Ancient Rockers, Episode 4 … Gene Parsons

Contributed by Silverback Michael (Caspar Silverbacks)

Gene Parsons is an American drummer, banjo player, guitarist, singer-songwriter, and innovative engineer, best known for his work with The Byrds from 1968 to 1972. Parsons has also released solo albums and played in bands including Nashville West, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Parsons Green. Parsons is credited with inventing the B-Bender (also known as the StringBender) along with Clarence White and the device is often referred to as the Parsons/White B-Bender, a trademarked name.[1]

Gene Parsons was born on September 4, 1944 in Los Angeles, California and was raised on his family’s farm in the Mojave Desert, California.[2] His professional musical career began when he joined up with guitarist and Fiddle player Gib Guilbeau in the duo Guilbeau & Parsons.[3] Later the duo was joined by Clarence White, former guitarist with the Kentucky Colonels, and bassist Wayne Moore to form the band Nashville West, named after a club where the band often performed. [4]

After the dissolution of Nashville West, Parsons was brought in to The Byrds by his friend Clarence White, who had recently become the band’s guitarist, to replace previous drummer Kevin Kelley.[5] Parsons remained with the band for four years, principally as a drummer but he also contributed guitar, banjo, harmonica and a number of his own songs to the albums Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, Ballad of Easy Rider, (Untitled), Byrdmaniax and Farther Along.[6][2]

His first solo album, Kindling, was released in 1973 on Warner Bros. Records, after the disbandment of The Byrds.[3] Although Kindling received positive reviews in music publications such as Rolling Stone, it failed to reach the Billboard Top LPs & Tapes chart.[2][7] Following this, Parsons joined The Flying Burrito Brothers, like other ex-Byrds Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons and Michael Clarke had done before him.[2][8]

While he was a member of The Flying Burrito Brothers with ,Sneaky Pete Kleinow Chris Ethridge, Joel Scott Hill and Gib Gilbeau, Parsons contributed a number of songs to the band’s Flying Again and Airborne albums, including “Wind and Rain”, “Sweet Desert Childhood” and “Out of Control”. After his tenure with The Flying Burrito Brothers ended in 1978, Parsons released a second solo album in 1979 entitled Melodies.[2] Since the mid-1980s, he has also released two albums with his wife, California-based folk musician Meridian Green, under the moniker of Parsons Green.[9] A third solo album, this time a live recording, entitled In Concert – I Hope They’ll Let Us In was released by Parsons in 2001 on his own Stringbender record label.[3]

As well as his work with Nashville West, The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons has also played on records by Arlo Guthrie, The Everly Brothers, Randy Newman, The Gosdin Brothers, and Elliott Murphy.[3] He also collaborated with British singer-songwriter, Julian Dawson, in 2002, on the album Hillbilly Zen.[3] Additionally, Parsons was also part of the band Haywire (not to be confused with the Canadian band of the same name), along with Joe Craven, Bill Douglass and Will Siegel, and features on the band’s 1998 album, Bluegrass Christmas.[3]

Gene Parsons currently lives in Caspar, California, spending much of his time running his StringBender company and customizing guitars with his B-Bender device in his machine shop.

[Here’s your soundtrack for the rest of this post. Keep reading!]

Vi and Mag’s Bar and Grill
Yucca Valley, California 1960

by Gene Parsons, from

Fullar by the watertower.

Vi and Mag’s Bar and Grill was a low shed building that was constructed from various bits of lumber and salvaged material, a common design quite in keeping with the style of desert structures of that time. Vi and Maggie lived in back of the bar partly, and partly in an old trailer pulled under the cottonwood trees. There was a good well there and water was always seeping out of the tank in back where sweet mint grew like weeds. In the summer the cottonwood leaves made a stirring, rustling sound as they danced in the warm breeze like thousands of little wind chimes. The scent of the mint combined with the cool water on the coarse sand to produce an exotic, wonderful aroma.

And there were the flies! Flies of every shape, size and description. Flies with a low B-29 sound to them and flies with high pitched buzzes harmonizing with the yellow jacket’s mid-range propeller music. At times the air would be occupied by flying insects I believe still not identified by modern science!

Vi’s voice was like a brake shoe with no lining left rubbing mercilessly on a damaged drum. “Mag, if you don’t kill some of these goddamn flies I swear I’m gonna do sumthin’ drastic!” Maggie replies, “Every time I swat one of the little bustards ten more come to take his place!” Mag’s voice was a little more melodious. A brake shoe worn only down to the rivets.

“Good morning, young Parsons”, says Mag from the kitchen. “Are you joining us for breakfast this morning?” Inside Vi and Mag’s one was struck with the realization that this place was a bit like a museum. Everything was old. Not made to look old but really old, including the proprietors. The walls and ceilings were dark pine cabin lining with varnish older than God’s dog.

Over the mirror behind the ancient bar were hung dozens of rattle snake skins tacked down onto pieces of wood. There was a glass case displaying rattle snake rattlers of every variety: side-winder, diamond-back, and timber rattler. There were antique rifles, muskets, hand guns and bullets along with masses of memorabilia from World War One and Two. Bayonets and rifles, German, British and American canon shells, helmets, gas masks, medals, ribbons, and war posters.

Then there were the automotive items: Hub caps, hood ornaments, entire wheels, emblems, Chevy, Ford, Essex, Hudson, a radiator shell from a Model ‘T’ not to mention the moose head, cow skulls, horse blankets, spurs and bridles, feathers, arrow heads, wagon wheels and black-smith tools.

