Hanging out with Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones had taken its toll on Gram. He was down, and nearly out, his nerves shot by alcohol and his career drifting. Chris Hillman, former band-mate in both The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers conspired to introduce Gram to Emmylou Harris. There was an instant spark when they sang together, and it gave Gram a renewed sense of conviction – leading ultimately to the recording of ‘GP’ and its follow-up, ‘Grievous Angel’.
Gram Parsons had been born into money. So, when Warners turned down his request of hiring three members of the Elvis Presley touring band, he simply paid for their session fees himself. It’s pertinent to remember, Gram had no real public profile and had sold a negligible quantity of records. Being born into money gave him license to almost do as he pleased.
Roger McGuinn of The Byrds once remarked that when Gram joined as David Crosby’s replacement ‘it was almost like Mick Jagger had joined The Byrds!’. But, Gram was bitter. He’d played a pivotal role through his work with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers in starting ‘Country-Rock’ only to see the likes of The Eagles reap the commercial fortunes he felt should have been his.
‘GP’ sounds very accomplished musically thanks to the team of top session players Gram had recruited. The real sparks come from the vocals of both Gram and Emmylou, and of course, the songs themselves. Whether the quiver and frailty in some of Grams vocals here really was down to his alcohol abuse, or for other reason – it gives these songs, especially the ballad performances, a huge emotionally resonating quality.
‘Still Feeling Blue’ makes good use of Byron Berline’s fiddle playing as well as featuring attractive Pedal Steel work. It’s a fast-paced song, very celebratory in musical feeling and with Emmylou joining Gram in the chorus parts. ‘We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning’ features slightly wayward Parsons vocals – and it becomes very easy to believe listening to this that his alcohol abuse was part of the reason. Emmylou joins him here throughout the song, pretty much singing co-lead. In fact, she sings far better on this song than Gram himself, but when they do sing together, it sounds pretty nice.
A far better song than ‘We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes’ arrives with Grams own ‘A Song For You’. This is where his quivering, frail voice works to best effect, very tender and emotional. Emmylou sings harmony, and the whole song is utterly gorgeous. ‘Streets Of Baltimore’ is one of several covers here, and perfectly well done but lacks the extra sparkle of Grams own compositions. ‘She’ is another spine-chilling ballad, this time with a stupendous Parsons vocal full of emotion.
The lyrics are evocative with mentions of ‘delta sun’ and ‘she sure could sing’ over the top of beautifully understated, perfectly appropriate musical parts. ‘That’s All It Took’ is the kind of hokey country tune Elvis Presley might have performed. It’s not very entertaining, although perfectly well performed. ‘The New Soft Shoe’ is another Parsons original, and sounds like many of his songs, totally other worldy and beautiful – more affecting vocals here in particular. ‘Kiss The Children’ opens with some entertaining fiddle playing, great little pure country guitar parts and is a fun, less serious song. ‘Cry One More Time’ is a little blues, rather strained and breaking the mood of the album a little.
‘How Much I’ve Lied’ contains more accomplished playing, the closing ‘Big Mouth Blues’ a little funky country blues, although like ‘Cry One More Time’ doesn’t sound at all matched to some of the other material here, the Gram Parsons originals in particular.
Though opinion differ on who recorded the first country-rock album, there is no question that the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo was the first one by a major rock group, and Sony/Legacy is set to debut an expanded two-CD version, with lots of bonus material, on September 2 as part of its new ‘Legacy Editions’ series.
As long-time Byrds fans will know, the Byrds by the time of Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968 were down from five original members to just Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, with singer-songwriter Gene Clark and drummer Michael Clarke having exited on their own and David Crosby a recent victim of a pink-slip for his volatility in the recording studio during sessions for the preceding Notorious Byrd Brothers.
Joining McGuinn and Hillman in the new lineup were Hillman’s cousin Kevin Kelley, formerly the drummer in Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal’s Rising Sons, and Gram Parsons, then the leader of the little-known International Submarine Band, on keyboards. The album that resulted failed initially with both rock and country fans, the former put off by the twangy content and the latter by the band’s long hair, but has since become a certified classic and the foundation for Parsons’ role as a cult hero to alt-country musicians.
