Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music


As a singer and songwriter, Gram Parsons stood at the nexus of countless musical crossroads, and he sold his soul to the devil at every one. His intimates and collaborators included Keith Richards, William Burroughs, Marianne Faithfull, Peter Fonda, Roger McGuinn, and Clarence White. Parsons led the Byrds to create the seminal country rock masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo, helped to guide the Rolling Stones beyond the blues in their appreciation of American roots music, and found his musical soul mate in ...

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Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music

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As a singer and songwriter, Gram Parsons stood at the nexus of countless musical crossroads, and he sold his soul to the devil at every one. His intimates and collaborators included Keith Richards, William Burroughs, Marianne Faithfull, Peter Fonda, Roger McGuinn, and Clarence White. Parsons led the Byrds to create the seminal country rock masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo, helped to guide the Rolling Stones beyond the blues in their appreciation of American roots music, and found his musical soul mate in Emmylou Harris. Parsons’ solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel, are now recognized as visionary masterpieces of the transcendental jambalaya of rock, soul, country, gospel, and blues Parsons named “Cosmic American Music.” Parsons had everything–looks, charisma, money, style, the best drugs, the most heartbreaking voice–and threw it all away with both hands, dying of a drug and alcohol overdose at age twenty-six.

In this beautifully written, raucous, meticulously researched biography, David N. Meyer gives Parsons’ mythic life its due. From interviews with hundreds of the famous and obscure who knew and worked closely with Parsons–many who have never spoken publicly about him before–Meyer conjures a dazzling panorama of the artist and his era.

Praise for Twenty Thousand Roads



“Far and away the most thorough biography of Parsons . . . skewers any number of myths surrounding this endlessly mythologized performer.”
–Los Angeles Times

“A terrific biography of a rock innovator that hums with juicy detail and wincing truth. . . . Page after page groans with the folly of the ’60s drug culture, the tragedy of talent toasted before its time, the curse of wealth and the madness of wasted opportunity.”
–The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“The definitive account of Gram Parsons’ life–and early death. From the country-rock pioneer’s wealthy, wildly dysfunctional family through his symbiotic friendship with Keith Richards, Meyer deftly illuminates one of rock’s most elusive figures.”
–Rolling Stone

“Meticulously researched . . . Though Meyer answers a lot of long-burning questions, he preserves Parsons’ legend as a man of mystery.”
–Entertainment Weekly

“Meyer gives Parsons a thorough, Peter Guralnick-like treatment.”
New York Post

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Gram Parsons is remembered as much for wearing sequined cowboy suits on stage and for being illegally cremated in the desert by one of his friends after dying of a drug overdose as he is for the half-dozen albums he played on in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the Byrds' classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Meyer (A Girl and a Gun) covers both aspects of the legend, but he gives particular attention to the way Parsons brought together elements of country and rock music to forge a new sound. After a leisurely telling of Parsons's "rich white trash" family drama in Florida and Georgia, including his father's suicide and the barely contained contempt of his mother's family, the biography plunges into his musical career, careening from one band to the next just as Parsons himself did. Meyer is appreciative but never adulatory of Parsons, who he believes threw his talent away; while citing the influence of the Flying Burrito Brothers' debut album, for example, he repeatedly mentions the band's "unbelievably sloppy" sound. This isn't the first biography of Parsons, but Meyer's semidetached stance as a critical fan makes it a valuable one, in the vein of Peter Guralnick or Greil Marcus. (Oct. 30)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
One more time through the gaudy life of the '60s country-rock pathfinder. Though he released only six albums in his 26 years, Gram Parsons was and remains legendary for his affecting, unprecedented music, his drug- and booze-saturated lifestyle and the sensational story surrounding his demise. (After he overdosed in 1973, two friends stole his body, took it out to the desert and set it on fire.) This fifth full-length biography is by far the longest, but it doesn't top Ben Fong-Torres's Hickory Wind (1991). Meyer (Cinema Studies/New School for Social Research) is strongest on Parsons's privileged youth as scion of a wealthy Florida citrus family. His Southern-Gothic upbringing and a round of tragedies-father's suicide, mother's death from alcoholism-receive deep, riveting scrutiny. When Meyer turns to Parsons's life as a trust-funded rocker, however, the narrative bogs down in thrice-told tales. His move to Los Angeles with pioneering country-rock unit the International Submarine Band, his trend-setting sojourns with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and his dope-suffused solo career are all dutifully logged in frequently superfluous detail. Meyer attempts to sift the plentiful legends about Parsons but eventually somewhat wearily admits that many witnesses were just too stoned to remember what went down. Though well-researched, the book is hampered by reliance on secondary sources and the non-participation of such crucial family members, friends and collaborators as Parsons's oft-bashed widow Gretchen, Keith Richards and Emmylou Harris, all of whom appear in Gandulf Hennig's excellent 2005 BBC documentary. Small, irritating factual errors abound, but the book's uninformedobservations and suspect critical judgments are even more aggravating. Meyer finally loses patience with his gifted, self-destructive subject, and the resulting snarky tone does not serve his story well. He also misses the heart of "Cosmic American Music," the term Parsons coined to describe the synthesis of country, R&B, gospel and rock that he aspired to play. The Grievous Angel never takes flight here. Agent: Jay Mandel/William Morris Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345503367
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/16/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 592
  • Sales rank: 418,084
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

