Gram Parsons – An Underrated Songwriter?

Gram at HarvardEveryone has his or her own definition of what makes for a great songwriter. Mine is seen by some as being a bit simplistic. I like simple definitions. So here goes: a great songwriter is one who has written one great song.

Simple yes, but hold on. My definition of “great,” while subjective, is a song that stands far above the field, basically a perfect song. For example, I’m not a big fan of Billy Joel, but I do think he’s a great songwriter just for “Piano Man.” Same with a lot of James Taylor, but “Sweet Baby James”? He’s in. Most folks would agree that Bob Dylan is a great songwriter. However, my criteria would be less on his incisive (and long) literary analyses of modern life and more on, say, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Many would disagree, but if it weren’t for Kristofferson’s first album, whose songs were largely in his guitar case before arriving in Nashville, I’m not sure I’d put him on that pedestal. However, he did and I do, as there are at least four absolutely perfect songs on that disk.

Lists of favorite or best songwriters pop up now and then, yet rarely is Gram Parsons’ name present. This seems to be truer today than about 10 years ago when everyone seemed to be on the Gram bandwagon. Almost 40 years since his passing, some seem to blame him for his bad habits and dying young, others like to criticize his voice (to me one of the best and most nuanced ever for the genre). Still others are embedded in the so-called Americana or roots movement, which Parsons’ legacy supposedly spawned (though Parsons’ influences were largely popular and even crossover) and which most recently seems to wander further from Gram’s vision, a vision Emmylou once called “regressive country.”

Gram Parsons is a great and distinguished songwriter, period. By my definition it’s tough to single out his greatest song, as there are so many he penned in a career cut short. Tough, but I’ll start by narrowing it down to probably his two best: “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2.” Although very different songs, they are often lumped together because of their titles, purposely ironic, I believe, as Gram knew he hit the mark but offered up whimsical titles (as he did with “Cosmic American Music” when pressed to label his music). Either of these centerpieces of the masterwork Gilded Palace of Sin is worthy of having been written by Leiber/Stoller, infusing rhythm and blues into a pure country form (Gram once referred to country music as “white soul,” which was an apt description until P.C. made this uncool). The anger and hurt come from deep inside, yet the words and delivery cleanse the soul. Everything about these two songs is perfect, and by my experience, they’ve been very hard for others to replicate live.

Some songs that Gram wrote as a very young man are undisputed masterpieces. “Luxury Liner,” written while with the International Submarine Band and made famous years later by Emmylou, stands out as one of the first. But even further back, the lesser known “November Nights” and “Apple Tree” merge mature lyrics and melody with youthful themes in a perfect complement not usually associated with those beginning to learn the craft. They figure forth creations that could only come from someone who only knew he loved, and could be hurt by, the world.

Yet for all the soulful suffering drawn from a tragic personal life, these songs and others can be almost jaunty and optimistic (as many have described Gram himself). Another is “Blue Eyes” from the ISB album, its sentiment worthy of John Denver and the song worthy of Buck Owens. And his almost bouncy “Do You Know How It Feels to Be Lonesome,” a reflection on the subject approaching the unapproachable “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” nevertheless holds something more, a matter-of-fact existential malaise that doesn’t cry in its beer, just notices, “Did you ever try to smile at some people, and all they ever seem to do is stare?”

As a student of Faulkner, I do not know of many songs that express such deep interior emotions that also reflect a transcending love for the South and its landscape and culture as GP’s “She” and “Song for You.” Together with “Hickory Wind,” another gem of a song, co-written with friend and ISB bandmate Bob Buchanan while on a speeding train to California,  these songs offer up a painful longing for something perennially lost, Gram’s own South. One feels in these the encroaching presence of L.A., if only for the homesickness of a boy so far from the green, green grass of home. “On the thirty-first floor, a gold-plated door, won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.” The record business, Wall Street, whatever, just couldn’t stand up to the fire and brimstone from rural Georgia. With the help of Chris Hillman, who knew from experience what the current audience wished to hear, the target turned outward, away from Gram’s own devils, by combining a futuristic perspective with old time evangelism. But it seems like this whole town’s insane, and Satan is real….

“The New Soft Shoe” explores a century of nation building through the sales pitch in a visual work worthy of Edward Hopper. The tormented self realizations of “How Much I’ve Lied” match the best of Cash. Gram’s brilliant “1,000 Dollar Wedding” is an enigmatic story song that takes the country story telling motif to a whole new level. And the heartbreaking “Brass Buttons,” written also very early for his terribly sick but deeply loved mother Avis, exists as a beautiful and timeless still life arrangement. The more one looks at these songs, the more one begins to understand, maybe, why it was so hard to sell this brand of country music, old in form yet something new in scope. In some ways it represented a whole new Western “tough guy,” one who was toughing it out with his own interior self.

Perhaps Gram’s signature song, even if based on a poem by someone else, “Return of the Grievous Angel” is epic in scope and ties our past with Fitzgerald’s ever-receding American dream, always beyond the horizon. It’s a hallmark of Gram’s songwriting genius.

One could go on and on, there are more examples of such magnificent perfection in Parsons’ catalog, a catalog larger than many who have grown to a ripe old age. But one must probably conclude with “In My Hour of Darkness,” a eulogy as well as a celebration for three of his closest friends whom he had lost (loss being a major theme in his work as in his life, also common to many great Southern writers). We don’t need to mention the names of those friends; most of us know them by now. Moreover, the song stands as a paean to Parsons himself, and to all country boys who have it in them to become something more, even through deceptively simple country songs.

Another young man safely strummed
His silver stringed guitar
And he played to people everywhere
Some say he was a star
But he was just a country boy
His simple songs confess
And the music he had in him
So very few possessed.

Gram Parsons

Is Gram Parsons Eligible? A Look Based on CMA’s Own Criteria

Gram Eligibility for CMHOFNomination Proposal to the CMA to Induct Gram Parsons Into the Country Music Hall of Fame

The following was written to CMA criteria and submitted as hard copy with List of Supporters to the CMA, 9/19/08, on the 35th anniversary of Gram’s death and is made available to them updated 24/7 online.

 Basic Standard A

Candidate basically is to be judged on the degree of his/her contribution to the advancement of Country Music and on the indelibility of his/her impact.

Ingram Cecil Parsons III (Gram Parsons) meets this

standard unquestionably, arguably advancing country music more than any

other individual or force within that past 40 some years. His indelible impact

can be seen and is seen in the broad scope of all types of country music today.

His contributions, from the International Submarine Band’s “Safe at Home”

(which many critics consider to be one of the great country albums of all time,

and is included in the Library of Congress collection as such),

his work with the Byrds during which he literally hijacked a rock band to

further his country vision with “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (upon its release he

played the Grand Ole Opry, a milestone the Opry itself marks as being 33 in

their top 80 Opry Moments of All Time), through the groundbreaking “Gilded

Palace of Sin” and his two albums completed with his protégée Emmylou

Harris, “GP” and “Grievous Angel.” It should be noted that Ms. Harris herself

on numerous occasions credits Gram Parsons for her understanding of and

distinguished career in country music and her own well deserved induction into

the Country Music Hall of Fame over a dozen years ago. Please see the comments of the nearly 14,000 individuals so far comprising the List of Supporters (attached and at: for further substantiation of this observation.

