As we approach the 40th anniversary of Gram and Emmylou’s final, historic recording session for the Grievous Angel record, this is a good time to revisit our 2013 celebration of Gram and his music in his birthplace, Winter Haven, Florida.
While presenting my book, Calling Me Home, Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock at the Winter Haven Public Library, I was honored to have as special guests his one-time band mate, confidante, record producer and scholar Jim Carlton. Another former band mate who played alongside Gram virtually his entire career on some historic recordings, Jon Corneal also joined us and spoke. From the standing-room-only crowd came some wonderful questions, comments and surprises. Several members of Gram’s mother’s family, the Snivelys, were also kind enough to join us.
As an added feature, after the lecture, question and answer period, and book signing, attendees were invited to make the short walk down the street to the warehouse that used to be home to Gram’s teen club, the Derry Down. On a chilly day, Jim Carlton was kind enough to share his never-released recording of Gram and his folk band the Shilos playing live in that very building December 20, 1964. Also, special thanks to Winter Haven entrepreneur Carl Strang and the Strang family for opening the building to us. In addition, this entire event would not have been possible without the tireless dedication of GP enthusiast, Gene Owen.
Our hope is to see some sort of historic preservation in downtown Winter Haven incorporating the legacy of so many musicians and entertainers like Gram, Jim and Jon who came out of this uncommonly musical region in the 1960s. — Bob Kealing
I became interested in Gram Parsons’ story because it has such an obvious link to central Florida’s rich music history and yet no one seemed to be talking about that aspect of it.
As I researched Gram Parsons I found an uncommon amount of cynicism, revisionism and self-aggrandizing hype. Much of it centered on the tragic and unfortunate series of events surrounding his premature death at 26.
I also read a lot about how he threw his life and talent away because of how he died and his lack of a work ethic. The spoiled grandson of millionaire Winter Haven citrus magnate John Snively who never knew hard times and had a constant golden stream of trust fund money to fall back on. I read about how Gram Parsons grew up in a life of Southern privilege and mansions and didn’t have to suffer or struggle for success. Much of that is also untrue.
I heard a well-known musician from these parts say Gram couldn’t sing, play or write. Oh really.
Bottom line, I found that people seemed to resent Parsons’ posthumous fame because of how he got it. And many judge him harshly for dying young. Far more harshly than the likes of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Amy Winhouse or Curt Kobain.
Historians call Gram’s music California Rock or Country Rock and yet they seem to gloss over where it really came from — the South, central Florida, right here in Polk County. And in a way it’s our collective fault for not doing a better job of letting people know about the rich and wonderful contributions central Florida in general and Polk County in particular have made to the world of contemporary music and entertainment. We let our rich cultural heritage be overshadowed by all things tourism.
Bottom line, I was looking for some sort of redemption in Gram Parsons’ story. Less about the hype and sensationalism and more about the rich fabric of the definitive places he called home, the people with whom he played and those who carry on his legacy. That’s why I wanted this book to be a song of the South. Gram’s story rooted in places like Winter Haven and Waycross… not LA and Joshua Tree, California. More about the music and his influences, less about his persona as the drug-addled cosmic cowboy. I in no way desired to contribute the mythology surrounding this “legend” of Gram Parsons, which I think is nonsense.
The book is not and was never meant to be hero worship. I wanted it to be straightforward literary journalism with a distinct flavor of the special places that gave rise to so many important musicians and entertainers.
Gram was like Forest Gump. He always seemed to be in an interesting music scene at an important time. That’s what I was interested in exploring in greater depth; I daresay this approach is why important people in Gram’s life and career opened up. As a result there are many revelations and surprises in this book. And it gives me great pause being here in Winter Haven telling this story at all knowing how much many of you already know and contributed to this story in the first place.
What I have to offer is perspective. And in my view, the minute Emmylou Harris was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008, it was a line in the sand. A validation of the regressive country and rock vision of her mentor Gram Parsons. And I have to tell you, when I rolled out this book at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in November, and heard Gram’s music echoing through its hallowed halls that day, I knew I was on track. And I strongly believe it is just a matter of time before Gram joins Emmylou in that vaunted circle of Country music legends in the Hall of Fame. I’m also supporting an online petition effort to make that happen, now more than eight thousand signatures strong.