David N. Meyer was born in Gainesville, Georgia. His books include The 100 Best Films To Rent You've Never Heard Of and A Girl and A Gun; The Complete Guide to Film Noir On Video. He has written on film and music for Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, Wired and The Rocket. Mr. Meyer teaches in cinema studies at the New School and is the film editor for the arts monthly Brooklyn Rail. He contributed to the underground humor classic The Book of the Subgenius. He lives in New York City and Ketchum, Idaho.

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Read an Excerpt


Coon Dog Connor and Avis Snively

Gram Parsons sprang from rich white trash and rural gentility. The antecedents of Ingram Cecil Parsons, ne Ingram Cecil Connor III, were pure Faulkner, his upbringing a catalog of Southern dysfunction. The critical pathway of his ancestry brings together the moralistic complacency of small-town wealth and the hunger of the small-town hustler: two key routes to the American dream, played out in their most lurid Southern form. Out of generations of wanting sprang a man who never pursued anything because he was too busy fleeing from himself.

Gram came from money, vast amounts of it, and alcohol, in equally vast amounts. He had three parents—his father, Ingram Cecil "Coon Dog" Connor; his mother, Avis Snively; and his stepfather, Robert Parsons—and amid all their differences and conflicts, pedigree, money, alcohol, and self-destruction ran through their lives like the helix of their doomed Southern DNA.

Coon Dog Connor came out of his sky. He tilted the shark-painted mouth of his black Grumman P-40 Warhawk into a blinding shaft of glare and dropped straight down from the sun. When he thumbed the red button centered on his joystick, the wing-mounted .50-caliber machine guns made the whole plane shudder. The balsa-wood Zero in his crosshairs exploded into flinders. Dead Jap aviators floated like eiderdown through the soft warm air over the far southwestern Pacific. Turning his fighter back to the sun in search of new prey, Coon Dog Connor never saw them splash.

When he touched down on the clanking metal airstrip, his canopy was already shoved back. Coon Dog's mechanic ran alongside the plane in the crushing jungle heat, leaped onto the still-moving wing, and passed Coon Dog his celebratory bottle of Jack Daniel's . . . or maybe it was Rebel Yell or Maker's Mark or homemade jungle hooch; who knows?

Coon Dog Connor shot down numerous Japanese pilots over the Pacific Ocean in World War II, bombed and strafed even more of them when they were on the ground, and consumed vast quantities of whiskey, in the process becoming an Army Air Corps flying ace, a genuine war hero, and a certifiable alcoholic. After two years of aerial combat, Coon Dog sailed from New Guinea for Australia on a hospital ship. There he was treated for the malaria that eventually sent him stateside for good in 1944.

His specific flights, number of kills, and the date and route of his rotation back to the States vanished on July 12, 1973, when the Defense Department's World War II archives in East St. Louis, Illinois, went up in flames as all-consuming as those that broiled Coon Dog's airborne enemies. What we do know is where his unit served and in what battles they fought, and there's no question of Coon Dog's prowess, courage, or fightin' want-to.

Ingram Cecil Connor was bred to the military. He and his brother, Tom, attended their father's high school, Columbia Military Academy, in Columbia, Tennessee. Cecil's folks were native Tennesseans. His father was born in Mount Pleasant in 1887, his mother in Columbia in 1889, and both would outlive their son by more than a generation.