Individual Candidacy Only

Individuals may be elected to the Hall of Fame. Companies, publications, radio stations and other groups many of which significantly foster Country Music are not eligible for Hall of Fame recognition.

Gram Parsons, although he worked with many distinguished musicians,

including those mentioned above, members of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and

Elvis Presley’s backup band, is presented here for individual consideration as a

country artist; moreover, it is his singular individuality upon which this

nomination is based.

Scope of Activity Flexible

Authority is vested in the Electors in identifying the scope of a candidate’s activity in Country Music. The individual may have excelled in a narrow, specific sphere . . . such as songwriting, publishing, musician, recording artist, etc. or may have been active in several areas. In any event, a candidate must have achieved definitive leadership in his/her own field of Country Music activity. However, it is definitely not mandatory to honor the leaders in every activity related to Country Music. A candidate truly must compete with all candidates in all fields, as well as with all candidates in his/her own field.

One cannot imagine a field of endeavor within country music within which any

individual can claim greater and broader excellence than that of Gram

Parsons, a scope which encompasses brilliant country songwriting, plaintive

and uniquely evocative voice, excellent musicianship on several instruments,

and as a leader, his artistic vision compelling others to help him achieve his

steadfast objective: to promote country music and bring it squarely into the

next century without turning his back on innovation in

the era in which he lived, which often was a divisive and turbulent time. He sought

with gentle kindness, good humor, wit and his art to allow those who would not

otherwise “see the light” to have it shine on them brightly.

Span of Influence

The time factor of a candidate’s impact on Country Music is completely flexible. It may cover an uninterrupted span of many years or it may cover two or more distinct and separated time cycles. Conceivably, even a candidate may earn Hall of Fame recognition by one transient act, momentary in time, providing the impact on Country Music is deemed significant enough. Longevity of involvement with Country Music, therefore, will not in itself warrant recognition in the Hall of Fame.

In addition to his own history-altering achievements on the field of country

music, Gram Parsons had a profound and now widely recognized influence on

others that continues to this day. More than any other artist of the late 60s and

early 70s, Gram brought a new audience to a deep, genuine, and

transformational appreciation of authentic country music. Ironically, his

direct influence has actually had as great a longevity, if not greater, than any

nominee considering by your distinguished board over the years. I know of no

one in the past 50 years whose influence has actually grown and continues to

grow to span the decades and to have as broad an impact on country music

than Gram Parsons.

Influence on Others

A most significant criterion in evaluating a candidate will be his/her inspirational effect on others . . . the degree to which he/she multiplies his influence through others to create impact on Country Music far beyond his/her own direct individual contribution.

Gram Parsons had an exponential influence on those of his time and those in

the 47 years that he’s been gone. The best testament to this are the comments

attached from all over the world, for indeed his influence was arguably more

global in spreading the gospel of genuine American country music throughout

the world than any other country artist in history (again, please reference the

List of Supporters and their countries of origin, also at

Quantity vs. Quality

A candidate’s ability to expand the popularity of Country Music is a quantitative virtue. The professionalism of his/her activity is a “qualitative” one. Both quantitative and qualitative criteria are to be considered equally and separately important; conceivably, one may be present without the other.

It is the opinion of this nominator that the Latin word versus should not be used

in the above criterion. Substitute “and.” The key words in this criterion are “a

candidate’s ability to expand the popularity of country music” as a quantitative

virtue. Many country stars come and go, some even selling millions of

records. But how many of them leave an indelible mark on the dispersion of

country music to new audiences and expand its reach to any great extent? One

who did and continues to is Gram Parsons. An excellent reference for this is

the List of Supporters with over 13,000 signers and their comments.

I was amazed as someone who loved Gram’s music back when he was with us that

so many, seemingly most, have discovered him recently

and express their reverence for his music and

wish to emphasize how it has influenced their own style of country. Then there

are the tribute songs written about him, said to total more than about any other

musician. And the number of books and movies about someone who died at 26 put

him in the same group as Anne Frank, King Tut, and Robert Johnson. While difficult

to quantify with any precision, the numbers of “units” sold since his death has

increased exponentially. There is little to add, except to say that any number

of expert lists, books and reviews put the five albums in particular listed in

the first criterion at the top of influential and both quantitative over the

years, and qualitative excellence far above most others.

Devotion to Others

Furthering Country Music by selfless devotion to the interests of others may enhance the candidacy of an individual, but it is not essential to winning. The activities of a candidate may be completely self devoted and still be considered significant enough to warrant recognition.

Perhaps the most striking example of Gram’s selfless devotion to others is a

letter he wrote from Harvard, one of many, to his little sister Avis, for whom he

felt responsible after the death of both parents due to alcoholism. Please

reference David Meyer’s biography (page 163) or other source for this letter,

which is as exquisite in its thought, feeling and artistry as any of his songs. All

who knew Gram knew of his personal devils (a major theme of country music),

but they also attest to his humanity and devotion to those he loved. Again, a

good source who has backed this up many times on the record is Ms. Emmylou

Harris, as well as the likes of Bonnie Bramlett (“Gram was also a catalyst among

fellow musicians. He spread the word. He was our buddy…”) and many, many others.

Professional Conduct and Image

A candidate is expected to have practiced the highest caliber of professional conduct in order to enhance the public image of both himself/herself and Country Music.

All of the foregoing attest to Mr. Parsons’ caliber of professional conduct. All

who knew him attest to the degree to which he had grown, both personally and

professionally, during the making of those brilliant final albums. His music

represents a desperate though controlled attempt to bridge the abyss that had

formed in the 60s and early 70s. He would preach the truth of country music to

anyone who would listen, and often did. He would walk into an otherwise

dangerous bar in the valley and win over the most hardcore of traditional

country fans. He proudly wore the same suits as Mr. Porter Wagoner, not

ironically, but out of a deep respect for the music he loved (indeed, he was one

of Mr. Nudie’s best friends). Had he lived, he would have continued to enhance

the public image of country music as many of his proclaimed followers have.

Personal Morals and Behavior

The selection process is not a judgment of personal morals and behavior, providing the latter do not negatively affect the professional conduct of the candidate and the public image of Country Music.

No one will ever know what definitively happened that night in November 1973 just as

no one will know every detail of New Year’s Day 1953. Gram Parsons lived in an

undeniably divisive time, a world between the worlds.

As has been stated, everyone knew Gram had his devils. As his beloved Louvin Brothers

said (and sometimes exemplified), “Satan Is Real.” But I am not going to simply write off this criterion by

pointing to an equally great country music legend who died a tragic young

death fighting his devils. Science has shown that addiction is also real,

and is caused by a defect in a gene. Both of Gram’s biological parents were

extreme addictive personalities, clearly demonstrating this genetic abnormality

(again, see Meyer’s biography and others). True, the era he had no choice but

to live in didn’t help, but to judge Mr. Gram Parsons negatively based on an

addictive behavior would not only rule out Hank, Sr., but also many other

country music notables by using prejudicial criteria clarified by modern

science. No, Gram Parsons believed wholeheartedly in his art, in country music, in

what William Faulkner called the only thing worth writing about: the human

heart in conflict with itself.