It’s certainly fair to ask, what’s the big deal about this guy? He never had a hit song, in fact it’s quite likely you’ve never heard one of his songs on the radio. His albums didn’t sell that well. So why would Rolling Stone vote him one of the top 100 artists of all time? Why are his solo records with Emmylou blending old school country with contemporary rock lyrics and attitude regarded as five star classics? Early on in the book, I try to answer that question:
Right at the front of the book I chose this wonderful black and white photo of 19-year-old Gram and a quote from one of his freshman classmates at Harvard. It goes like this.
“Up close, Parsons looked, to my own sophomore eyes, remarkably self-possessed and confident. He was lean with longish dark hair. He was good looking and cool. Holding my books, I felt a certain amount of awe and more envy that a contemporary could be so far along that road to the American Dream we grew up on: the path to being Elvis.”
That quote helped me realize the enormity of the impact young Elvis had on youth like Gram, who when he was nine years old saw Presley at City Auditorium in Waycross. That experience changed his life. From that point nothing else mattered; Gram was going to be a musician and blaze a path to music stardom.
And when I looked more closely at the concert Gram saw that February evening in 1956, I realized what a constellation of stars he saw that night. And how that would never, ever happen in a small southern town today.
Gram and his little sister Avis enjoyed the benefits of being from a monied upper middle class family in Waycross until 1958. Gram had recently been sent away to a boarding school for young men, the Bolles school in Jacksonville, at the time a military school with daily drills and marching which I’m sure an independent kid who enjoyed music had to hate.
There was trouble in his parents’ marriage leading to a tragic event at the end of that year, people still speculate about today — the loss of Gram’s biological father Cecil “Coondog” Connor. Fortunately, Gram niece Avis Johnson Bartkus, was kind enough to open up to me about that tragedy. She also gave me access to her mother’s unpublished memoirs. Some of them are wrenching. This gave me a never before published source on Coondog Connor’s loss from his daughter’s — Gram’s sister’s — perspective.
It was Christmas 1958:
“I did not cry, for mother said I must be brave,” she wrote. “Nobody could comfort me. Nobody knew how. Coondog should have left instructions, but he didn’t, so I was left to find comfort from somewhere inside myself: Dear God please make Daddy come back. But mother said he’d never come back so I revised my prayer: Dear God please bless Daddy and tell him to wait for me.”
For Gram it was a period of extreme anguish. While he was away at school the man he looked up to and counted on was gone with little explanation. He found little comfort at Bolles and became such a disciplinary problem he was essentially dismissed and did not return. His friends say Gram developed a fatalistic view on life and told them he expected to die young. This episode is one example of why I bristle when people refer to Gram as a spoiled trust fund kid who never knew hard times.
After the loss of Coondog, it’s as if the Connors of Waycross evaporated. Gram’s mom Big Avis moved them to Winter Haven to start over. Within months she caught the eye of New Orleans businessman and bon vivant Bob Parsons. As the two pursued their romance, Gram became more and more immersed in music. It was his lifeline.
He could not have found a better place than Winter Haven.
Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter Bobby Braddock as many of you know also grew up in Polk County, just down the road in Auburndale. I quoted from his memoir “Down In Orburndale” because I found his description of growing up here in this era so apt:
“In my memory, the music was everywhere as if it were being piped in through the trees and coming up from the cracks in the sidewalks. Rock and Roll was the music of the young and we couldn’t imagine ourselves or the music ever growing old… Because I had fallen in love with country music, my favorite rock and roll was by the artists who had country roots, such as the Everly Brothers or Jerry Lee Lewis. I think I loved music so much that one kind of music… wasn’t enough for me.”
Across Florida, Elvis especially had been the Johnny Appleseed of rock and roll, playing historic shows at the Polk Theater in Lakeland in 1956 along with cities big and small across the peninsula. That helped fuel the rise of garage bands everywhere scores of young people saw becoming like Elvis the path the fame fortune and most of all GIRLS. Fortunately for young teens, even at an early age there was an important incubator to develop their talents: They could tour regionally, get paid to play and become better live performers thanks to what I call the Youth Center Circuit. From Auburndale to Zephyr Hills, Kissimmee to Mount Dora, Winter Haven to Daytona Beach to Orlando, this circuit may well be Florida’s most important and unsung musical tradition.
