled with tales of the singer’s losing battle with drugs and drink, came out later that year.

No Parsons tribute followed at Pogofest 1992, or thereafter.

“For Gram Parsons to be so ahead of his time, it’s ironic that he came from a town like this,” says Mr. Herrin, who now runs a recording studio and guitar shop called Hickory Wind, the title of another Parsons song.

Five years ago, Mr. Herrin and friend Dave Griffin resurrected their Gram Parsons tribute on a smaller scale — a few friends with acoustic guitars and bottles of beer playing Parsons songs in Mr. Griffin’s back yard.

So it went for three years until Mr. Griffin set up a sound system for an amplified band in his yard, drew 200 people to his house and had to face the police after neighbors complained about the racket at 2 a.m.

They moved the concert last year to a local nightclub, and performers came from Nashville, Tenn., Florida and Colorado.

Other concerts paying tribute to Mr. Parsons have cropped up across the country, the largest being the annual Gramfest in California’s Mojave Desert, where Mr. Parsons died mixing tequila and morphine at the Joshua Tree Inn.

But Nashville singer-songwriter Walter Egan says there’s something special about Waycross, where his band the Brooklyn Cowboys played the Parsons show last year.

“The whole thing about Gram’s music is…the honesty of it and the rootsiness of it,” says Mr. Egan, who contributed the song “Hearts On Fire” to Mr. Parsons’ last album. “You can’t get much more rootsy than Waycross.”

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