Disc 1 of the new Legacy Edition, supervised by Bob Irwin and mixed by Vic Anesini, starts with the 11 songs on the original Sweetheart of the Rodeo LP, including those where McGuinn re-recorded lead vocals originally done by Parsons but dumped after the latter was discovered to be under contract to another label, Lee Hazelwood’s LHI Productions.
These tracks are then followed by the outtakes and alternates, including those with Parsons’ vocals, that first surfaced on the out-of-print 1990 Byrds Box Set – ‘Pretty Polly,’ ‘The Christian Life,’ ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ and ‘One Hundred Years from Now,’ ‘(You’ve Got a) Reputation’ and ‘Lazy Days.’ Also added to the first disc the previously unavailable Kevin Kelley vocal version of ‘All I Have Is Memories,’ which Irwin recently discovered in the vaults, plus the Columbia radio spot advertising the album that appeared as bonus on the 1997 expanded Sweetheart reissue.
Disc 2 then offers up a motherlode of unreleased and often revelatory alternate takes, along with several rare Parsons tracks that pre-date his short stay from January to July 1968 in the Byrds.
The disc opens with ‘Sum Up Broke’ and ‘One Day Week,’ the A and B sides of the International Submarine Band’s lone single on the Columbia label. Parsons and John Nuese co-wrote and sing on ‘Sum Up Broke,’ while Parsons has the microphone to himself on his solo credit ‘One Day Week.’ Both tracks are in mono, as is the subsequent ‘Truck Drivin’ Man,’ the B side of another ISB single done for the short-lived Ascot company. The A side, a prosaic instrumental tie-in for the cold war film comedy The Russians Are Going, The Russians are Coming, is not included.
Stereo recordings then kick in with three tracks – ‘Blue Eyes,’ ‘Luxury Liner’ and ‘Strong Boy’ – taken from the International Submarine Band’s one full-length album, Safe at Home. “We had the original two-track stereo masters for these,” Irwin tells ICE. “With these tracks we wanted to show what Gram’s history was before he joined the Byrds and indicate what he and Chris Hillman (who had country roots also) brought to the table – the musical palate they offered,” Irwin adds.
The disc then delivers 14 previously unheard rehearsal and alternate takes from Sweetheart sessions. They begin with a very funky version of ‘Lazy Days,’ driven by Jaydee Maness steel guitar.’ Irwin mentions the harmonies on the track as reminding him of what Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were doing during Let It Bleed period. Parsons and Hillman, after they regrouped as the Flying Burrito Brothers, recut the song for Burrito Deluxe in 1970.
Disc 2 continues with an alternate version of the Parsons-written, but McGuinn-sung, ‘Pretty Polly,’ this time without the double-tracked McGuinn vocal used on the Box Set. This is followed by a take of Parsons’ ‘Hickory Wind’ recorded during the band’s week-long stay in Nashville before the Byrds became the first rock group to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.
Irwin next serves up two rehearsals each, with bits of studio chatter and occasional false starts, of Parsons fronting the band on the Louvin Brothers’ ‘The Christian Life,’ Merle Haggard’s ‘Life in Prison,’ Parsons’ own ‘One Hundred Years from Now’ and the old George Jones hit ‘You’re Still on My Mind.’
The disc closes with a pair of instrumental run-throughs of Kelley’s ‘All I Have Is Memories’ and a rehearsal of ‘Blue Canadian Rockies’ featuring Hillman handling the vocal. Altogether the second disc clocks in at 61 minutes of rare and previously unreleased material.
Irwin singles out original producer Gary Usher for his crucial role in crafting Sweetheart. ‘He was a member of the new school of producers as opposed to some of the older guys who would rein in the younger musicians back in the ’60s. He pretty much let them go and shape their music the way they wanted to and then offered very smart musical guidance . . . Roger McGuinn has great things to say about Gary. Certainly they feel that he fostered their creativity.”
Irwin also praises McGuinn, “A lot of credit has to be given to Roger’s openness and willingness to listen to the people he was playing with. I think that’s something that is often overlooked – the strength of Roger’s contribution. Even though the band was feeling the influences of this new music, Roger was still very much the main driving force behind the band when it came to shaping the music. You can hear on the studio chatter that he and Gram are calling the shots, but Roger is structuring the songs.”