Cecil's dad came from a well-to-do farming family. His mom's father was a lawyer. Amid the rolling hills and small lakes of eastern Tennessee, that placed both families solidly in the haute bourgeoisie. Though the two families had been in the South—and well off—for more than a hundred years, and though they had illustrious ancestors who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, surviving family members insist that none of the Connors ever owned slaves. On this they are adamant.

After graduating from Draughn's Business College in Nashville, Cecil's father settled in Columbia. He worked as a sales rep for two Nashville hardware companies, Gray & Dudley and Keith-Simmons. He traveled for work and was seldom home during the week. He made an excellent living and provided a good life for his family.

Cecil, his younger sister, Pauline, and his brother, Tom, grew up on a dead-end street in a big formal house with an entrance hall, four bedrooms, and front and back porches. The front room held a piano and all three kids took lessons. Cecil's mother's side of the family supplied the musical genes. Cecil's maternal grandmother, Ella Dotson Kelly, played the organ at Columbia's First Methodist Church for thirty years. Grandma Kelly was always at the piano in the Connor parlor, playing but never singing. Cecil Connor never sang, either.

Pauline Wilkes, Cecil's sister, recalls three kinds of music in the household: hymns, classical, and big band. She remembers Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and especially "Moonlight Serenade." The children took classical lessons three times a week, but their relationship to music was lighthearted. In high school and college Cecil clowned around with an old ukulele. When brother Tom attended Vanderbilt University, he followed in his grandmother's footsteps and played organ in church. "We never listened to country music," Pauline Wilkes says.

Cecil, Pauline, and Tom were raised in the old-school, small-town Southern manner, a manner that lingered well into the sixties. "We answered a question with 'sir' and 'ma'am,'" says Pauline Wilkes. "We stood up when an adult entered the room; that was good manners. We never questioned anything our parents told us to do. If they told us to do something or not do something, that was all that was necessary. That was the way children were brought up in the South. My children were raised the same. Gram was raised that way too, until his father died."

Columbia prospered as a mill town. When Maury County, of which Columbia is the county seat, was found to be full of phosphate, Monsanto and other big chemical companies built plants. The county's economy was rock solid and thriving. Cecil's father was on the road five days a week, but his family enjoyed their leisure.

Cecil's dad had grown up on a gentleman's farm; he was bred to the woods and loved hunting and fishing. As soon as his sons were old enough, they were given .410 shotguns. The .410 is a small gauge with a light kick, light enough for a young boy to shoot. Cecil Connor loved guns; he was an avid hunter and an excellent shot. In Columbia he hunted dove and quail, wandering through the fields with the family dogs; when he was stationed in New Guinea he wrote home of wild boar hunts in the jungle.

Their father bought the boys an Indian canoe in which they plied the local Duck River, paddling and swimming. Cecil had a best friend, Van Shapard, whom he met at the age of five; they stayed best friends for life. Together they took the canoe to the local landmark, Big Rock, for overnight campouts. Big Rock was known as the place where only boys swam. No girls were allowed.

Pauline Wilkes recalls lazy summer evenings with the neighborhood adults gathered on the deep shaded porch after dinner, watching their children play Kick the Can and Capture the Flag. Kids and parents always gathered at the Connor house.

All of Cecil's people concur: For all the good it did him later, Cecil Connor, a beloved son in a loving family, lived a sheltered, privileged, stressless childhood and adolescence. Life came easily to Cecil, as it would to his son.

Cecil was a Boy Scout. And when he left the Scouts in his teenage years his passion turned to cars and airplanes. Cecil's folks drove regular old vehicles, but Cecil dreamed of a red convertible. His other dreams centered on flight. He and his pal Van Shapard were always talking about planes and how they would learn to fly. When Cecil (and Shapard) entered Columbia Military, his ambitions were all about the Air Corps. The school closed after World War II, but for the time it had a demanding curriculum.

As a young man Cecil's eyes seemed to slant a bit, so the first nickname he acquired at Columbia Military was "Chink." That was the name everyone in town, children and adults, called him. "Chink" was in the old Southern manner, too.

Pauline Wilkes remembers her brother as "an extremely popular boy. He was a good-looking boy all his life. My friends would come over just to be with him." Although Cecil dated often, he had no great love in high school. Already Cecil manifested the same quality of relaxed separateness that would mark his son.