Breakfast In Nudie Suits: Ian Dunlop’s Time Machine

“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Breakfast In Nudie Suits

Original Cover, art by Ian Dunlop

Some have compared Ian Dunlop’s tale of the long road back East after escaping the nightmares of L.A. in the mid-sixties to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I can see why, but, to me, it’s closer to two other novels.

I remember as a young kid reading  Steinbeck’s tale of wandering America as an older writer with his career behind him. Travels with Charley was the first time I got a real sense of my country, the good and the bad of it. I somewhat recognized it as my family would drive from Buffalo, New York, to northern Wisconsin every summer, and most of the road back then was not yet Interstate with its homogenized landscape.

I first heard Gram Parsons about the time I was reading Nabokov’s Lolita for a class in college. I’ve read it at least four times since. They say that Lolita was about Nabokov’s love affair with America, and I believe that’s true. In my mind no one has painted a better picture of those long-gone highways than in this oft-maligned novel, with the exception of the master American painter Edward Hopper.

gram-the trip

Gram in “The Trip.”

Also about that time Dennis Hopper’s road movie Easy Rider came out (Gram and Ian had already appeared in Peter Fonda’s movie The Trip, humorous inside take on that herein), and say what you will in retrospect, Easy Rider changed us, or more accurately, showed us to ourselves. It wasn’t a totally pretty picture, which is why I think it’s still pretty good. Easy Rider basically added the soundtrack to an updated Travels with Charlie. One the beginning of the sixties, the other, toward the end. Breakfast In Nudie Suits, pretty much the middle.

I didn’t hear country music at home in Buffalo, and I believe my love for it began at those roadside stops on the road to Wisconsin in the late fifties early sixties, when someone dropped a quarter in one of those fascinating silver machines in every booth and out came “King of the Road” or “Big Bad John.” (There was a towering cutout roadside miner beaconing us to explore an iron mine in the U.P. of Michigan: Can we Dad?; I still pass it every year, and I still call it Big Bad John.) I loved this strange new-to-me music, but didn’t fully realize what exactly it was until I heard Gram Parsons take on it a few years later.


The International Submarine Band

By this time in my life, a New Englander named Ian Dunlop had known Gram Parsons for a few years. They were living together, gigging together, doing all kinds of things together. By the time I was reading Travels with Charlie, Ian had already played scores of gigs with Gram and their International Submarine Band, sharing the bill with other bands that “made it” such as the Blues Magoos; Ian paints one great and humorous scene of the Sub Band opening for The Young Rascals before a huge crowd in Central Park.

We’ve read in other books the intricate details of those days, as these relatively unknown young band members came together, drifted apart, re-grouped, stole each others’ names, and so forth.

But Ian Dunlop’s tale of that road does not re-examine with a detached journalist’s eye those well-documented times. Rather, through the eyes of a young bass player at the center of that then-tiny solar system — one that not one of them could have imagined would ever become so analyzed — Ian takes us along on a long, meandering, sometimes lonesome journey back East, the opposite direction from America’s standard road tale of lighting out for the Territory and going West young man. He’d done his time in L.A., swirled it around in his mouth, and like thousands before him, found it was not the promised land. No, it was time for him and his band, now The Flying Burrito Brothers, to head back East — or at least that general direction, with a somewhat less Gatsby-esque focus, and see where that road would take him, leaving Gram Parsons to be the Jay Gatsby of country rock on the West Coast.


Current Cover

Ian Dunlop, besides being a musician and a writer, is primarily a painter (see The original cover he painted for the book is pictured above. Only God and the publisher know why they changed it to this black and white shot of Gram Parsons at left (Ian will tell you that he finds publishers about on the same plane of existence as record producers).

Unlike what the current cover implies, this is not a book about Gram Parsons. Well, not just anyway. Gram and memories of Gram hover over the tale and inform it. He is an omniscient presence and the lonesome road induces Ian’s mind to try to construct a whole of his recent past, all the gigs, the friendships, the heartaches and joys — a past that, at the time, the author would never have imagined would be so central to so many of us, the beginning of something.

To set the scene in the timeline of that “beginning of something” (skip over this paragraph if you’re familiar): Gram had left the International Submarine Band and joined The Byrds. Sub Band members Ian Dunlop and Mickey Gauvin were getting the distinct sense that no one, the public nor the record companies, were ever going to “get” this “country thing.” Largely for lack of gigs and therefore food money, Ian and Mickey decide to leave the Sub Band just as Gram is telling them a guy named Hazelwood is interested in an album (but no advance). Together with Barry Tashian and Billy Briggs of The Remains (one of the great garage bands of the day who opened for the Beatles tour and found the experience lacking), they decide to form their own band. Outside a taco joint somewhere in L.A., Ian and Mickey decide to call it The Flying Burrito Brothers. Along the way the very first incarnation of the FBB picked up some other players including Bobby Keys, Leon Russell, Junior Markham, J.J. Cale, Ed Davis, etc., whoever “dug” what they were trying to do, which was old-school rhythm and blues-based rock ‘n roll with a side order of country, definitely not what the rest of the country was listening to at the time. (Gram told an interviewer after he himself “borrowed” the FBB moniker and made history with it: “The idea’ll keep going on. Whether I do it or anybody else does it, it’s got to keep going.”) For more on the history of these bands, well, their are numerous books, articles and websites that cover it all in exquisite detail.


Gram & Ian

Long after Steinbeck’s death, a few critics began to analyze every sentence, every reported conversation with someone, from his Travels with Charlie. And by God, they found out he was a liar, that is, a writer of fiction! Faulkner once said he didn’t give a damn for the facts, just the truth. Dunlop is not a liar (that is a writer of fiction), but Breakfast in Nudie Suits reads so much like a work of literature that the reader must occasionally pinch him- or herself and realize this is reportage based on actual memory. Ian says that he wrote Breakfast as if it had been written in 1968. On the last page he leaves us wishing for more, but it is fitting for this memoir that it ends when it does. As the author told this reviewer, “The narrator is speaking from the 60s. I left the U.S. in ’68 to another continent and civilization, so my last experiences were preserved, sealed, vacuum packed.

Ian’s road reminiscences take the same circuitous route that his loaded-down van did (Mickey and Barry T in a different van ultimately take a more direct route cross country). It is not my purpose here to recount any of Ian’s experiences on that road to discover America. Why? Mainly because you must read this tome yourself (although I must say Barry T plugging into a windmill somewhere in Kansas is one of my favorite LOL images). A word of caution to those who expect non-Faulknerian linear discourse. Ian’s thought patterns mimic his somewhat zig-zag route and the ever-changing landscape; expect random memories to pop up in the middle of Paducah or wherever. I’ve done many cross country trips alone and, believe me, especially after putting a lot of miles behind one for the day, that’s how the mind works. He resists sudden urges to turn back, to try to finish what has already been set in motion in an altered direction just by his leaving.