Asked about Sweetheart, Hillman tells ICE, “I think it was a noble experiment for the time. There are some great songs, including two of Gram’s best, ‘One Hundred Years from Now’ and ‘Hickory Wind.’ He was like a young colt let out of the corral, rearing to go, and that was good for Roger and me. I think we opened a lot of doors for people who otherwise would never had listened to that kind of music.”
But Hillman does qualify his praise for Sweetheart. “I don’t think it was the best Byrds album we made. When I listen to things like ‘Life in Prison,’ sung by a trust-fund kid, it doesn’t quite gel. That was sort of a bad pick of material, [with] Gram singing ‘I’ll do life in prison for the wrongs that I’ve done,’ unless it was more of an insightful, abstract look at his own problems – ‘life in prison’ being suffering emotionally in his own mind.”
But having Parsons in the band, he says, was great for him. “I love country music, and now I had an ally, and we sort of nudged Roger along. Roger never really liked that kind of music, and to this day I don’t think he likes it.”
This was Gram Parsons’ debut album, the eternally underrated Safe At Home. Prior to this he had recorded solo demos, music with an early folk band the Shilohs and a few singles with the International Submarine Band – all worthwhile stuff. Parsons formed this group after he had dropped out of Harvard and moved to New York City.
While he was no stranger to the recording studio, critics and music fans unfairly label Safe At Home as a tentative early album that showed signs of greatness. While it was nowhere near as influential as Gilded Palace of Sin, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, or Parsons’ two solo discs, time has shown Safe At Home to be much more than an early throw away.
The remaining members consisted of rhythm guitarist Bob Buchanan, bass player Ian Dunlop and drummer Jon Corneal. The album is disappointingly short at 9 songs but all the performances are memorable and Gram’s talent as a bandleader is clearly on display.
Even so early on in his career Parsons’ vocal and songwriting abilities were obvious and on the money. The rest of the group is tight and engaging, reminding me of a garage band playing country music – reckless playing and soulful harmonies.
There are four originals: an early version of Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome which is sparse but very effective, Luxury Liner, Strong Boy, and Blue Eyes. The latter three tracks are country rock classics, kind of like early benchmarks for the genre. Luxury Liner charges hard like a freight train and is probably the most popular track off the original lp. Without a doubt the album’s most rock oriented number, this track is essential listening. Just as good is Blue Eyes and Strong Boy which are closer to pure country and show off great Parsons vocal performances. Strong Boy is one of the true country rock classics, an absolute must hear.
The remaining tracks are wisely chosen covers, all great renditions too. Satisfied Mind is notable for its powerful drum work, Folsom Prison Blues has great stinging guitar leads and I Must Be Somebody Else You’ve Known sports a gorgeous, catchy chorus that’s worth the price of admission.
The original lp was released off Lee Hazlewood’s LHI Records in 1968. At the time it was praised widely by the likes of Glen Campbell and Don Everly though sales were pretty poor. There is really much more to this story that I’m leaving out but my main objective was to comment on the strength of the songs and general quality of performance.
Parsons left the group before the lp’s release and remained inactive for a few months before joining the Byrds. Many of you know this record, so in a sense it’s not really a lost album like The Wheel (Bernie Schwartz) or Morning. But taken as a whole, Safe At Home is a fresh, groundbreaking record, that at least in my mind is a classic. The best cd version is on Sundazed, orignal artwork and all.
As I’ve studied the “genre” of Americana, read books on the subject and listened to the music, more than anyone else the name of Gram Parsons is mentioned. I’ve come to the conclusion that Parsons is to Americana – country rock, alt-country – what Hank Williams is to “traditional” country music. He was a brilliant songwriter and stellar performer, writing scores of beloved songs and spawning an entirely new genre. He also managed to kill himself with drugs and drink before his 30th birthday.
The three-disc collection begins with Gram Parsons’ first solo album, GP. In the year between first discussing the idea with Keith Richards and actually beginning recording, Parsons made the discovery of the girl singer he’d been looking for, a young woman named Emmylou Harris. At long last, with producer Rik Grech and backed by Elvis Presley’s touring band (including James Burton, Glen D. Hardin, and Ronnie Tutt), recording finally began.
