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Gene Parsons - The Triste Interview
|Gene Parsons was the drummer with the longest lived line-up of the Byrds, and his distinctive country-flavoured vocals and banjo playing helped make the later Byrds one of the great live acts of the late 60's and early 70's. Since the Byrds he has made one of the great country-rock albums, with his first solo LP "Kindling" in 1973, and played with the Flying Burrito Brothers. Recently he has cut back on his musical activities, but still tours and records with Meridian Green. Triste caught up with him in Spring 2000 after a concert at the Band On The Wall, Manchester.|
Triste: What are your immediate plans?
Gene Parsons: Meridian's going to be heading out on a tour pretty quick. We have a live album coming out pretty soon - hopefully. It's in the can. We're going to be doing some more recording as well. I'm trying to finish off my book and I expect it'll be done by the end of the year.
Triste: I asked you this, as you seem to have more interests than just music.
Gene Parsons: I've got a machine shop and I do research and development for musical stuff and what not. And StringBenders, the guitar gadget has been taking up a lot of our time over the last few years, but we're kind of at the end of that now. I'm still doing a lot of that, but not nearly as much as before. I intend to get back to doing more music in the future.
Triste: You seem quite happy with the way you've got your life sorted out - there's the machine shop, Research and Development, your music, your book and your environmental concerns.
Gene Parsons: Pretty much, pretty much. One of the things that has taken up a lot of time, in the last couple of years, has been the house. We've been living in a trailer for 12 years and we finally got in the house. A little biddy house, but at least it's ours.
Triste: I notice that you've got a StringBender attached to the acoustic guitar that you played tonight. How does it affect the acoustics of the guitar? It looks like a heavy piece of kit.
Gene Parsons: No it's not actually. It's taken me 15 years to develop. It's made of magnesium alloy. It weighs less than 8 oz. It's cast Magnesium and very light and doesn't touch the top of the guitar at all and retains its tone completely.
Triste: Even when the guitar is used purely acoustically?
Gene Parsons: Absolutely. It retains all of its tone and its volume. The only place where we put a hole in the guitar is in a slot just above the neck and the stop lever goes through there and everything is very, very light. The pulley pulls right from the bridge where you remove the G pin or your B pin (which retains the string). You take these out and put our little pulling handles in there and you can pull either the G or B string - whichever you want to hook it to. There's no tone gone. I can guarantee it. As I said, it's taken about 15 years to get to that point. That was the big problem - doing it, so it wasn't too heavy and didn't affect the tone too much.
Triste: Moving onto songwriting. Do you still write new material and, if so, do you work with Meridian?
Gene Parsons: She and I have written together, but she's writing songs more often than I am right now. I'm not very prolific at the moment; I've only written a couple of new songs over the last year. I've been involved in other things. I'm not worried about it. I'll do other songs. I've got a whole bunch of pieces of songs. I've also got some completed songs that I've written in the past that nobody's heard that will be coming out eventually - enough for an album anyway. I'll eventually write some more - I'm not going to worry about it.
Triste: You say you're going through somewhat of a fallow period right now, but what does inspire you to write?
Gene Parsons: Usually a new instrument or a new tuning. I go through spells where I'm hung up on the banjo or the steel guitar for a while. It usually comes from the instruments. Every once in a while lyrics will precede everything else, but it's pretty rare. It's usually the music first. I might have some refrain or a fragment of a tune or a favourite lick on the guitar that I'll try and incorporate into a song.
Triste: How often do you get behind the drums nowadays?
Gene Parsons: Not often enough and I really miss it.
Triste: As a renowned multi-instrumentalist how do you rate yourself on the various instruments that you play? Do you think of yourself as a banjo player who plays a little guitar and drums, or as a drummer who plays guitar and banjo?
Gene Parsons: I started out on banjo - but I feel pretty at home on all of them, although I don't consider myself the master of any of them. What I can do, I can do on most of them. I enjoy playing the bass a lot too. Probably the banjo first and then the pedal steel guitar.
Triste: Going back over your musical history, was it inevitable, looking back now, that Nashville West was only going to be a stepping stone to bigger things for all of you or did you have your own definite plans for the group?
Gene Parsons: I really looked at Nashville West as just a job being the house band at the Club Nashville West. It WAS great fun though!
Triste: I believe Clarence White, Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons and yourself played and recorded together as an embryonic version of the Flying Burrito Brothers. When did this take place? Was Hillman still with the Byrds?
Gene Parsons: It was around late 1966 or early '67 (Ed: Certainly some time later in 1968). Now remember this was over thirty years ago and a bit foggy in my memory. Hillman was still in the Byrds and Clarence and I had not yet joined.
Triste: Can you remember what was recorded that day?
Gene Parsons: I think old covers, but I don't honestly recall.
Triste: It looks like the perfect template for a country-rock band. Do you remember why it didn't succeed?
Gene Parsons: The chemistry wasn't quite right, I guess.