Cecil grew to be manly, affable, charming, and socially at ease. At Columbia he became a student leader and the alpha of his social pack, pulling out his ever-present ukulele at parties and taking it on dates. In school he devoted himself to the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) to ensure that he would join the service as an officer, because it was officers who became pilots.

When Cecil graduated, he and Van Shapard set off for Alabama Polytechnic Institute in Auburn. Established in 1856 and made coed in 1892, the Polytechnic is today better known by the name it took in 1961: Auburn University. Van Shapard and Cecil studied aeronautical engineering and both were officers in the ROTC. Cecil's family says he graduated in 1939. Auburn University disagrees; he attended Alabama Polytechnic, but no record exists that he left with a degree.

In any event, when Cecil was done with college, his and Van Shapard's paths diverged. After joining the Army Air Corps together, Cecil stayed in the Army while Van Shapard opted for the Flying Tigers. Cecil would end up in the Pacific Theater; Van Shapard would fly "over the hump" from India to China over the Himalayas.

Cecil took his aviation training at Kelly Field in Texas. During training he drove around Kelly Field in the red convertible he'd always wanted. On May 11, 1940, he graduated flight school and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. His proud mother pinned his flight wings to his chest.

Cecil remained at Kelly Field until March 1941, when he transferred to Wheeler Field near Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. There Cecil Connor did not live like an ordinary officer. His life aligned more closely with the languidly structured peacetime pleasure dome depicted in From Here to Eternity. Cecil rented a house on Diamond Head and acquired another red convertible. In addition to being tall, handsome, socially adept, and well-to-do, Cecil was also a pilot, which at the time was among the coolest, most badass identities a man could earn. He lived in the most beautiful place in the world and he tore around that paradise in a new red convertible. Cecil Connor did not live like an Army Air Corps second lieutenant—he lived like a rock star.

The rock-star life came to a halt when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. Asleep on Diamond Head, Cecil was awakened by explosions—he could see Japanese planes over Pearl from his house. He leapt into his red convertible and raced to Wheeler Field. When Cecil got there, the base was a shambles. Bomb craters littered the runway, planes were burning on the ground, and the few hangars still standing were in ruins. There was nothing Cecil Connor could do. After the war, he told a coworker, "I didn't even get up to my plane to get it cranked up . . . but I made up for that later on." If in civilian life Cecil was sometimes regarded as a hard-drinking laggard with an overdeveloped gift for indolence, during the war there was no questioning his sense of duty or adventure.

With Wheeler Field destroyed, Cecil's 6th Pursuit Squadron of the 18th Fighter Group shifted to Kahuku on Hawaii and later to Kipapa Field until they were sent overseas late in 1942. The 6th Pursuit had trained as interceptors, meaning they flew close support for bombers. In May 1942 their name was changed to the 6th Fighter Squadron, and later to the 6th Night Fighter Squadron. Their mission changed with their name. They would still escort bombers, but they were also turned loose to pursue aerial combat and to execute bombing and attack runs on their own. The 6th Night Fighters were sent to the Pacific to be aggressors.

In honor of their new name, their emblem became a gray skull outlined in black, the outline forming the hub of a spinning propeller blade in black on an orange background. Painted on the side of each plane below that emblem was the squadron's nickname: the Flying Vampires.

Here history gets a little murky; surviving records address the Flying Vampires as a unit and not Cecil specifically. At some point in late 1942, the 6th Night Fighters headed out of Pearl Harbor to war. In January 1943 they spearheaded an extended attack on Japanese forces centered around Munda Airfield, on the island of New Georgia, in the Solomons. Cecil's group attacked a Japanese transport at sea; they bombed an airfield on Bougainville Island; they assaulted Munda field repeatedly. All this was in support of the U.S. Marines' invasion of and attempt to secure Guadalcanal Island.

At some point while fighting the war, stationed somewhere in the Pacific—most likely New Guinea—and bombing jungle airfields at night, Chink Connor became Coon Dog. And Coon Dog he remained for the rest of his life.

