An evening at the Joshua Tree Inn and the Spirit of Gram Parsons

By Chris Unck

I had been playing music in Georgia for years before I heard the term “Flying Burrito Brothers” or the name “Gram Parsons.” Eventually, lore of Gram Parsons echoed from little parties and bonfire gatherings. Then I met a simple, quiet man from Waycross, Georgia, where Gram was from, and we became great friends. “T-Biscuit”, I called him. After crushing beers for hours, I mispronounced his name, and it stuck. T-Biscuit started telling me stories about this guy Gram, who influenced The Rolling Stones’ country phase. He informed me of Gram’s Florida roots and his ties to the orange farming fortunes, how he could afford his rock ‘n roll lifestyle and would eventually party his way into the Rolling Stones recording session for Exile on Main Street, and then get kicked out of the session. T-Biscuit went into stories of Emmylou Harris… he’d go on and on and on. Any time I would be listening to Exile or Sticky Fingers, T-Biscuit would say, “See! That’s where Gram influenced the Stones,” pointing out the timeline and how the Stones hadn’t recorded anything like that. Then they meet Gram Parsons that summer. “He probably played them some country music that they hadn’t heard,” he’d insist. It was always a compelling argument, and I fell in love with this guy Gram Parsons because of his influence on The Rolling Stones’ country years, which at the time, was the epitome of my existence.

A handful of years later, from 2008 to 2010, I was on the road as a touring musician. When I had time off in LA, I would rent a car and come out to Joshua Tree to see this place where Gram kicked it with the Stones, and where eventually some of his body would be ceremonially burnt by his road manager, Phil Kaufman, postmortem. I mean, anyone who plays rock n roll knows the lore of rock n roll, and it just seemed like the right thing to do – go to Cap Rock, slip around the back side and find the real spot where Phil took Gram’s body, and pay your homage. It felt like a rite of passage for me, being from Georgia, with all of T-Biscuit’s stories in my head. I felt like I needed to come here, and for years, I did.

The lore followed me, and eventually I stayed in Room 8. I had an absolutely rock ‘n roll night that involved 2 ladies and pouring wine in the “f holes” of my hollow body guitar. In that room, it occurred to me that I had been selfish with the wine all those years and had never offered any to her (my guitar). We wrote all these songs together, and I had never offered, so I did. We were trying to re-create the night Gram died, but changed the end of the story, where he lived and just had a better night, ya know? I didn’t have a “ghost encounter.” Just wrote a ton of songs. Maybe I co-wrote them with his presence, but we were just trying to have a good time and reverse the damaging negative behavior.

I know people come to the inn for many reasons, some even come to “talk to Gram’s ghost.”  Although Parsons was a brilliantly talented and creative musician who dedicated his life to his craft, his trailblazing contributions were not widely recognized during his lifetime. By 1969, Parsons had ended his tenure with The Byrds and became close friends with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. That association seemed to start Parsons on a long, sad descent into drug and alcohol abuse. By the third week of September 1973, Parsons arrived at the Joshua Tree Inn with some friends to begin another of their drug-fueled retreats. What happened from the time of their arrival at the Inn until the last few moments of September 18th, when one of his companions noticed Parsons’ labored breathing and phoned for an ambulance, is unknown. All that is known for sure is that Gram Parsons was declared dead of an overdose less than an hour later.

Immediately following Parsons’ death, a veritable circus ensued; more than enough commotion to cause any spirit to become restless. Parsons’ stepfather claimed the young man’s body and arranged to have it shipped east for the funeral. Gram’s friends, however, felt that the musician would not have wanted this and, in as bizarre a heist as has ever been executed, they stole the casket containing Parsons’ corpse and took it back to the desert. There, in an attempt at cremation, they set fire to their friend’s body. Not surprisingly, the ill-conceived, illegal, and impromptu cremation was soon discovered, and charges were laid against Gram’s friends. What was left of the musician’s charred remains were sent back east to his family. Evidence of the influence of Gram Parsons as a ghost was probably first seen during the trial against Gram’s would-be cremators. The case came to court on November 5, 1973; the date that would have been Gram’s 27th birthday. Despite the seriousness of the charges brought against the deceased man’s friends, they only received fines and suspended sentences.

Since that time, the site where the men tried to dispose of Parsons’ body has become something of a cult shrine for young musicians who wish to honor Gram’s memory and his contributions to the world of music; and the Joshua Tree Inn has become a central meeting place for those who hope to commune with Gram’s spirit. Psychics who have visited the haunted Rooms 8 and 9 have come away with the definite impression of a spirit.

The Inn is laid out in a square horseshoe that provides privacy for all guests. All eleven rooms are on ground level, facing a desert courtyard and large pool. The decor is eccentrically eclectic and the whole facility is run on solar power. The service is accommodating and friendly, always on point. The merch is the best kept secret, especially the Room 8 keychain memento.

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