Gram Parsons was a Florida-born young man who blazed an unprecedented musical trail in the American West. His creation, which he called “cosmic American music,” influenced many musicians of mainstream popularity, such as The Rolling Stones. Decades later, it has also proved to be foundational to the contemporary Alt- Country scene, with musicians and groups like Evan Dando and Band of Horses listing him as a major source of inspiration. Tragically, he died of a drug overdose at the age of twenty-six. Despite never having achieved widespread public fame, he left behind a musical legacy that changed, and continues to change, the face of American music. He also left behind him his young daughter, Polly Parsons, who is honoring that legacy in her own equally unique way.
As much as Polly Parsons’ endeavors are rooted in her family history, they are also deeply rooted in her own life experience – though her experiences are far from typical. A perfect example of this is the fateful way in which she first met her husband, digital artist and playwright Charlie Terrell. Parsons first encountered Terrell when she attended his multi-media stage production, “Taking the Jesus Pill.” Though they had not met before, Parsons felt an uncanny and immediate connection to Terrell that was only made more striking when she noticed that a photo of her father was prominently displayed in one of the production’s sets. After meeting, the two quickly fell in love and married. Once Parsons worked through her own struggles with addiction, they decided to move here to Austin. Inspired by her own experience combating addiction and by the tragic legacy of her father, Parsons identified a need in the artistic community for a place where artists could get sober. She knew her creative strengths were hardly the same as her husband’s, but she also knew, with equal conviction, that she had something to contribute.
Parsons’ desire to bring something to the artistic community has translated into numerous projects. She knew she wanted to work with her husband but was well aware of the fact that some jobs simply would not suit them – “Neither of us could hold a day job, just because of eccentricity,” she quips–and in the search for a more apt form of work, Daddy Van Productions was born. In Parsons’ words, they are “in the video world, trying to do things differently,” a unique combination of “playwright meets producer.” Today, Daddy Van Productions is successfully merging Parsons’ industry know-how and state-of-the-art digital video production with Terrell’s unique perspective and skills as a playwright. Their clients include big names like Maroon 5, but the company has also done work in conjunction with yet another of Parsons’ endeavors – The Gram Parsons Foundation.
In 2004, Daddy Van assisted with Return to Sin City, an acclaimed Gram Parsons Tribute, which initially raised funds for The MusiCares Foundation. Since then, Parsons’ interest in contributing to the artistic community developed more fully into the independent Gram Parsons Foundation. The Foundation declares its mission as “supporting musicians and artists worldwide with addiction and recovery services” and seeks to increase awareness of these issues as well as raise funds for efforts to support the recovery of musicians and artists. One major way that Parsons and the Foundation do this is through Hickory Wind Ranch, although completely separate projects Hickory Wind Ranch is an innovative sobriety home that she began in the hopes of forming a different model of community for people from all walks of life. After beating her own struggles with addiction, and deeply affected by her father’s untimely death, Parsons is well acquainted with the perils of substance abuse that are all too common amongst musicians and artists. Consequently, she decided to create a community that would support recovery from addiction but that also honored creativity and difference in a manner that was different from most recovery programs. In her words, she wanted to establish a place “where creative people can come together and be sober. A safe haven for those with a creative slant.”
The opportunity to create such a place came when she and Terrell moved back to Austin to raise their daughter. As they were establishing their lives here in Austin, they decided to buy three acres to begin the development of Hickory Wind Ranch. With the Ranch boasting programs for men and women and receiving local and national acclaim (having recently won a “Best of Austin Award” from The Austin Chronicle and being featured on the nationally broadcast television show Intervention), Parsons’ desire to contribute has resulted in a genuine success. With Hickory Wind Ranch and the Gram Parsons Foundation, Parsons continues to work tirelessly to honor the artists and musicians that have gone before her and be of service to those in need now. In fact, Austin can look forward to hearing more from the Gram Parsons Foundation in the coming months, with the Foundation hosting an upcoming SXSW panel as well as a major fundraising event at the Hotel San Jose on South Congress on March 14th. Attendees can not only expect to hear a fantastic variety of music (10 different acts including the likes of Blitzen Trapper and Brendan Benson w/Eric Burdon) but can also contribute to the work of the Foundation through donations and by spreading awareness about the needs of the community it serves. In a town as devoted to music and art as Austin, it is a more-than-worthy cause.
Despite having so much to talk about, the interview flies by as Parsons describes the work of each of these institutions excitedly. She leaves one wondering just how she manages to juggle so many (and perhaps initially seemingly disparate) ideas and projects, but when asked what it is that connects this eclectic mix of art, production, service, and healing , she says the answer is clear – the connection is, and has always been Gram. Just as Gram’s music pulled from all genres in a manner that was previously unheard of, Parsons is similarly eclectic in her creativity. Left in the hands of his daughter, Gram Parson’s legacy will have an impact on the music community far beyond the songs he wrote. Though Polly Parsons channels that creativity a bit differently – perhaps in a manner more utilitarian than aesthetic–it has no less of an impact on the lives of the musicians and artists she touches.
Written by Ellen Von Essen
Photo of Polly by John Anderson