While coon was the South's vilest, most hateful racial epithet during Cecil Connor's time, there's no evidence that his nickname derived from that slur. Cecil was a well-bred, civilized Southerner, and no one remembers him ever using or condoning that kind of language. But raccoon hunting was, and remains, a popular slice of backwoods Southern culture. And if you're going to hunt raccoons, you got to have coon dogs. There are two ways of hunting raccoons, and neither could exist without the dogs. In one variant, the dogs track the scent of a raccoon, find the beast, harry it through the woods, and, if the raccoon outruns them—if it doesn't turn and fight—chase it up a tree. When the hunters catch up to the dogs, which can take a while, they shoot the raccoon down so the dogs can rip it to shreds. Another method is more amiable: The hunters send their dogs out to find a raccoon somewhere in the summer night and sit around a fire drinking and listening as the dogs' voices cut through the humid darkness. An experienced dog handler can tell when his hound is on the scent, when it's on the chase, when it's treed a raccoon, and when it lies down to sleep at the bottom of the tree. Dawn finds the dogs loping back into the camp from however far off they might have treed their prey.

It's probably from those hounds that Coon Dog got his name. He became Coon Dog in New Guinea and never told anyone why. Raccoons, however, can be mean sumbitches when brought to bay.

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Table of Contents

Prologue     ix
Introduction     xix
Coon Dog Connor and Avis Snively     3
Waycross     21
December 23, 1958     37
Robert Parsons     50
Winter Haven     64
Vanguards and Legends     80
The Bolles School     101
Senior Year     127
Cambridge     144
The International Submarine Band     165
Los Angeles     187
The Byrds     214
Sweetheart of the Rodeo     234
The Flying Burrito Brothers     260
The Gilded Palace of Sin     283
Burrito Deluxe     311
Nellcote     337
GP     354
The Fallen Angels     377
"Farther Along"     401
Joshua Tree     416
The Coffin     424
The Funeral     433
Epilogue     447
Acknowledgments     457
Selected Bibliography     461
Discography     465
Recommended Listening     469
Encyclopedia     475
Source Notes     503
Album and Song Index     539
Index     545
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 6 of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2007

    A reviewer

    When the blurbs announcing this book first came out, I was eager to read it. After all, the author claimed that there would be no punches pulled. While Mr. Meyer did chide Gram (as some other authors didn't) for being self-destructive and for destroying personal relationships, he also once again regurgitated the same old cliches about what a visionary in Country Rock music that he was. Fact is, he wasn't. He was one of the first pioneers to be sure, but others, including Larry Murray, Gene Clark, Clarence White, Steve Young, even Ricky Nelson, and yes, Gram's musical partner Chris Hillman were there even before Gram was. Mr. Hillman, along with Gram's estranged widow Gretchen Carpenter chose not to be involved in this book, so Mr. Meyer has chosen to throw some very cheap shots at them. The Byrds, who gave Parsons his real shot at stardom, are referred to as a 'Nest of Vipers' (why? Perhaps because they chose to dispense with the services of David Crosby? Or because Gram flaked out on them?). Hillman, who if anyone should be credited with being the pioneer of Country Rock (his Countrified tunes 'Time Between' and 'The Girl with No Name' were recorded with the Byrds months before Gram's International Submarine Band was ever heard from) is referred to as a 'Bitter Lieutenant'. Interesting, because in the years I've known him, he has been anything but - forthright on the subject yes, of how Gram was a good partner in the first year of the Flying Burritos, but became spoiled, lazy and a Stones groupie after that,then throwing his life away. Bitter? - Hillman has no cause to be and never has. Gretchen Carpenter is portrayed practically as a post-teen drugged-out jealous shrew at times. To put up with Gram, especially his peccadillos, she could easily be nominated for sainthood. In her post-Gram life she has been a good wife and faithful partner to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Bob Carpenter, but you wouldn't know it from Meyer's account. To be sure Meyer did get Polly Parsons, Pamela Des Barres, Bernie Leadon, and John Beland among other contemporaries and friends to contribute, but he even admits many of his correspondents were just as out of it as Parsons was in those times. If Parsons had not been a drug-addled, spoiled 'trust fund' boy, and Hillman just a bit more assertive, the Flying Burrito Brothers could have given the nascent Eagles a run for their money. It wasn't to be, because Gram chose heroin and the company of Keith Richards than staying that course he AND Hillman started. If you want another book that is a paean to Country Rock's Kurt Cobain, well, put it on your list. Its as adolatory as the rest, but if you prefer something more succinct about Parsons, read Ben Fong-Torres' 'Hickory Wind' instead.

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