“I’ll never get out of this world alive” art by Ian Dunlop

So why should the “target market,” assumed to be those somewhat interested in music, which is the rack I expect you’ll find this book, read Breakfast In Nudie Suits? If it isn’t yet another biography of Gram, what’s the point?

Let’s face it, Gram’s almost 27 years have been covered. Minute analysis of his life will no doubt continue. But I’m convinced this would be the book that Gram himself would like best. Even the telling scene when Gram is having a bad trip on acid and the band is trying their best to bring him out of a very bad place (I won’t give anything further away), together with at other times Gram’s jovial though understated banter with band mates combined with that inexplicable feeling of a higher power directing his every move — these are the elements that Ian provides of his friend Gram Parsons.

Not many of us mere mortals have the guiding hand of a muse from the cosmos. The rest of us are rock and roll soldiers. Ian Dunlop continues to be a rock and rock soldier, and high honor should be bestowed on this brigade, one that includes a host of names that pop up in Ian’s narrative and many that do not.

Ultimately, Ian’s recollections are transcriptions of a seemingly minor branch of the big river that is rock and roll history, much of which has been covered extensively by “professional writers.” But if you’re like this reviewer, you lust after the memories of those who were there at a critical moment of creation — a branch in the stream whose tiny tributaries and eddies remained almost uncharted until recently. While the elements of this story, the story of the birth of country rock (and even the bending of the longest-lasting and best-known rock band in history to embrace it and thus forge a second act that takes them the rest of the way home) have yet to be fully grasped by “the general public,” each new generation, first-hand evidence suggests, hunger for and have a need-to-know thirst for accounts such as this.

This personal chronicle is up there with the best, e.g., Al Kooper’s Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, Levon Helm’s This Wheel’s On Fire, and Eric Burdon’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood among others. Of course all of them achieved some greater degree of success (although Al’s and Eric’s and even Levon’s accounts of getting friendly fire from their brothers in combat do bring their stories back to the rock and roll trenches).

So who “gets” this book? Gram would get it and love it, that’s for sure. And perhaps Steinbeck, Kerouac, and even Nabokov, or at least Humbert Humbert and Lo, too.


Ian Dunlop, a rock and roll soldier.

Preserve & Restore Gram Parsons’ First Performance Venue: The Derry Down, Winter Haven, FL

Snively Mansion

Snively Mansion

The biggest thing in Winter Haven, Florida, used to be Cypress Gardens, the result of an ambitious dream of one Dick Pope with backing from John Snively, Gram Parsons’ grandfather and Florida citrus king. Long neglected, the amusement park and gardens are now run by Legoland, which has preserved some of the original Cypress Gardens and provided Winter Haven a chance to rebound. Legoland now also owns Gram’s grandparents’ home and uses it for special functions (photo by Bob Kealing at left). The gorgeous restoration of the Ritz Theatre is another example of Winter Haven’s re-birth, a wonderful example of what communities can do working together and following Main Street’s four-point approach to revitalization. The downtown streetscape of Winter Haven has undergone a remarkable facelift, also a result of such community cooperation led by Winter Haven Main Street.

The Derry Down

The Derry Down

The town now has a new project in the works: preserving and restoring the building that Gram’s stepdad, Bob Parsons, bought for his son to play and hone his skills as a performer. The Derry Down Project seeks to restore the venue where a young Gram Parsons and his band, the folk-oriented Shilohs, were regulars, but also where others played from the historically rich well of the Florida Youth Center Circuit (term coined by Bob Kealing, author of Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons & the Roots of Country Rock), from which Tom Petty and others emerged.

With so much going on regarding the preservation/revitalization front in Winter Haven, it is important for all fans of Gram Parsons and his legacy to support this local effort. One easy way is simply to “Like” the Derry Down Project Facebook page, to give the local community a better idea what a successfully restored Derry Down would mean to Winter Haven as a destination location.

Jim Carlton (left)

Jim Carlton (left)

Won’t you please take a moment and support this effort by simply clicking Like on this page? There will soon be a more formalized procedure for supporting the effort financially, but for now, your Like would mean a lot to this budding project, so important to the history of American music.

Thank you, Will James.

Jim Carlton (left), Gram Parsons’ Winter Haven friend and band mate and an early contributor to the project.

Actual recording of Gram Parsons & the Shilohs from the Derry Down (early 60s) played at recent Derry Down Project kickoff event.

GPI Posters



For our 12th Annual celebration, this year Gilded Palace of Sin @50. Poster for Milwaukee 2019 to come.





2016. Heartland first, L.A., Nashville, and Dublin to come.



As we’re done with year VIII and several posters for 2015, we thought we’d share them here. The first (2008) was used for a shirt instead of a poster, and was the art used for my 1977 article (Gram Parsons: The Tulsa Queen and You Are Gone). We began the name Gram National in 2010 (third annual); and the first Gram InterNational began in 2011 as we had concerts in Canada and Ireland as well (more on that at Background). As we used to say in TV land, thanks for watching!





Year I (2008, T-shirt)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlso used by Nellcote60 in video using images over tape of Emmy/Gram in Philly.

Year II


Year III


Year IV


Year V


Year VI

Nashville 2013 (and T-shirt, picture on a black shirt):


Toronto 2013 (three posters!):


Gram InterNational 2013 Toronto Official




Calling Gram Home: Winter Haven Event Remarks by Bob Kealing

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.

Bob Kealing Presentation, Winter Haven LibraryWhile 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.

Gene Owen introducing Bob Kealing

Gene Owen introducing Bob, 12 year old son Will beside him.

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.

Bob Kealing at Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum

Bob Kealing talks to Jock Bartley and others at the book signing at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

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.

Little Avis

Little Avis

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.”

Jim Carlton signs a copy of Calling Me Home.

Jim Carlton signs a copy of Calling Me Home.

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.

Bob Kealing with Jon Corneal at Winter Haven

Bob Kealing with Jon Corneal at Winter Haven

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 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.

Jim Carlton holding Gram's earliest surviving acetate

Jim Carlton holding Gram’s earliest surviving acetate

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.”

Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons & the Roots of Country Rock

Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons & the Roots of Country Rock

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

Gram Wrote “Wild Horses” and Here’s a New Interpretation, Take It or Leave It


I wrote this in 2013 after an article in Uncut magazine quoted Mick Jagger’s brother as saying Gram Parsons wrote “Wild Horses.” I’ve always thought so, but never analyzed it from a literary standpoint, what the song could have been written about. So I did so interpret the song, noting that I had no facts pertaining to authorship. The piece was published in the No Depression website, where it received much notoriety (to put it mildly). The term “fake news” did not exist in 2013, though I recently have been accused of that. This essay is obviously not any kind of “news.” I am not presenting it as fact. It is a discussion of the song’s meaning by way of biographical and literary analysis. Yes I’m also saying that everyone else should admit the same in regard to historical fact; the facts concerning the actual genesis (not recording etc.) are at least jumbled, and as long as the Corporation that comprises the Rolling Stones is a reality, I believe any agreement that may have been made among the parties will remain hidden. Gram didn’t care about the money, etc. and yes he never rejected the Stones’ claim of authorship, which of course would have been part of any deal, not knowing he would be dead shortly after those comments were made. Also the genesis of the song may have been in such a drugged up state that not even Keith and Gram remember exactly who wrote it! I’m assuming there is some interest in the subject, as the No Depression article had 60,600 page views (approximately a thousand a month) until ND redesigned and ended the visual page counter. So relax everyone, enjoy my flight of fancy if you want to perceive it thusly. As for me, I just go with what ol’ Bill Faulkner said, “I don’t give a damn for facts, just truth.”

gram_keith_[Beginning of original article]

Or at least co-wrote it. Gave the lyrics to Keith on the way out the door. Whatever, I don’t care. Some of us who know Gram’s style of songwriting (and love it) have always known it. And we also know the Stones’ style, both before and after meeting Gram. Now in the Feb ’13 issue of Uncut we have Mick’s brother saying it was a Gram Parsons’ composition (“not that he ever got anything for it”). And we have an old quote from Mick himself, “I remember we sat around originally doing this with Gram Parsons…” Etc. Really Mick, you “remember” that much… in ’71? And knowing Gram, I imagine he wasn’t doing anything? Just sitting around, watching? Right.

I won’t even get into the obvious about Jagger “allowing” someone to cut one of their best songs first.

But I’m not here to argue the point. Please! I know there’s no proof. Move on if you’re not interested in my new (well, I thought it out a few years ago) theory about what (and who) it’s about.

No there’s no proof, unless you believe in analysis of art and life as proof.

So on with it.

I’ve felt for years that the original lyrics, written by Gram and perhaps modified slightly by the Stones, were written about/for Gram’s sister Little Avis. I’ve read various interpretations of the song, and none seem to ring true. I believe this does. Gram felt tremendous responsibility for Avis after their parents’ deaths, and overwhelming guilt at times for leaving her. And, no doubt, some guilt over what was happening to him, and that he would also soon be leaving her for good. “Faith has been broken, tears must be cried.” His letters to Avis (see Meyer p. 163 et al.) to me mirror the thoughts and feelings in the song. With that in mind, the song here w/out all of the “drag me away” lines.

Childhood living is easy to do
The things you wanted I bought them for you
Graceless lady you know who I am,
You know I can’t let you slide through my hands

I watched you suffer a dull aching pain,
Now you’ve decided to show me the same
No sweeping exits or offstage lines
Can make me feel bitter or treat you unkind

I know I dreamed you a sin and a lie,
I have my freedom but I don’t have much time
Faith has been broken, tears must be cried,
Let’s do some living after we die

Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.

(Yes, “Graceless Lady” could easily be a loving, personal reference to one’s younger sister.)

That’s it, nothing fancy; just obvious to me (and maybe only me, doesn’t matter). I go with Faulkner, I don’t give a damn for facts, just the truth. And that’s what I hear in “Wild Horses.”



[End of original article.]

Here’s a little exercise that I had done in the comment section of the No Depression article (comments have also disappeared from the new ND). It’s based on an interview with Mick Jagger in 1971 [my comments are within in brackets]:WildHorsesMick“I remember [as what, in a fog? this quote is from 1971] we sat around [we?] originally [as in origin] doing this [does “doing this” meaning “writing this”] with Gram Parsons, and I think his version came out slightly before ours. [Everyone knows including Mick that the FBB version was released more that slightly first, but Mick seems vague, “I think…” a manner of covering up the obvious question regarding the only time he allowed such a thing, giving one of their songs to someone he disliked, to put it mildly] Everyone always says this was written about Marianne but I don’t think it was [again, for such a complex song, he doesn’t “think” it was about Marianne (it wasn’t)]; that was all well over by then. But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally [as we all are when we hear it Mick]. It is very personal, evocative, and sad [boy, I couldn’t agree more, and quite obvious]. It all sounds [“sounds,” all this is said as if listening not knowing as the writer] rather doomy now [not sure Mick would ever say one of his songs sounds anything negative], but that was quite a heavy time.” [Indeed].

And from Gram’s Notebook. A gentleman from Hard Rock Cafe, which owns the notebook, has released a video since this article was composed that claims with more certainty than I that Gram wrote “Wild Horses” based on several handwritten copies of the song in Gram’s notebook (it is odd, you don’t edit a song written by Jagger/Richards); I take no position on his remarks.gramsnotebook_wildhorses


Intro Remarks for Gram InterNational V Nashville


Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons & the Roots of Country RockThe great songwriter and all-around genius Shel Silverstein wrote the following lines:

“They’re plannin’ a book for September
Showin’ his plain country roots
Any they’re sellin’ the rights to the movie
And the Hall of Fame’s gettin’ his boots”

Two immediate questions: How did ol’ Shel know that Bob Kealing’s book was dropping in September? And second, is the Hall now adding Gram’s boots to his suit in that hermetically sealed display case?

But the most important question remains:

When will they add Gram Parsons himself to all his clothes and put a plaque of him on that wall of theirs?

Welcome to the fifth annual Gram InterNational, which began and continues to be a one-night party-concert-festival, whatever you want to call it, in support of Gram Parsons’ induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Back to the next stanza of Shel’s song:

“At the funeral somebody recited a poem
That told how he suffered and bled
Nashville is rough on the livin’
But she really speaks well of the dead.”

This song was reportedly written about Lester Flat, who evidently rankled a few feathers while alive. I’ve heard many say that Gram did the same: “It was horrible of him to up and leave such and such band.” “He was selfish not to go to South Africa.” “Why did he waste so much time with Keith Richards?” “A rock band at the Opry??” and the universal, “Of course he was a creative genius, he had that trust fund.” Etc. Etc.

Well, we’re really here, ignoring Shel’s sardonic note, to truly speak well of the dead. We don’t believe those present tonight are really concerned with how Gram died or about the caper surrounding that death. Of course we wish Gram Parsons hadn’t died almost 40 years ago. But Gram left us with a mission, and I think he knew it.

We are here to celebrate not only the enormous gifts Gram Parsons left for us, but to honor his contribution to the evolution of the genre and to hope that even more begin to understand what he did for what his protege, Emmylou Harris, once called “regressive country.” For whichever side of the fence you’re on, and whatever label you choose to call it, one thing we know for sure: the music he created and the musical paths that followed in his wake do not sound much like, well, much like what was broadcast nationwide from the Bridgestone Arena here last night as being representative of country music [2012 CMA Award Show]. No, what evolves from Gram Parsons sounds more like, well what country music should sound like in the 21st century, maybe with a backbeat here and a modern touch there, but never forsaking the soul of it and what ol’ Bill Faulkner once called “The human heart in conflict with itself.” Most importantly and to put it simply, it sounds like the real THANG.

Thank you for coming out tonight, hope you enjoy the show.