Important artists on the rise here in Polk County included Gram, Jim Stafford, Jim Carlton, John Corneal, Bobby Braddock, Carl and Jesse Chambers, Kent Lavioe and Les Dudek, and a constellation of others played the Peninsula in great garage bands such as We the People, the Dynamics, the Legends, the Starfires, the Tropics, the Outlaws, Tin House, the Purple Underground. Duane and Gregg Allman over in Daytona were in the Escorts, Don Felder and Stephen Stills played Palatka as the Continentals, later Don and Bernie Leadon were in the Maundy Quintet. Little Tommy Petty cut his teeth in Gainesville with the Sundowners and Mudcrutch.
These youth centers were so hip, older teens were known to get fake ids to prove they were YOUNG enough to get in. In those days, locally owned radio stations put out their own top 40 charts where these teen groups might have a hit right up there with their nationally known heroes and even get to open for them when they passed through town.
Even before Gram was old enough to drive his parents bought him a touring bus to go from gig to gig. In 1962, the Legends opened up for a breakout teen artist Bruce Channel whose hit “Hey Baby” rocketed to the top of the charts. Later that year in Europe, another unknown regional act, the Beatles, opened up for Channel and his young harmonica player, Delbert McClinton.
These teen acts could gain more regional popularity by appearing on central Florida’s version of American bandstand, WFLA-TV Tampa’s Hi-Time show. The weatherman Jack Stirr acted as host, the kids would get all dressed up, far more than they do today. We’re talking jackets and ties, to appear on the show. The Legends, the Dynamics, and a number of other groups who were regulars on that show from the early 60s owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Carl Chambers. On his website Dizzyrambler.com he has a remarkable gallery of one-of-a-kind performances he recorded off the television. And because his old reel to reel tapes started to fall apart, he made sure to digitize those early performances now more than a half century old. His recordings of the Legends represent the earliest surviving Gram Parsons live performance. In one of the recordings, Gram and Jesse Chambers share harmonies in the Everly’s “Let It Be Me.” I strongly encourage you to visit Carl’s wonderful site which I found to be a definitive primer for this region’s rich music history of the 60s and 70s.
I mentioned how these groups might have their own hits on the local charts. That’s because of a man named Ernie Garrison who was a sound engineer at his local church in Lakeland. Ernie ran his own sound recording service and made acetate records for kids like Gram. In the book one of the discoveries we made was finding where Gram cut his earliest known record, and here it is (shows record).
In about 1963, sixteen-year-old Gram sent this acetate to Jim. It’s funny, even at this early stage, Gram had already started hiring sidemen to record with him. And from the small world department, one of the earliest was none other than Bobby Braddock who was doing gigs around central Florida as a professional musician and a highly regarded one at that. To think, Braddock would go on to write classics such as “He Stopped Loving Her Today” for the man Gram later idolized as one of the authentic performers of white man’s blues, George Jones.
The A side of this record is a song called “Big Country,” written by Jay Erwin, co-owner of Casswin Music in Lakeland. It’s an example of Gram’s early explorations of folk music. Right next door to Casswin Music a Florida Southern student named Rick Norcross opened the first coffee house in this area known as the Other Room. By ’63 folk had swept America with groups like the Kingston Trio, New Christy Minstrels, and the Journeymen. Florida had great folkies like Fred Neil, Vince Martin, David Crosby, Gamble Rogers, even an unknown Joni Mitchell was discovered by Crosby at the Gaslight South coffee house in Coconut Grove.
Gram met and joined a group of three South Carolina folkies known as the Shilos and performed numerous concerts. One of the group members Paul Surratt told me the first time Gram sang with them it was as if their three or four voices sounded like six or ten. It was a moment frozen in time for Paul because it was so memorable, so indelible.
But Gram had gotten so immersed in music he flunked out of Winter Haven High. That forced his return to the Bolles School in Jacksonville. Only this time it was no longer military and had morphed in to a more traditional liberal arts, highly regarded college prep school. Gram thrived in this environment. His grades came up, he immersed himself in acting and music, and he hosted his own hootenanny type radio show. In the summer of 1964, the Shilos traveled to America’s folk mecca of the time, Greenwich Village. At the Night Owl, the Shilos so impressed a young British singer he sent a note up to the stage congratulating them. Gram didn’t know who he was and discarded the message from Eric Burdon, who was a few months from his smash hit with the Animals, “House of the Rising Sun.”
The Shilos also met up and stayed with a singer whose group, the Journeymen, were like mentors. In my book, Joe Kelly of the Shilos told me about sleeping on Journeyman John Phillips floor as he and his young wife Michelle were working on new songs which would later become Mamas and Papas’ classics.
