Jason Walker Interview
By Ronnie

Intro:
Jason Walker is a true renaissance man of alt-country. Not only does is he an alt-country performer with a new solo album out (STRANGER TO SOMEONE), but he has found time to write what I consider to be the definitive Gram Parsons biography. After reading the book I was so knocked out that I just had to interview the author! Thanks to the helpful folks at Helter Skelter publishing, I was put in touch with Jason and he granted me an interview via the internet.


E.C.: First, how long did it take you to complete the book, from the time that you had the idea until it was actually published?

Jason: I started the book in 1993 Ė it was conceived of as a monograph, based on an article I had written for a record collector magazine here in Sydney, Australia. I received an offer to publish from Helter Skelter Books in July 2000, so it was more than seven years before I had a publisher for it, bearing in mind that it wasnít finished, and it was nearly eight and a half years before I held it in my hands as a book.

E.C.: Why did you pick the subject of Gram Parsons? Did you feel that the two books that were out there (the books by Sid Griffin and Ben Fong-Torres) weren't quite the definitive books about Gram?

Jason: I loved both of those books, because they gave me a good solid background to work on. I was probably foaming at the mouth being young and all, since I had decided I was going to be a writer and nothing, but nothing was going to stop me from writing the definitive Gram Parsons biography. Of course, with the benefit of added maturity (!) and a little more wisdom I can honestly tell you that my book is simply an addition to what I hope will be a good number of biographies Ė there are, for example, at least two being written at the moment that I know of. I can also honestly say that I doubt that mine is the definitive Gram bio either. And to get to your questions, I picked Gram because I was so knocked out by pretty much everything that he worked on, be it Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Gilded Palace of Sin or GP. I think he was an amazing and unique stylist. I feel that Ben and Sidís books are fantastic. Benís is textbook Rolling Stone writing, a little hot on the sleaze, the drugs and the glamour, but hey! I love that in a book. Sidís book was a real labour of love and it was the first book on the man, so, RESPECT to Sid Griffin. Heís a really good writer.

E.C.: What is your writing background? I know you play in an Alt-Country band and have a solo album out, so how did the writing of the book affect gigs and recording?

Jason: Itís funny you should ask me about that Ė Iíll answer it best I can. My writing background is that I started working for a newspaper at the age of 15 as a copy boy. It was 1984, and I was young enough to think I was already a good writer. Covering church services, store openings and car accidents was my introduction to writing tight copy (which I donít really do anymore), but I was soon disabused of any notion that I might have had talent. It was all good hard work and a great start. I really got into writing around 1989, when I had a few more years of experience and Iíve been working pretty consistently as a writer since then. Iíve worked for Penthouse, Playboy, the Picture, Scoop Ė which were all the same thing, soft porn! Iíve also worked as a trade writer for marketing and advertising publications and I spent a few weeks each year covering music festivals and so forth. The writing of the book complemented the recording of the album Ė I was on a real high having been offered a publishing deal, and I had some money at last, and Michael Carpenter who produced the record, is an amazing guy to work with. Perhaps the first thing that happened was I quit playing GP songs live, as I figured it was a little obvious, but people come to gigs now and shout, ďGram!Ē at me, and Iím always happy to oblige. But there have also been times when I should have been working on the book when I was out playing music and getting drunk, but then again substantial portions of the book were assisted by my slightly inebriated state!

E.C.: Playing Alt-Country music and being a fan of Gram Parsons, how did you remain so objective during the writing?

Jason: Wow Ė Iím pleased that youíve picked up on that aspect of the writing Ė I was very concerned for a long while that the book was going to be an exercise in sycophancy, and I had to curb that desire to only see the good. As a fan of a band or musician, you only want to believe the best about them, and Gram had some amazing qualities, but he could also be pretty immature (itís easy I think to forget how young he was when he was achieving so much). He lacked discipline in certain areas, but ultimately he had this God-given talent as Chris Hillman says in the book, and thatís what I had to cling to when I started hearing stuff about him being unkind to his women, especially. That actually really shocked me to hear that he had been heard to deny his paternity of Polly, his daughter. Just for the record, I firmly believe that Polly is Gramís daughter and among other things, her physical resemblance to the Snively women (Gramís motherís side of the family) is pretty striking.

E.C.: With the passage of time, a lot of the major players in Gram's story have passed. Were you able to locate anybody that hadn't been interviewed before? Were there any that would not grant you an interview?