Gram Parsons: The Tulsa Queen and You Are Gone (Will James, 1977)

I wrote this article for the five-year anniversary of Parsons’ death. The piece and artwork by Patti Simmons were accepted for publication by Country Rambler magazine; unfortunately the magazine folded before its publication. In 1977 not many knew the intricate details so well chronicled in the next 35 years, including this writer. At that time, most of the world had still not heard of Gram Parsons. I was several years away from becoming an editor, and was writing a work of fiction, more interested in the feel than the facts. I present it, therefore, with all its faults and some inaccuracies. However, I also feel it has a freshness that derives from being closer to that point in history and a sense of loss that was still tangible. Included at the close are copies of the editors’ notes on acceptance and the letter telling me of its fate; in some way I feel like it was similar to one of those many missed opportunities in Gram’s life. So for what it’s worth…

EArtwork by Patti Simmons for Tulsa Queen article mmylou Harris sits in an airport staring wistfully beyond the large, dirty windows at an American Airlines DC-10 readying for takeoff.  Hard rain is pelting the shiny, metal wings, above which the words Luxury Liner beam brightly through the grey morning.

Luxury Liner, forty tons of steel
No one in this whole, wide world
Can change the way I feel
I’ve been a long lost soul
For a long, long time….

As the silver bird taxis up the runway, turns, and climbs weightless into the low clouds, wings drooped back like some grievous angel, she must give thought to her mission and her mentor. It is now five years since the death of Gram Parsons, her close friend and the Prince of Country Rock. She is strong again as she continues to fulfill the challenge that Gram hand picked her to help fight — preserve the vital force of country music in an age not of the freight train but of the supersonic Concord: to remember the past and to celebrate the present. And, above all, to preserve the “soul” in country music — to never allow change and innovation kill an essential ingredient, what William Faulkner once described as “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

To Gram Parsons, this is what country-rock was all about. He lived his short and profoundly tragic life loving traditional country music. He also loved every Chuck Berry and Elvis Presly hit filling the good old airways in the fifties. From the start the old and new were inseparable in his mind and his music. The Louvin Brothers took on the vocal qualities and the beat of Elvis. Merle Haggard songs took on an honest rock beat in an age when rock music became synonymous with youth dissension.

Parsons genius was that he saw it all as a progression; you take the best of the new and use it to preserve the tried and true. Politics and generation gaps have no place in this process and Gram kept his mind free of these obstacles to his vision.

What became part of his vision was the voice of a girl singer from Washington, D.C. One rainy night before a local bar gig in D.C., Emmylou Harris received a phone call from a stranger in Baltimore who said he’d like to hear her and could she pick him up. She told him he was crazy, she had a job that night and a baby to feed. So Gram Parsons caught a train, listened to the cynical  Emmylou sing and joined her, for the first time, their voices coming together in “I Fall to Pieces” and a few other classics. That night was the beginning of what could have been a lifetime partnership as the greatest country-rock duo ever. Might have been if the end had not come a short two years later.

Before Emmylou Parsons had approached his goal of producing meaningful country-rook in artistically progressive steps. His first album was with his International Submarine Band, comprising Parsons and a group of L.A. studio musicians. It was a good country rock LP (including his song “Luxury Liner”) — innovative yet solid in its roots. And it was the first of its kind, years ahead of any other such synthesis. It went nowhere. Later came his stint with the grounded Byrds which produced the classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The Byrds, with Parsons at the helm, introduced country-rock to the Grand Ole Opry, the first “rock” band to be heard over those hallowed airwaves. Gram angered Opry officials when he broke format and dedicated his Hickory Wind to his grandmother.

He took the Byrds as far as he dared and left, claiming disapproval of a planned tour to segregated South Africa. Then came formation of the country-rock band, the Flying Burrito Brothers based on Parsons, session bassist Chris Ethridge, former Byrd Chris Hillman, and virtuoso steel player “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow. Their first and best album, Gilded Palace of Sin, was a country-rock masterpiece and, one thought, the culmination of Gram’s vision.

Parsons, however, after a mediocre follow-up LP, grew disenchanted with the Burritos. He befriended Keith Richards and began hanging out with the Rolling Stones. He was also becoming heavily involved with alcohol and drugs. A motorcycle accident followed.

The demise of an artist after a misunderstood masterpiece? No. Gram’s art still sought perfection. His writing was improving and the songs were too big to take second place to a band. The Burrito Brothers had become an entity to themselves. What he wanted was perfection for the songs. That was the most important thing: to crystallize the song in a musical and vocal vehicle so good it would disappear behind the song itself.

That rainy night in Washington he found the missing factor–the voice that should have been there all along. And Emmylou realized it immediately too. They saw each other’s potential while listening to their voices rise and fall, blend and fight, and weave the songs together. It was a magical union and Parsons knew it. Emmylou came to L.A. to sing with Gram on a proposed L.P.

Despite Parson’s now chronic bouts with the bottle, GP was completed. Merle Haggard intended to produce it but dropped out, much to Parsons’ dismay. A band was assembled consisting of members of Elvis’ touring band. Gram produced the album himself with the help of British rocker Rik Grech. And for the first time Parsons added Byron Berline’s fiddle, which effectively played off the pedal steel creating uplifting melody lines. Together with Emmylou’s voice, it really tore your heart out.

Gram had overcome his personal problems and succeeded once again. Although ignored by the public, GP was a great achievement in country-rock history. Emmylou’s singing juxtaposed Parsons’ beautifully. The music succeeded in allowing Gram’s songs (“She,” ”A Song For You,” “The New Soft Shoe”) to come through in all their enigmatic wisdom.

Gram was pleased. But he was confused by popular indifference. He had been ignored before, but this was approaching the realization of his vision and people should have been listening.

So, in typical Parsons’ country-glitter style, he rented a bus, scrawled “Gram Parsons” across the side, and took off with Emmylou and the band to play every honky tonk in the country that would listen. They christened themselves the Fallen Angels, but it was all Gram and Emmylou.

The people did listen. Those who were lucky enough to be there were struck by an intensity they’ll long remember. And it was no mistake, for, as usual, Gram was sure of himself and his music.

He even began an attempt to clean up his life. His writing was stronger than ever, with enough new material for another venture into the recording studio. His voice had improved greatly. The best result of the Fallen Angels tour was the learning experience gained, especially for Emmylou. She now understood how she was supposed to sound–how to blend her strength properly with Gram’s subtlety of inflection. The result was chilling.

With all going well, they returned to the studio to record the new album. It could not have gone better, especially the title cut, “Return of the Grievous Angel.” In this song the themes were profound and varied–the failure of the American Dream, the triumph of a personal dream, the passing of the railroads. For ultimately it was a great train song, and stands as Gram Parsons’ masterpiece.

For suddenly he was gone. Just like that. He had gone off to a favorite spot in the desert and mixed too many drugs in too short a time. His art had never been more pure but his body was full of poison.