And down in the far right hand corner, upon a shelf of it’s very own, something really unusual, a television set. The only one in the entire valley. As near as any of us could tell it was pretty much useless because it rarely picked up anything more than snow and static. Sometimes during the summer, Vi’s granddaughters would come to visit and help Vi and Mag run the place. That was when I was certain this place was heaven.

Gene helmeted for welding
circa 1960

One day my friend Fullar and I decided to play a little prank on Vi. We always would complain to Vi about her coffee. We did it just to hear her cuss. It was all in fun. Vi knew we loved her dearly and we knew she was quite fond of us even though we aggravated her on occasion.

Gene (also known as Little Lem, and Young Parsons): ” Vi, you’ve got to do something about this coffee. It’s so strong it’s gonna rot out the bottom of these cups. God only knows what it’s doing to our stomachs.”

Vi: “You wouldn’t know a good cup of coffee if it bit you in the butt young Parsons!”

Fullar (also known as Swede): ” Are you sure you didn’t heat this coffee up from last week, Vi? This stuff is stiff enough to use for caulking.”

Vi: “You goddamn kids are just trying to get my goat! If you don’t like the coffee get the hell outta here and go somewhere else for your coffee! I’ll have you know that’s a fresh pot you’re drinkin’ right now and there ain’t nuthin’ wrong with it! It’s just you kids that complains. Everybody else seems to like it just fine! And you know I ain’t making no fortune serving coffee to the likes of you!”

Gene: “All right, all right! Vi pour me another cup of that glue. Please?!”

Vi: ” That’s it! Get outta here and leave me alone or I’ll bat the daylights outta you both!”

And so it went day after day, week after week. Until one day Fullar and I stole some of Vi and Maggie’s spoons. We took them next door to Dad’s shop while Dad was away for an hour or so. An acetylene torch is a wonderful tool in the hands of a person with a vision. We performed a little experiment on those spoons. We lit the torch and adjusted the flame so as to apply heat to the spoon in a controlled manner and with a gentle and brief blast of oxygen… Voila! The result was a spoon that had the bottom blown away. It had a nasty jagged look about it, as if it had spent some time half immersed in a vat of sulfuric acid, exactly the effect we were looking for.

Back to Vi and Maggie’s the next morning: Fullar while stirring his fresh cup of coffee suddenly called out with a gasp and a tone seemingly filled with horror, “My God! My spoon! The coffee!”

Vi’s curiosity took over as she walked over to the scene of the crime. “What in hell is your problem now, Fullar Johnson?” Vi looked at the spoon and flinched slightly. Then tilting her head back she squinted through the bottom of her bifocals and peered more intently at the jagged utensil. Fullar was holding the stricken object high now so everyone in the bar could see it. Some of the patrons faces displayed shock. Vi’s eyes were filled with horror as she focused on the cup of coffee and they widened even more as she looked up directly at Fullar.

“Jesus jumpin’ Christ! Did you drink ANY of this coffee?! My God! Maggie come out of the kitchen and look at this! There really IS something wrong with this coffee! Sweet Jesus!” In a low tone Vi said apologetically, “We made it same as we always do.” There wasn’t a sound for what seemed like an eternity. Vi’s expression of horrified embarrassment suddenly drained from her wrinkled face. She began to cast a steely cold gaze at us from over the top of her glasses. “You brats did sumthin’ to that goddamn spoon, didn’t you?”

By now Fullar and I couldn’t contain ourselves any longer. We were laughing until the tears were running down our cheeks. The more angry Vi became the harder we laughed until we were nearly paralyzed. Then Vi began to laugh. “You little bastards really had me going for a minute there. Someday I might just have to get even for that one. Hey! You better pay me for that spoon!”

Later on that year Fullar and I soldered a washer onto another of Vi and Mag’s spoons so that the spoon would stand up by itself in a cup of coffee without touching the side of the cup. The angle of lean had to be just right. After all this was true art. A spoon appearing to be immobilized by a thick, glue-like substance. Vi’s coffee. We waited for just the right time. Vi needed to be off her guard and fully recovered from the previous spoon incident. Fullar and I were in for our usual cup of coffee when I substituted one of Vi’s normal spoons for our little modified beauty. Fullar and I agreed that in a cup of coffee our spoon did look impressive. It really had the look of being captured by a thick, viscous liquid.

We did not want to draw immediate attention to this freak of physics or Vi would be on to us right away. We carried on our conversation as usual with an occasional comment not apparently directed at Vi about the quality and viscosity of the morning’s batch of bean nectar. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Vi listening to our conversation and rolling her eyes and shaking her head in disgust. Finally Vi walked over with the coffee pot in her hand. “More coffee, young Parsons?”

“Sure Vi, it couldn’t do that much more damage.” Vi grimaced and began pouring when she noticed the spoon suspended in the dark liquid. She paused for a moment. A quickly passing look of surprise come over her face. She looked me right in the eyes with that steely look. She held my eyes with hers for a moment then continued to fill my cup right up to the top. One more drop and it would have overflowed onto the counter. The spoon stood motionless, suspended. Everyone’s attention was captured. Vi slowly walked away not saying a word. Fullar and I, again with tears rolling down our cheeks, tried to suppress our laughter. From the end of the bar, the brake shoe voice said, “There’s another goddamn spoon you owe me for.”

…excerpted from Sweet Desert Childhood, by Gene Parsons

EXTRA: For guitar weenies, Gene explains how his StringBender came to be:

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