(Gram Parsons: privileged son of the South. Country-rock icon. Member of the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers. Esteemed solo artist. Doomed. Overdosed at 26. Body snatched. Body burned in Joshua Tree National Monument. Later recovered and ultimately interred in Metairie, Louisiana.
That’s the standard bio. Now we have the complete story. Florida’s Bob Kealing deftly shifts the spotlight from the macabre events that marked Parsons’ death, focusing instead on the artist’s musical birth in his recent book, “Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons And the Roots Of Country Rock” (Hardcover, 296 pages, University Press of Florida, October, 2012).
Kealing, an Emmy-winning reporter for WESH-TV in Orlando, has painstakingly tracked down the pivotal people and places that defined and established the charismatic, rising star. In this exclusive interview, Kealing speaks with BAMSouth.com Contributing Writer Charles Bailey about his serendipitous journey, which included visits to three of Parsons’ former homes, interviews with countless colleagues and friends of the young Gram, and jaw-dropping revelations that Kealing himself never saw coming. For the very first time, the full portrait of Gram Parsons emerges in this vital new biography. Parsons fans, and music aficionados in general, have a bounty of illumination and discovery awaiting them within the pages of “Calling Me Home.”)
BAMSOUTH.com: What sparked your interest in Gram Parsons? Living in Florida, what did you hear first—his name or his music?
KEALING: I’m interested in all things pre-Disney history in this region. Greater Orlando is largely known as a tourism destination. As it is the driving force in our economy locally, there’s nothing wrong with that. But people visiting, whether it be from Mississippi, Alabama, New York or London for that matter, should also know that our pre-Disney history is filled with rich culture and vibrant characters. Gram Parsons is one of them. He is a child of the South and his music reflects that. Frankly, I don’t recall whether I heard his name or music first, but I do recall thinking his life story was right out of a Faulkner novel.
BAMMSOUTH.com: What was the initial industry reaction to the proposal of another Gram Parsons book? You must have grown tired of explaining that this book would take a vastly different approach from those that came before it.
KEALING: I knew early on I would be offering a different take on the Parsons story. My publisher at UPF (University Press of Florida) gave me a wide berth to see where serendipity led. Yes, there have been others who groaned initially at the thought of another Parsons bio. But this is a literary journey through the South. And influential music journalists like Peter Cooper and Holly George-Warren have validated what is new and different about Calling Me Home.
BAMSOUTH.com: How did you map-out the musical journey of the young Gram Parsons? Did you connect the dots before you began the interviews—or, like dominoes falling—did one interview lead to the next?
KEALING: I had a sense that I wanted to explore more fully the Southern locales where Gram lived, learned and made history. But this is not a “Gram Parsons early years book” per se. You have to remember, later in his career, Gram made historic recordings and played landmark shows in Nashville, Austin, and Houston. Yes, one interview lead to the next. But the last one—Gram’s niece in Gulf Shores Alabama—was the most important. She gave me access to her Mom’s (Gram’s sister’s) memoirs which have never been published. Those are poignant and revealing.
BAMSOUTH.com: In the Acknowledgments section, you write that, “The best part of journalism is the journey.” Any estimation of the number of miles you logged along this journey? This book was, what, three years in the making?
KEALING: The book was actually six years in the making. There were a lot of miles but I didn’t count them. I had my road buddy and photographer Mike Robinson there for most of them. The trips to Waycross, Georgia, where Gram grew up were the most memorable. There’s a definitive, gothic feel to Waycross which is hard to describe.
BAMSOUTH.com: You met some folks who obviously continue to hold a soft spot for Gram. Others, not so much. Some artists who knew him peg his “legend” to the “live fast, die young” credo, along with the surreal events that occurred after he died. There seems to be a lot of underlying resentment with some people, and a lot of love and affection among others.
KEALING: I think those two factors are tied together. I met artists who worked tirelessly for most of their lives for the kind of fame they believe Gram received merely for the morbid body-snatching incident. My motive was not to in any way further glorify that sad event or contribute to this pointless deification of Gram that seems to go on at Joshua Tree. Artists who had been hesitant to talk about Gram because of this responded when I told them up front this book would not be hero worship. My aim was to explore the music and influences of the South on him. On the other hand, I think Gram more so than other great artists who died young has been over-villified for doing so. If time has taught us anything in the ensuing decades, it’s to blame the addiction, not the addicted. I told Margaret Fisher I wasn’t interested in hearing all the grim details about witnessing Gram’s death. That’s when she uttered such a memorable response: “Imagine being defined by the worst day of your life.” In many ways, I think Gram has too, thanks to the constant regurgitation of the sadness and madness of Joshua Tree. That’s old news.