Triste: Instead of joining the proto-Burrito you ended following Clarence White into the Byrds.On your first album with the band, Dr Byrds & Mr Hyde, Roger McGuinn took all the lead vocals even on Gib Guilbeau's "Your Gentle Ways of Loving Me?" which I believe you introduced to the band. Did this bother you, or did you accept it as the "new boy in the band"?
Gene Parsons: I was just glad to have one of Gib's tunes recorded by a major band. I was not hired as the lead singer.
Triste: When you were with the Byrds they were probably at their best as a live act.
Gene Parsons: That's about right - cos we had Clarence White.
Triste: I was talking to a friend of mine who saw you play in the early 70's and he says that Clarence White is still one of the greatest guitarists he's ever heard.
Gene Parsons: He just blew everyone's mind. He blew my mind every single night. He was the best guitar player I ever worked with. I don't think I'll ever see another guitar player as good as he was.
Triste: You've said many times that "Gunga Din" was essentially a true account (Gramercy Park Hotel, John York's mother, Chuck Berry etc) of life on the road. Did you find touring a pleasurable experience. Didn't you ever "get to settle down" as you sing in the song?
Gene Parsons: It was very pleasurable and very stressful. I was able to "settle down" little bits here and there and I'm pretty much "settled down" now.
Triste: I've never flown on a DC8. Do some of the seats actually face backwards?
Gene Parsons: Yes they do. The seating layout back then was much more akin to rail car arrangements. Ah the good old days!
Triste: And were you actually writing a "letter aboard" the DC8 or was it the song itself you were writing?
Gene Parsons: I was actually writing the song.
Triste: I believe The name "Gunga Din" was simply thrown in as just a rhyme. Was there no memory of the Kipling poem or later film?
Gene Parsons: No, it was just for a rhyme.
Triste: I've recently been reading Dinky Dawson's autobiography "Life On The Road" where he calls you "one of the true gentlemen of the west" in his acknowledgements. Do you remember the CBS conference in Bermuda or playing Bath acoustically in the rain in 1970? They sound like wild times. I take it that it's a more sedate and controlled experience now?
Gene Parsons: Yes I do remember those events. They were great fun but life isn't as sedate now as you might think. It is still quite exciting in a different way.
Triste: I take it your version of Little Feat's "Willin'" was dropped from the album due to the presence of the same band's "Truck Stop Girl" Why wasn't it included on the next album, or was this a song you were saving for your first solo album?
Gene Parsons: I don't think Roger really liked the song or the idea of me singing it. He was the one signed with Columbia, so he and the producer had the last word. I didn't really seriously start thinking about a solo album until Roger fired me.
Triste: With the late-period Byrds there seemed to be a shortage of good original material in general. Did you ever feel that your songs were being pushed back.
Gene Parsons: Clarence was very receptive to my ideas and would usher in the idea if I had an idea he liked. Of course Skip Battin was accepting of me too. There were a few things that were kept behind.
Triste: You were critical of Byrdmaniax at the time. Has your opinion changed in the intervening years? Do you still dislike Terry Melcher's strings?
Gene Parsons: It is still one of my least favorite albums although it is a little easier to listen to now.
Triste: Kindling seems to have been critically praised (at least in recent articles). How was it received at the time? Why didn't you carry on with the solo career immediately after this?
Gene Parsons: Kindling received rave reviews in Rolling Stone and other major trade magazines. If you will remember it was about that time that Clarence was killed. With the passing of Clarence so also passed my desire to play music. I asked to be released from my contract with Warner Bros. ( much to the disappointment of my manager and producer). It was a devastating blow to my music career and I knew it at the time but I couldn't help it. I had to put my instruments away for several years. It was a long time before I could play them again without tears of grief over the loss of my dear friend Clarence.
Triste: What was it like playing with [Roger] McGuinn? Obviously there was a little tension at the end.
Gene Parsons: You could say it was a little dodgy. (laughs). We had our differences. Some nights it was great. Some nights it wasn't so great. When it was all right it was really fun.
Triste: When you played with The Burrito Brothers later on was that a more relaxed band?
Gene Parsons: It was in some ways and yet it was tenser in others. It was good when we first started out, then there was a parting of the ways musically and that was tense.
Triste: Was that the period in the mid 70's when bands were trying for that over-produced slick sound?
Gene Parsons: Well Sneaky Pete wanted to play disco music. He said that was the thing.
Triste: On pedal steel guitar?
Gene Parsons: Yes. I said to him, "I know you're the best pedal steel guitar player around and I know that you can do it and it's not a problem. But you're the best dooey-dooey player in the world why would you want to do it?" It was a passing phase with him and the guys wanted to go very commercial, and I've nothing against that, but we did have a little parting of the ways musically. Although some of the stuff we recorded was great, I think, some of it was crap - out and out crap.
Triste: On your second solo album, Melodies, you played with Albert Lee. Did he play B-Bender on the album and how do you rate him as a guitarist (and an English one at that!)?
Gene Parsons: I love Albert as a guitar player and a person. He played some really great stuff on Melodies but I don't think he used a StringBender. (I have quite a bit of English blood in my veins you know.)
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