Phillips also helped get the Shilos an audition in front of Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman who was impressed enough to sign the young folk quartet… until he found out they were still a bunch of school kids and sent them packing.
Back at Bolles, Gram wrote a letter to one of the Shilos backup singers, Marilyn Garrett, about their time in the Village. Thanks to Marilyn who shared this and a group of other letters from Gram during this period, we have his unfiltered thoughts and ambitions.
Tragedy struck again on Gram’s graduation day from Bolles. He found out that very day his mother Avis died from cirrhosis of the liver. There’s a controversy about her death that I’m sure many of you are aware of. I examine this in detail in the book. But again it’s an example of how Gram hardly led this carefree rich kid’s life.
On the positive side, Gram had achieved enough in the two years after flunking out of Winter Haven High, and people such as his academic adviser Rufus McClure and his step father Bob Parsons pulled enough strings to help Gram gain admission to Harvard.
By the summer of ’65, the Beatles had taken America, the Byrds electrified folk music with their smash Mr. Tambourine Man, even Dylan plugged in. Gram said goodbye to the Shilos and took off for Greenwich Village again. Only this time, many of the musicians he’d met and hung out with had headed for the West Coast. Gram realized his musical ambitions had to change.
Back home in Winter Haven, Gram visited his old friend Jim Stafford who had been in Nashville pursuing his own music dreams. Jim was kind enough to take us back to his parents very living room, where the two young men had a very fateful conversation that summer of ’65, just before Gram headed to Harvard:
“He was a little disenchanted. He was in a turning point clearly,” Stafford recalled. “I just blurted it out without thinking about it at all. I just said why don’t you let your hair grow long and do country music? And you could be. I remember saying the words. A country Beatle. You could be a country Beatle. I was thinking of more of a gimmick for him. It never occurred to me that you could change music. You could do rock plus country.”
But Stafford could see a glimmer in Gram from that suggestion. “He kind of perked up. I think he liked it.”
In this book, you will read about Gram’s journey to Harvard and see a group of never before published photos of his time there taken by a photographer for Life magazine. His move to New York. His touring days back here in Florida. And his move to California where Gram recruited some of his early musician buddies from Florida to make the first, historic country rock record, “Safe at Home” by his group the International Submarine Band.
You will hear how Gram made another historic trip to Florida and Coconut Grove, wrote two important songs including his standard “Hickory Wind” and brought them along when he was hired at twenty one years old by the most influential American band of the 1960s, Roger McGuinn and the Byrds. Indeed Gram came very close to realizing Jim Stafford’s important advice. Gram Parsons became a Country Byrd recording Sweetheart of the Rodeo in Nashville and with the Byrds becoming the first rock band to perform on the most important stage in the South, The Grand Ol’ Opry.
In the book we follow Gram through his years with America’s archetypical band, the Flying Burrito Brothers. We’re there with him when he leaves the band to hang with Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones in the south of France.
In a matter-of-fact, non-glorified way, we examine how his addictions undermined many of the important personal and business relationships Gram had. And you’ll read how Gram hit the lottery when former band mates suggest he check out this unknown girl folk singer from suburban Virginia, Emmylou Harris.
We examine Gram and Emmylou’s recordings, GP and Grievous Angel. The book has primary source memories from musicians who toured with Gram and Emmylou as the Fallen Angels. Their landmark live shows in Texas helped establish the early Outlaw Country movement made popular by Willie and Waylon and the boys. It’s amazing to think despite all the classic music and memories made by Gram and Emmylou Harris, and how his mentoring put her on a course for the Country Music Hall of Fame career she enjoyed, the two only worked together on and off for about nine months.
And of course, we look at Gram’s early exit from this world. But you will not find a retelling of all the sordid details of the theft of his body and the failed de facto cremation done by his road manager. Some say it was a selfish cruel act, others say it was a fitting send off true to Gram’s outlaw nature. That episode, which did gain Gram a great deal of posthumous fame, in ensuing years has trivialized his important accomplishments as a visionary in contemporary music. And I felt there had to be another way to end this story.
I found that element of redemption in what Gram’s only daughter Polly is doing now to end the cycle of addiction in her family blood line. I found it in the healing, cathartic and transformative effect Gram’s music had on one of his songwriting partners who traveled south to attend a tribute show to Gram in Waycross in 2009. It is here and it is all waiting for you.
Photos courtesy of Mike Robinson