Tail of the Weak is a series of insights and musical memories from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin, singer/songwriter and founder of the Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival, from Waycross, Georgia.
Larry Purdom strolled up to the microphone to welcome the 8,000 plus in attendance at Waycross, Georgia's Memorial Stadium. It was the night of October 19, 1991—Game 1 of the World Series featuring the worst-to-first Atlanta Braves versus the Minnesota Twins. It was also the night of “A Gram Parsons Tribute Concert”, sponsored by the Waycross-Ware County Chamber of Commerce.
Earlier that year, chamber members had heard about the upcoming release of Ben Fong-Torres's new book, Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons, Waycross native and pioneer of the Cosmic American Music sound in the late Sixties, which forged straight country with rock and roll.
With the assistance of Billy Ray Herrin, local GP historian, meetings were held; and, it was decided that the customary city festival, honoring Pogo the possum, would be extended this year to also honor Gram, son of Coon Dog Connor. The musical acts—She, The Normaltown Flyers, Hickory Wind, T. Graham Brown, and Vern Gosdin—were chosen, called, and contracted for the big night.
The band, She, hailed from Los Angeles and was fronted by Gram's beautiful daughter, Polly Parsons, resplendent in a sequined, gold Nudie suit. The group opened the festivities and tore through several GP songs and covers. The Normaltown Flyers, one of the earliest bands in Athens, Georgia's notable music history, were enjoying some moderate success in CMT's country video rotation.
Waycross's own Hickory Wind was formed by Billy Ray Herrin and myself, specifically for this one-night performance. Besides us, members of the group included John Randall Smith (drums and vocals), Bill Smith (guitar and vocals), Tony Cason (guitar and pedal steel), George Farr (keyboards), Ronnie Griffin (bass guitar), and Debby Thigpen (backing vocals).
We rehearsed for weeks, learning “Cash on the Barrelhead”, “Big Mouth Blues”, “Ooh, Las Vegas”, and “Brass Buttons”, supplementing the Gram songs with our own. Billy Ray, John and Bill Smith, and I were all published songwriters with the Lowery Music Company in Atlanta by this time. We had a live tune-up one week ahead of the concert, playing in the Pecan Park gazebo for the good folks over in Blackshear, Georgia.
Tony Cason, former member of Georgia Music Hall of Fame inductees, the Pierce County FFA String Band, was, and still is, a master of the B-Bender Telecaster; but, that wasn't good enough for him. Two weeks prior to the tribute concert, he went out and purchased a pedal steel guitar. Folks, a pedal steel is a complicated instrument to play; but, in two weeks, Tony Cason was proficient enough to use it on stage October 19.
T. Graham Brown, from Arabi, Georgia, moved to Nashville in 1982 and earned his living singing advertising jingles for McDonald's, Budweiser, and Taco Bell, before writing songs for E.M.I. Publishing. By 1991, he was in the middle of a very successful recording career with hits, “I Tell It Like It Used to Be”, “Hell and High Water”, “Don't Go to Strangers”, and “Darlene”.
Alabama-born Vern Gosdin moved to California in 1961, joining the Golden State Boys, who became The Hillmen, a bluegrass group including Chris Hillman on mandolin. With a vocal as aching as the country songs he sang, Gosdin was nicknamed “The Voice”, standing at the top of country music with King George Jones. Among some of his well-known hits are “Do You Believe Me Now”, “Set 'Em Up Joe”, and “Chiseled in Stone”.
A couple months prior to the October concert, Ben Fong-Torres was scheduled for Larry King's Radio Show, which was set to air at about 1 a.m. on a regional station near Waycross. Unbeknownst to one another, Billy Ray and I both called in to speak to the author. We were each placed on hold; and, I was told I was next in line to speak.
Larry King: “We're here with Ben Fong-Torres, author of Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons. Our next caller is from Waycross, Georgia. Go ahead.” Billy Ray heard, 'caller from Waycross', opened his mouth to speak, and out of the radio came my voice!
Fong-Torres and I talked about Waycross, Gram's legacy, the upcoming concert, and my brother, Gary, managing editor of the Waycross Journal-Herald, who had put the author in contact with Billy Ray when he came to Waycross to do research on the book.
After my conversation with Fong-Torres ended, Billy Ray had his turn, which thoroughly confused Larry King, who kept saying, “Another caller from Waycross? Geez, what are the odds on that! What is it...the guy's brotha? Geez, what are the odds on that?”
Billy Ray and I have been musical partners over our entire adult lives. He taught me how to play the bass part on Jimi Hendrix's “Hey Joe” and was patient with me while I painfully strummed beginner chords on my TEMPO acoustic guitar. We have been co-writing songs since the early 70s, culminating in a publishing contract with Bill Lowery in the early 90s.
We discovered Gram Parsons's music together just before Parsons left this world in 1973 and have both been influential in carrying on the torch for the Okefenokee troubadour—Billy Ray, with his extensive research into Gram's Waycross days, and my initiation of the Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival, now in its 20th year. We formed Sweetbriar, the first country rock band from Waycross, in '74.
In all that we've done together, we were always fairly serious; but, I have to say, the night I put words in Billy Ray's mouth on Larry King's Radio Show, totally confusing the suspendered host, is one memory that still makes me laugh out loud.
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