Gram Parsons / Austin Steel Guitarist Neil Flanz Has Died

There are few tours that are more legendary to the history of country music than the six-week tour that Gram Parsons embarked on in 1973 behind his album GP. Yes, there were certainly bigger tours with higher grossing receipts, or tours that featured a more scintillating lineup. But when it comes to sowing influence, few top it. Accompanied by Emmylou Harris and a band called The Fallen Angels, it was the rock world’s introduction to country, and it was the country world’s introduction to Emmylou Harris.

Hand selected for the band by Gram’s road manager Phil Kaufman was steel guitarist Neil Flanz, who was assigned the critical task of introducing the beauty of the instrument to a mostly rock audience. Along with Kyle Tullis on bass, N.D. Smart on drums, and Jock Bartley on lead guitar, the tour snaked across the United States, playing the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, TX, and was joined by Neil Young and Linda Rhonstadt in Houston among many other legendary spots and moments between February and March of 1973, making believers out of attendees, despite the band barely practicing before starting the tour, and the inconsistent performance of Gram himself, who would be dead by September.

Neil Flanz recalls the tour as one of the most exciting parts of his career with “thousands of cheering young long haired fans being introduced to country for the first time … rushing up to the stage just to touch us.” It also resulted in the recording Live: 1973 taped in Long Island, New York. Along with Gram’s languid disposition and Emmylou’s harmonies from those recordings, many took away the steel guitar playing of Neil Flanz as foundational to their love of country music.

But Neil Flanz wasn’t a 70’s country rock icon, he was a staunch traditionalist originally from Montreal, Canada who had been playing behind country artists for a decade at that point. Born June 22nd, 1938, he grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, and enjoying the music of artists such as Canadian cowboy singer Wilf Carter, first learning guitar at the age of 13, and moving to the steel guitar by the time he was 17. Playing with whomever he could in eastern Canada, he recorded two albums of steel guitar music, Neil Flanz and His Nashville Steel in 1962, and Get on the Star Route in 1964.

While playing at the Country Palace in Montreal, Neil Flanz had the opportunity to back up primary Gram Parsons influence Charlie Louvin. Along with his steel guitar albums, this Louvin connection helped spread the word about Flanz down south, and he eventually moved to Nashville where he regularly played behind Louvin, along with other artists such as Billy Walker, Jean Shepard, including on the Grand Ole Opry stage, while also working as a session guitarist and playing in The Kelly Rogers Breed.

After touring with Gram Parsons, Neil Flanz relocated to Austin briefly, and played with the Bronco Brothers, which was a traditional country outfit that included Marcia Ball. But eventually he ended up back in Nashville playing regular local gigs with Peppertree (prev. The Kelly Rogers Breed), as well as holding a residency at a place called Deeman’s Den where artists such as Johnny Paycheck, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, and “Little” Jimmy Dickens would sit in.

It was in 1980 when Joe Sun offered to make Neil Flanz his full-time steel guitarist, and he hit the road once again, playing all around the world, including a gig on Austin City Limits. Over time, Austin seemed like the place Neil Flanz ultimately belonged, and that’s where he ended up after permanently relocating there from Florida in 2004. A mentor, instructor, and elder in Austin’s country music scene, Flanz played in the band of Alvin Crow and others, and was also a long-time member of the country outfit Fingerpistol.

“Neil Flanz, who has been Fingerpistol’s beloved pedal steel player for the last decade, died last night,” the band posted on Friday, December 3rd, making Neil’s official date of death December 2nd, 2021. “His passing was peaceful. He was in the company of close friends … and listening to his favorite music. He will be dearly missed by all of us.”

Neil Flanz, his ties to Gram Parsons and the Grand Ole Opry, and to Austin music throughout his career made him a living legend, admired by fans and his fellow musicians alike. He was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 2016.

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