A friend stole the body from LAX to burn it in the desert as was Gram’s wish. Unfortunately, this now infamous deed is what most people remember about this great artist–a man whose excellence set the rules for country-rock music. Willie, Waylon, Ronstadt — they all know the roads Gram Parsons paved.


luxurylinerEmmylou sits back and stares out the window as the jet rises above the clouds in a matter of seconds and the metal wings reflect the morning sun. Her album, including the beautiful “Luxury Liner,” all climbed the charts as quickly as that DC-10. Elite Hotel was there over fifty weeks. She has become a bonafide star, something Gram Parsons didn’t have time to accomplish.

But she has not forgotten. She will never forget. Just listen to the albums. He is there, climbing the charts with her.

Everyone has a train song. Gram had “Return of the Grievous Angel.” Emmylou penned the “Tulsa Queen,” a train song of her own composition that just might bring tears to your eyes. It is no mistake that it is also about her friend Gram Parsons:

Lately I speak your name too loud
Each time it comes up in a crowd
And I know that when I do
The Tulsa Queen and you
Are gone….


Song for Gram / Ballad of Bob B & GP

(A work in progress adapted from my song “A Carver of Wood & Wind (The Ballad of Bob Buchanan)”) to music at:

(c) 2012 Will James

On a speeding train that delivered them to a town so filled with sin
Bob Buchanan was there to help Gram pen ol’ Hickory Wind
Gram took a verse; Bob took the next, neither one of them could know
Gram would sing the brand new song on the Grand Ol’ Opry show.

From the lakes of Winter Haven to the Okefinokee Swamp
It was plain Gram’s pain would write the songs that would take him to the top
And with Emmylou’s sweet harmony they knew it wouldn’t be long
Yeah with Emmylou by his side it was clear where they belonged

Refrain: And if Gram had lived the world would sing a different kind of song
And his gift to us still gives today though his stay was not that long
From the I-S-B and high-flying Byrds to the Burrito Brothers band
His Cosmic American Music came from an all too lonesome man.

What this balladeer gave the world can’t be found on a Billboard Chart
That’s not how you measure a master’s stroke nor what’s deep inside the heart
Yearning for a Calico bonnet from Waycross to Joshua Tree
And every place Gram delivered us is a place we long to be.

On a speeding train that delivered them to a town so filled with sin
Bob Buchanan was there to help Gram pen ol’ Hickory Wind
But it was as the Grievous Angel Gram came to say goodbye
As he caught warm winds off Cap Rock with wings he’d found to fly.

Repeat refrain.

Second Version: Ballad of Bob B and GP

On a speeding train that delivered them to a town so filled with sin
Bob Buchanan was there to help Gram pen ol’ Hickory Wind
Bob took a verse, Gram took the next, neither one of them could know
Gram would sing the brand new song on the Grand Ole Opry show

For forty years Bob gave himself to the Saginaw GM plant
Yeah the same guy that hung with Ramblin’ Jack and Mr. Townes Van Zandt
But it was to the songs on Safe At Home Bob gave his heart and soul
Now he’s safe at home in Saginaw carving cypress totem poles


And if Gram had lived the world would sing a different kind of song
And Hickory Wind still takes us back to a place we all belong
From the Christy Mintrels to the ISB to Burrito Brothers bands
Bob’s lasting gift was being a friend to all all too lonesome man.

What this balladeer gave his friend can’t be found on a Billboard chart
No that’s not how you measure friendship or the kinship of the heart
Though Gram is gone Bob sings his songs though the years do take their toll
But now he’s safe at home in Saginaw carving cypress totem poles…

On a speeding train that delivered them to a town so filled with sin
Bob Buchanan was there to help Gram pen ol’ Hickory Wind
Bob took a verse, Gram took the next, neither one of them could know
Gram would sing the brand new song on the Grand Ol’ Opry show

And if Gram had lived…. [repeat]

(Ending to the tune of the original, end with: “Carrying me home, Hickory Wind.”)

‘Redneck Religion and Shitkickin’ Saviours?’: Gram Parsons, Theology and Country Music by Michael Grimshaw


The country singer Gram Parsons (1946-73) has in the last decade been increasingly cited as a seminal influence upon the development of contemporary and the roots/americana revivial. This article critiques Parsons and his music within the realm of contextual theology, using him as a bridge to examine the wider issue of what a theology of country music might entail. Both Parsons and Country Music in general are strongly religious in language, ethos and culture, yet the theology articulated both explicitly and implicitly is not evangelical as those outside the genre and culture might assume. Rather, the theology of country music involves a gospel of liminality, a theology of redemptive transgression that is expressed in ‘white spirituals’ where the song is a locus of grace. The article asks if Parsons was a locus of grace; are his songs those of liminal presence; does country music employ a theology of redemptive transgression?

[Some “theological help” from Wikipedia:]Liminal existence can be located in a separated sacred space, which occupies a sacred time. Examples in the Bible include the dream of Jacob (Genesis 28:12-19) where he encounters God between heaven and earth and the instance when Isaiah meets the Lord in the temple of holiness (Isaiah 6:1-6).[108] In such a liminal space, the individual experiences the revelation of sacred knowledge where God imparts his knowledge on the person.Worship can be understood in this context as the church community (or communitas or koinonia) enter into liminal space corporately.[109] Religious symbols and music may aid in this process described as a pilgrimage by way of prayer, song, or liturgical acts. The congregation is transformed in the liminal space and as they exit, are sent out back into the world to serve.]

A quote from the article:

The roots of the theology of country are to be found most expressively in an experience of Jacob, that of his wrestling with God. The struggle articulated in country music is reminiscent of this, of the man who feels the call of the divine, the spiritual, and yet who cannot help himself from attempting to outwit and overcome those he encounters. As part of this experience, there is the ongoing wrestling with God which, while being an encounter with grace and divine blessing, also results in a permanent limp, a sign of being marked, an experience of holy suffering.”1

1. Michael Grimshaw, ‘Redneck religion and shitkickin’ saviours?’: Gram Parsons, theology and country music.” Popular Music vol. 21 no. 1 (January 2002): 93-­105.

Gram Parsons for Lifetime Achievement Award? A Look at Web Metrics and the Meaning of “Lifetime”

Gram Parsons Web Metrics Lifetime AchievementIn these days of Linda Chorneys and Lana Del Rays, it’s getting increasingly difficult to deal with the criteria used to nominate someone, and in which category even, whether for halls of fame or for the likes of the Grammy Awards. There are clearly ways to “play the system” if indeed there still exists a system to be played. You have to know your way around the Casino.

And when it comes to “lifetime achievement awards,” which would also include induction into halls of fame, the definition of “lifetime,” which had become “15 minutes of fame,” seems now to be reduced to about a nanosecond.

Add the landscape-altering shifts in “categories” and their qualifying criteria, such as airplay (“spins” adding terrestrial and satellite), and unit sales (now including 0’s and 1’s, electrons either embedded in plastic discs or just free flowing), streaming, pirating, etc., and you are left with a real tossed salad, especially when dealing with artists whose careers have spanned these relatively recent revolutions, or even those who lived when music had only two vehicles — live or vinyl.