BAMSOUTH.com: Let’s spotlight some of the more pivotal members of what I’ll call the “Southern Wave” of artists who migrated West, and North, in the late-’60s and early-’70s. Who are some of the artists who stand atop the Southern Wave in your opinion? We have Gram (from Winter Haven and Waycross), Chris Ethridge of Meridian, and Emmylou Harris of Birmingham, who was actually lured West by Gram. Who else stands out to you?
KEALING: All those artists you mentioned. I would add the great James Burton from Louisiana, who headed West earlier. Bernie Leadon, who played in so many pivotal country rock bands, has roots in Gainesville, Florida. Tom Petty. Gregg and Duane Allman, Dicky Betts, the Skynyrd crew, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Buffet, Van Dyke Parks. Levon Helm. The list is endless really.
BAMSOUTH.com: And Jim Stafford, Stephen Stills, Fred Neil, Michael Nesmith…on and on. And all of these people earned varying degrees of mainstream success, except for one: Gram Parsons. Something that sticks with me from your book is the phrase “throwaway kids.” Gram seemingly wasn’t wanted at home, and was basically dropped off at the Bolles School in Florida. Despite his considerable gifts—charm, charisma, unique voice and vision, talent galore—after he graduated from the Shilos, he became a “throwaway artist” in a sense. The Byrds’ crowd wasn’t interested. The Grand Ole Opry audience turned its back. The Flying Burrito Brothers never attracted a large following. And his magnificent solo albums were virtually ignored. Valid point? If that was the case, he had to carry a ton of depression and bewilderment, along with a sort of aimless feeling, through his adult years, and that had to contribute toward his “giving up” and finding deep solace in drugs and alcohol.
BAMSOUTH.com: No, I don’t think the parallel is apt about Gram being a throwaway artist. By the time he got out to the West Coast he was drinking and using, and his addictions undermined many important personal and professional relationships. He just didn’t have the discipline or work ethic necessary to make a success of himself in the music business. Or perhaps the patience. The Byrds were way ahead of their time, as was the notion of a rock and roll group playing the Opry. Gram’s early losses always gave him a fatalistic view of the world. Toward the end of his life, Gram lost Clarence White, he lost his house in a fire, he lost Brandon DeWilde and he lost a relationship with (stepfather) Bob Parsons. But Gram was on a high note at the end. Margaret Fisher told me he kept playing (second solo album) “Grievous Angel” over and over because he thought it was going to be his big breakthrough.
BAMSOUTH.com: It’s like he turned heads and made a major impact everywhere he found himself—the ‘Youth Center’ era, Bolles, Harvard, the New York club scene…everywhere except the proverbial “Big Time.” Out West, he was overlooked while others achieved success.
KEALING: I don’t think Gram’s music was as commercially viable as some of the Country-politan stuff that became hits. People didn’t have enough time to get what he was doing before he was gone, but certainly Emmylou (Harris) had a ton of hits carrying on Gram’s vision.
BAMSOUTH.com: What was the actual publication date of the book, and what has the response been like? Has it interrupted your work with WESH-TV in Orlando, or are you managing to keep both balls in the air? And where can readers find “Calling Me Home?”
KEALING: The book was released in October, 2012, and our big rollout was at the Country Music Hall of Fame museum store in November. The reception there and the reviews have been very generous. It’s very gratifying. The book has not interrupted my work at WESH-TV in any way. I do book-signings on weekends and promotion in my spare time. I always ask readers to ask for Calling Me Home at their local, independent bookstore. It’s everywhere books are sold, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
BAMSOUTH.com: Once you completed the work, did you come away with a different impression of Gram Parsons? For me, he seemed more of a fictional character before reading “Calling Me Home.” Now, he’s a fully-realized, in-the-flesh individual, with both crippling flaws and phenomenal talent. But more importantly, he’s “one of many” to me now when it comes to the talent. He was surrounded by very bright, capable, driven musicians, most of whom left a more immediate mark on the music industry. Gram’s recognition came much, much later.
