by Sheldon Birnie
Last week, I was deep in the desert of southern California, waiting on Coachella festival to get cranked up. Of equal interest to me, though, was the proximity of Coachella to the Joshua Tree National Park. Perhaps most famous among pop music circles for inspiring arguably U2’s best album (if you can stomach any of them, that is), this beautiful space holds a special place in the hearts of country-rock fans as the spiritual home of Gram Parsons.
As I’ve mentioned here on the Hillbilly Highway before,
Parsons is often credited with launching the alt-country genre when masterminding the Byrd’s country-rock crossover Sweetheart of the Rodeo, as well as his subsequent work with the Burrito Bros and as a solo artist. He’s also partially responsible for the decidedly country bent of many of the Stones early 70s tunes, such as “Honky Tonk Women” and “Wild Horses,” as he and Keith were partying hard together in those days. In fact, the Burrito Bros were the first to release “Wild Horses,” on Burrito Deluxe, as the Stones were holding off on that gem until the rest of Sticky Fingers was ready to drop.
Keith Richards describes Parsons’ influence in his autobiography (so cleverly titled Life):
I had been hanging with him for a couple of years by then and I just had the feeling that this man was about to come out with something remarkable. In fact, he changed the face of country music and he wasn’t around long enough to find out.
Simply put, the Grievous Angel was ahead of his time, and thousands who cruise the Highway today wouldn’t be doing so if he hadn’t broken a hard trail before them.
When I was sitting in a backyard-turned-venue in Austin last month, I struck up a conversation with a fella from East Nashville, and somehow the subject came around to Joshua Tree and Parsons. My new pal Pickles told me he’d visited the last known partying place of old GP, the Joshua Tree Inn, just off the Twenty Nine Palms Highway north of the Park. A shrine had been erected to the man outside the room where he drank his last Jack Daniels, and drew his last breaths: Room 8.
Pickles told me him and some band he was on the road with had stopped for a night in Joshua Tree to pay their respects, and had come across the Inn during the off-season, and had talked, or bribed, or anyway somehow cajoled the night manager to let them take a look in Room 8.
“It was weird,” Pickles told me over ice cold Pearls. “Super creepy. Pretty fucking wild, though.”
I wasn’t so lucky. We rolled into the dirt parking lot just as they were opening the office for the day, and the place was awash in festival kids and cosmic drifters coming up from Indio after Coachella Weekend One came to a close. But I did get a good look about the place, and spent some time digging the empty 40ozs of Jack, the doobies, and odds & ends left at Gram’s shrine. I stood outside Room 8 for a while, letting the heavy vibe wash over me. And then we hit the road winding back through the desert and the Joshua Trees that had provided such inspiration to Parsons over the years, and to countless cosmic cowboys since.