Trends in measuring popularity, success, artistic accomplishment, and any other yardsticks involved in nominating an artist for any such “lifetime” accolades become increasingly complex when dealing with those whose careers either spanned these changes that have rocked the business, or who lived their lives entirely in a statistically simpler, more easily quantifiable time.

As an example, let’s examine an artist on Rolling Stone’s List of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, who has been nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times, has been the subject of a slew of biographies in both books and film, and who is the subject of a global petition to induct him into the Country Music Hall of Fame with over 11,600 signers so far. He is arguably eligible for a lifetime achievement award or hall of fame induction, even though that lifetime lasted just under 27 years. In this case, another question might be added: should the criteria for lifetime achievement continue after death if that artist’s influence and popularity actually expands exponentially after the artist’s passing?

Gram Emmylou art for Country RamblerIn 1978 on the fifth anniversary of his death, Gram Parsons was all but a rock n’ roll footnote except for a few who loved him and his work before his tragic demise. Partially to help rectify this situation, I wrote an article call “Gram Parsons: The Tulsa Queen and You Are Gone” which was accepted for publication by one of the earliest alt country (the term didn’t even exist yet) magazines at that time called Country Rambler. The publication went out of business before my piece made it to print. (Thirty years later I used the artwork commissioned for it, an expressionist rendering of Gram and Emmylou based on the covers of Grievous Angel and Luxury Liner, done by the sister of my then girlfriend, on the T-shirt for the first annual Gram InterNational festival.)

The article, which mainly outlined the then-little known facts concerning this obscure artist and hinted at his historical importance, would be silly if published today. The idea that these basic facts would be flushed out over the following decades in microscopic detail by so many biographies, movies, plays, etc., was inconceivable at the time of that fifth year benchmark. All his records were out of print, and there was no Internet or alternative channels of distribution.

Fast forward back to the present; strange days have indeed found us. Clearly a variety of metrics is needed to even guesstimate an artist’s place in history over the years. Indeed, in some ways we live in an era when popular icons seem to never really “die” (e.g., Princess Diana).

It’s well known that Gram Parsons, for a variety of reasons and missed opportunities, sold relatively few units while alive. It’s believed that the only royalty check he ever received was due to Joan Baez recording “Hickory Wind.” His records were out of print shortly after his death. Lacking any other means of distribution, there was about a 20-year period during which the only way to find Gram was to scour used record stores and get lucky. But slowly at first, a fascinating and somewhat unique phenomenon occurred. While vinyl sales were relegated to the occasional bootleg collection of unreleased Flying Burrito Brothers material, the popularity of this by now almost mythical figure in American music began to soar, at first by the age-old “oral tradition,” that is, by other musicians, those who have always led Gram’s resurgence, covering his songs and preaching his significance, followed by fans of these latter day singers spreading the word.

Gram at ArmadilloBy the time CD disks and the Internet came about, Gram Parsons was definitely bigger than when he died in ’73. Several high profile tribute events were held, and cult-like leaders such as the late Mark Holland, who formed the Gram Parsons Memorial Foundation and the seminal newsletter The Cosmic American Music News, helped develop an underground movement that wouldn’t stay buried for long. With the advent of the Internet, a full 20 years following Parsons’ death, fans were soon able to connect globally, and connect they did. To what extent? I can tell you there is a huge though unquantifiable admiration and love for Parsons and his work from all corners of the the world. It would be wonderful if we had a total of unit sales for Parsons including original releases, bootlegs, shared files, mp3s, etc., but that is seemingly impossible to calculate (I would love it if someone could prove that statement wrong).

Today, web metrics can be helpful in measuring the comparative interest, value, importance and significance of a search term and thereby the subject in question. The key word in the last sentence is “comparative,” either to itself over a specified time period or in comparison to other terms that share characteristics in common. The following observations, which is all they claim to be, are mainly of the latter type; looking at search engine results for artists in similar genres to Gram Parsons, and those who may already be elected to a hall of fame or who have been associated with Parsons in a famous band and have gone on to a full lifetime of many and various achievements. (Results for any not included here can be found in seconds by the reader.) While these metrics do not necessarily correlate with unit sales, an argument can be made that the greater the number of search engine results returned, the greater the conversion of these user-generated inquiries into an action associated with acquiring the artist’s product (hopefully a purchase). The results of such an analysis obviously don’t point to a conclusion by themselves; however, they may add a quantifiable factor to such an analysis of lifetime achievement.

For example, using Google and searching for “Gram Parsons” in quotes (to be sure we don’t get returns for an international unit of measurement!), Google returns 2,160,000 results (note: depending on Google’s algorithms, which change often, these numbers will change; those given here were taken within an hour of the same day). Again, not much you can do with that number except a basic comparative analysis. For example, Parsons’ total result returns is exactly one million more than for “Roger McGuinn”, Gram’s boss with the Byrds and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (who returns 1,160,000). Fellow Byrd and Flying Burritio Brother bandmate Chris Hillman returns 506,000. In fact, the only Byrd to out-return Parsons is David Crosby, no doubt less for his antics with the Byrds and more for his subsequent fame with CSN&Y.

While the Country Music Association insists “Quantity” is not a vital consideration in determining Hall inductees, it’s common knowledge that it’s of more value than their criteria states. Again for what it’s worth, a comparison of Parsons 2+million search engine returns reveals the following in comparison with some random recent Country Music Hall of Fame inductees:

    The Statler Brothers: 1,140,000
    Barbara Mandrell: 902,000
    Jean Shepard: 436,000
    Bobby Braddock: 353,000
    Tom T. Hall: 1,050, 000
    The Louvin Brothers: 85,400
    Jimmy Dean: 3,120,000 (ok, you have to take off at least half for pork sausage inquiries!)

Interestingly, a great songwriter with certain similarities to Gram, Townes Van Zandt comes in at a statistical dead-heat at 2,190,000.

Parsons’ protege and reigning queen of both country and “Americana” music, Emmylou Harris, returns a whopping (and not surprising) 6,300,000, approximately three times as many as her mentor, whom she often credits for her knowledge of country music. Had Gram lived one could easily assume a roughly equal number as his career was roughly one third as long (and one could also envision a huge number for the two of them together as probably the biggest country duo act in history).

Obviously this has been a cursory analysis only meant to point out that web content and usage metrics can find a place in, and assist in informing, market trend analysis, and may help us notice that which otherwise may remain obscure. More refined metrics analysis would and could obviously produce more target-specific trending, and/or historical, data.

So as we move forward this year to analyze the train wreck that were the award shows and more specifically their categories and nomination procedures, those involved may want to get up to speed on this paradigm, one that is quantifiable while also being more widely relevant to the industry’s current consumer base. Doing so may assist in making the more subjective judgments at the heart of making such calls.

And as in the case of Gram Parsons, such an empirical analysis may also show that one’s career may not only not end with his or her life but indeed may show that such a career requires re-definition to include the full scope of activity for that artist, whether still with us or not. (After all, to risk a “John Lennon oops! moment,” I believe it took Jesus a few hundred years to really get noticed!)

Gram Emmylou