KEALING: Yes, Gram was a prescient young artist who always found a way to surround himself with talented players. One of the very first sidemen he ever hired, at 16, was another teen in his community, Bobby Braddock. His final recordings were made with the likes of James Burton and Emmylou Harris. Gram’s lineage of addiction and family tragedy left him damaged and ultimately doomed. One could certainly argue he made that doom a self-fulfilling prophecy. But Gram had many redeeming qualities. The steadfast love of his friends and fans is evidence of that. Heaven knows his recordings are highly regarded. Also, Emmylou’s induction in the Country Music Hall of Fame alone is validation of Gram’s legacy.
BAMSOUTH.com: Of all the physical locations you visited, do any in particular stick out far and above the others? I would think City Auditorium in Waycross, where a nine-year-old Gram—correct me if I’m wrong—saw Elvis Presley, members of The Carter Family, and the Louvin Brothers perform; it must have been riveting. Also, were you allowed to tour the Snively Mansion in Winter Haven? If so, what’s that place like? From your photo, it looks larger than Graceland.
KEALING: Oddly, the Snively mansion held few vibrations. I was surprised. Perhaps because it has been used for so many purposes since it belonged to the Snivelys, it just felt sterile. On the other hand, Gram’s home on Piedmont Drive was special, especially when I took Jim Carlton for his first trip back inside the house in 45 years. The memories came flooding back for him, and I could feel it as well. City Auditorium with Charlie Louvin and Bob Buchanan was magic. I could imagine young Elvis on the stage driving all the kids crazy. Discovering Ernie Garrison’s forgotten home sound studio was also very special. Also, having my photo taken on Gram’s first boyhood stage in Waycross was unforgettable.
BAMSOUTH.com: Some people believe that the Eagles took what Gram and his friends were doing and simply commercialized it, created plastic, phony, safe songs that the radio could embrace, and were ultimately seen as some sort of “pioneering” country-rock band. To others, the Eagles saw something unique and worked very hard to hone and perfect it, and were duly rewarded for their hard work. What’s your position on the Eagles? Are they legitimate peers of Gram Parsons, or simply pretenders?
KEALING: Bernie Leadon helped start the Eagles on a commercially-viable path to country rock riches. By the end of the decade they had morphed into something far less recognizable. I don’t regard much of anything they did after 1977 as in any way resembling the music they turned out early on. I’m sure that’s a good part of why Bernie left—he could see what was coming. I think the Eagles turned out some pretty good Countrypolitan music in the early- and mid-’70s. It’s really up to others to judge whether it compares to what Gram was doing and his vision. But I don’t fault them for their success.
BAMSOUTH.com: Pamela Des Barres has talked about Gram spanning a canyon, with ‘country squares’ on one side and “rock freaks” on the other, and bringing both sides together in smoky clubs to hear this new sound. That happened on certain nights, no doubt about it. But do you think he actually solidified that sort of cross-pollination? I sometimes think Gram’s greatest achievement was the birth of the Outlaw Movement, which shunned the traditional “Nashville Sound” with artists like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon, Willie, Jerry Jeff Walker, and many others. That, to a great degree, is perhaps his true legacy: “You can grow your hair, be yourself, and still be true to country music.”
KEALING: Pam was definitely onto something. I think one of Gram’s greatest legacies is this notion of trying to span a cultural chasm that existed between the rock and country crowds in the late ’60s when the Byrds recorded Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It helped the two sides find common ground, and some wonderful music resulted from artists who followed a path Gram helped forge.
BAMSOUTH.com: Certainly you set out on this journey with a distinct vision. Crystallize for our readers what it is that you wanted to achieve, and talk about the moments where you exceeded your expectations. Will there be additional Gram Parsons books in your future?
KEALING: I feel very satisfied with “Calling Me Home.” Not long ago I had a standing-room-only crowd of 200 come to my book lecture and a call to preserve what used to be Gram’s little teen club downtown. Ideas are being discussed. My hope was to take the spotlight off the sad and terrible events of Joshua Tree and shine a brighter light on the uncommonly musical places in the South which gave rise to Gram, Emmylou, Chris Ethridge and many others, without whom contemporary music would sound far different. I hoped to find some redemption in the Gram Parsons story. Thanks to his timeless and transformative music, I think I found it. But ultimately, that’s for the reader to decide.
(Charles Bailey is a writer and professional journalist who lives in Brandon, MS with his wife and son. He is a native of Jackson, MS.)
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