Photograph by Jerry Atnip

Photograph by Jerry Atnip

Phil Kaufman: A Life in Front and Behind Bars

If you are ever lucky enough to be invited to Phil Kaufman’s house be prepared to stay awhile. The man is a living legend with stories and anecdotes about his life on the road that will keep you laughing and guessing all at the same time. Did he really steal his best friend Gram Parsons’ body from the LAX airport? Did he really share a cell with Charles Manson? Is he really almost 80 years old? Yes, yes, and yes. As the “Road Mangler Deluxe” Kaufman has worked for the very best in the music business, including Emmylou Harris, The Rolling Stones, Etta James, Frank Zappa, Elizabeth Cook, and, of course, Gram Parsons. We spent the afternoon with him in East Nashville and couldn’t resist asking him . . .

What possessed you to steal Gram Parsons’ body?
It was a promise I made to him. He said if anything happened to him to take his body out to Joshua Tree. He died and I took his body out there. I kept the promise.

What characteristics do you most like about yourself?
I’m funny and corny, part Irish part Jewish. I’ve got that vaudeville blood in me. Got it from my father.

And what do you like least?
I’m short and sometimes I get lazy . . . but only sometimes.

What was the last book you read?
Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn. The definitive account of the beast.

Who would you most like to meet?
Tony Bennett. I’ve always been a fan. Count Basie, Frank Sinatra. Love those guys.

What about you would most surprise people?
What you see the first time you meet me is it. Won’t get any better after that.

What are you going to be when you grow up?
No idea; I’m still working on it. I’m 79 but I don’t believe it. The body is old, but I’m not.

Who has most inspired you?
Jack Beckett, out in L.A., took me under his wing and showed me every aspect of filmmaking. His father lit Citizen Kane. Gram Parsons taught me there was music other than jazz. He exposed me and Keith Richards to real country.

What music do you listen to?
I love jazz—Errol Garner, the big bands, the standards. My dad was a piano player, played in a big band.

How do you feel about today’s country music?
It’s not country music. It’s a lot of image and little substance. They need a new name for it. Too bad Pablum is taken. I told Tony Brown, “If the hat fits, sign ‘em.”  

What are you most proud of?
I have a lot of friends that I have never met. People introduce themselves to me. I’ve done well. I’m not wealthy, but that’s OK.

Why Nashville?
I came here because Emmylou Harris came here. Everyone in her band moved here.

How do you feel about the explosive growth of Nashville?
My favorite bumper sticker is Welcome to Nashville. Now go home.

What do you like most about the city?
It’s user friendly and boozer friendly, even though I don’t drink anymore. The Southern attitude is conducive to niceness.

Are you happy with where you’re heading?
I’m OK with it. I’m still looking for gigs. Would be nice to have a little more money so I could retire. But it’s all good.

What’s your mantra?
Keep on trucking, and I hope my Social Security doesn’t run out too soon.

What has kept you young at heart?
Motorcycles and young women.

What’s it like being you these days?
It’s good. I’m going to be 80 next year. I’m still riding my Harley. The guys I grew up with are old men. I don’t believe my birth certificate.

What talent would you most like to have?
I’d like to play the piano like my dad.

What is your most treasured possession?
My dog Gladys and my dad’s World War II jacket.

What is your greatest regret?
You won’t believe this now but when I was young I was a bit shy, afraid of rejection, and I missed out on a lot of opportunities in theatre and in film because of that.

Any other regrets?
Yeah, leaving Emmylou’s gig and getting married to number four.

What film have you seen recently?
I saw Grand Theft Parsons. It was OK. Johnny Knoxville plays me. They took some poetic license with it. I love the old
black-and-whites; don’t need color to tell a great story.

To order a copy of Phil Kaufman’s book Road Mangler Deluxe, email him at

Phil Kaufman shows off the hair on his chest. Photograph by Jerry Atnip

Phil Kaufman shows off the hair on his chest. Photograph by Jerry Atnip

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