Jason: There were several people who would not grant me an interview Ė Roger McGuinn being one. And I respect that, you know? Roger is like most really talented people Ė very insecure about his place in musical history and he wants to protect that. Talking about Gram takes the focus off Roger. Now, heís an influential guy himself but maybe heís still not convinced that everybody thinks well of him. I think heís a total legend, but he definitely did NOT want to talk to me about Gram, and believe me, I tried! Chris Hillman didnít say no, but I think at the time I approached him, he had just participated in a whole lot of Gram-related projects (the Emmylou tribute album and Sessions At West 54th for example) and I think he was sick of talking about it to be honest. And thatís understandable. We have to remember that these two guys, among others, made it through. They survived the heavy stuff and kept making music. As a musician myself, I admire that more than anything. There were quite a few people I managed to track down, or who tracked me down, like Barbara Walker, Gramís babysitter when he was a kid Ė stuff like that was simply incredible. Word of mouth on a project like this was the most important thing I had in my favour.

Right: Jason's Gram Parsons book

E.C.: Did you uncover any information that surprised you? Or was there any information that had been regarded as "fact" that you found were indeed fiction? Did you have to leave anything out of the book?

Jason: There were lots of things I had to leave out of the book, and there was plenty of stuff that surprised me. I think the thing that freaked me out most was finding out that Gram had first tried smack when he was 16 years old. It was part of a pattern, which manifested itself in him raiding his momís sleeping pills as a kid. I always thought Gram picked up on smack in 1969/70, but it actually was much, much earlier than that. And some people said it was a certain folk singer who turned him on, and I can believe it. But I donít want to speak ill of the dead either. Having just said that, another thing that surprised me was that the very persistent myth of Gram being a heroin addict. He was not, and heroin was not directly involved in his death, as many people would think. Some of the stuff I heard from some people, like ďGram fathered my childĒ and ďI had an affair with him for 3 yearsĒ Ė some of the stories just didnít seem at all likely.

E.C.: Gram Parsons life almost reads like a soap opera, with subjects such as suicide, alcoholism, supposed affairs and of course money. Do you think he will ever be the subject of a movie?

Jason: First of all, Iím surprised no one has done it yet. It would make a great movie, and Iíve been working on a script for years, but at the same time, there have been very few such biopics made, even of really big stars like Jimi Hendrix, or Janis Joplin. The Doors (the Oliver Stone film) is an exception but not a very good one Ė because I feel like Oliver was too close to that whole period. Same for Cameron Crowe. He did a great job of Almost Famous, and thereís that brief tribute to Gram and Emmylou in one scene, but heíd probably still want to be involved on a production level too. Itís definitely his kind of story. One other script Iíve heard about is interesting but itís total fiction.

E.C.: I like the fact that your book was very straightforward and NOT geared towards tabloid-sensationalism. Was that your prime motivation?

Jason: It was most sincerely my prime motivation. I hated the idea of trashing Gram inadvertently by going on and on about drugs and sex, as that stuff has little or nothing to do with what I consider to be the most worthy part of the story Ė the music.

E.C.: Speaking of movies, why haven't any of the Gram videos or TV appearances ever made it to a video compilation?

Jason: I think the problem is that the source material is pretty slim. Iíve seen a whole lot of silent footage that is just amazing, but itís in the hands of a private collector, and he willingly showed it to me but unless someone does him a good deal on releasing that stuff, it will stay in his collection for the time being. An English company put out a series of budget video compilations early in the 90s called ďCalifornia Dreaming, California ScreamingĒ and among the Jackson Browne and Steppenwolf videos is the video for ĎOlder Guysí, which is just hilarious. I sincerely hope that it does happen though. There is one tape from Sierra Records and Tapes called Together Again, which is a compilation of a Clarence White TV performance and live footage of Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels in 1973.

E.C.: In your studies for the book, did you come across any rare recordings that might be released some day? Or do you think everything that is worth releasing is out there?

Jason: There are a number of high-quality bootlegs out there that could easily be given a legitimate release, but as long as there are companies like Colosseum around, theyíll find their way into the hands of people. But the answer is yes, everything worth releasing probably has been. I know there are a few more Burrito masters kicking around for the album they started working on before Burrito Deluxe. I donít know where exactly they might be found though.

E.C.: Gram is considered very influential and a pioneer of sorts. What do you think he would think of all the kind words that have been written about him?

Jason: Emmylou Harris said that Gram would have been tickled about all this attention. Anyone who takes the time to write songs and record is looking for an audience of some kind, and Gram wanted a big audience I think. Itís only right that he should have that audience, even though heís not with us anymore. He would be having a laugh about all the attention for sure. Heíd be like, ďItís about time, darn it!Ē

E.C.: Finally, when can we expect some other books by you?!

Jason: My next two books are in research mode at the moment and Iím hoping that at least one of them will be ready by next year.

Click here to read our review of GRAM PARSONS: GOD'S OWN SINGER




Click here to visit the Jason Walker page at the Laughing Outlaw Records website