The album that resulted from those sessions remains a magnificent slice of what they called “country rock” in those days; in listening, it’s hard to believe this wasn’t always as pure country as country can get. Parsons himself says he doesn’t understand why people have to sub-catagorize music; if it’s good, it’s good. And this album is good. With songs as diverse as “Streets of Baltimore” and “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes in the Morning,” as well as Parsons’ own songs, sung in Parsons’ sweet tenor with Emmylou’s distinctive soprano, it can’t help but be a constant joy.
The re-issue here comes with seven bonus tracks, including rare interviews and live performances of “Sin City” and “Love Hurts.” An amazing album, doubly astounding when considering that Parsons was only 25 years old at the time.
Parsons followed up his beautiful debut solo album with the equally stunning Grievous Angel, an album which deserves a place alongside other great country albums. Parsons wrote nearly every song on Grievous Angel, throwing in the lament “Love Hurts,” as well as Tom T. Hall’s “I Can’t Dance” and the Louvin Brothers’ “Cash on the Barrelhead.” Of course, a great deal of amazing country music was being recorded at this time under the heading of “country rock,” and in that arena Parsons was in grand company, as well.
Again with duet-mate Emmylou Harris, each song is finely crafted, a superlative study in the exact way duets should be performed. Harris and Parsons were an exquisite pair, unmatched in any genre of music before or since, their voices perfectly suited as they wove together on such songs as “Hearts on Fire” and the heart-wrenching “In My Hour of Darkness,” one of the most amazing songs I think I’ve ever heard.
I admit despite having known the Burritos and the Byrds, as well as the name of Gram Parsons, for years, I’d never listened to these two albums before, and I’ve been blown away. There are three bonus tracks on this disc, including one instrumental and two interviews.
Hanging out with Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones had taken its toll on Gram. He was down, and nearly out, his nerves shot by alcohol and his career drifting. Chris Hillman, former band-mate in both The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers conspired to introduce Gram to Emmylou Harris. There was an instant spark when they sang together, and it gave Gram a renewed sense of conviction – leading ultimately to the recording of ‘GP’ and its follow-up, ‘Grievous Angel’. Gram Parsons had been born into money. So, when Warners turned down his request of hiring three members of the Elvis Presley touring band, he simply paid for their session fees himself. It’s pertinent to remember, Gram had no real public profile and had sold a negligible quantity of records. Being born into money gave him license to almost do as he pleased.
Roger McGuinn of The Byrds once remarked that when Gram joined as David Crosby’s replacement ‘it was almost like Mick Jagger had joined The Byrds!’. But, Gram was bitter. He’d played a pivotal role through his work with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers in starting ‘Country-Rock’ only to see the likes of The Eagles reap the commercial fortunes he felt should have been his. ‘GP’ sounds very accomplished musically thanks to the team of top session players Gram had recruited. The real sparks come from the vocals of both Gram and Emmylou, and of course, the songs themselves. Whether the quiver and frailty in some of Grams vocals here really was down to his alcohol abuse, or for other reason – it gives these songs, especially the ballad performances, a huge emotionally resonating quality.
‘Still Feeling Blue’ makes good use of Byron Berline’s fiddle playing as well as featuring attractive Pedal Steel work. It’s a fast-paced song, very celebratory in musical feeling and with Emmylou joining Gram in the chorus parts. ‘We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning’ features slightly wayward Parsons vocals – and it becomes very easy to believe listening to this that his alcohol abuse was part of the reason. Emmylou joins him here throughout the song, pretty much singing co-lead. In fact, she sings far better on this song than Gram himself, but when they do sing together, it sounds pretty nice. A far better song than ‘We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes’ arrives with Grams own ‘A Song For You’.
This is where his quivering, frail voice works to best effect, very tender and emotional. Emmylou sings harmony, and the whole song is utterly gorgeous. ‘Streets Of Baltimore’ is one of several covers here, and perfectly well done but lacks the extra sparkle of Grams own compositions. ‘She’ is another spine-chilling ballad, this time with a stupendous Parsons vocal full of emotion. The lyrics are evocative with mentions of ‘delta sun’ and ‘she sure could sing’ over the top of beautifully understated, perfectly appropriate musical parts. ‘That’s All It Took’ is the kind of hokey country tune Elvis Presley might have performed.
It’s not very entertaining, although perfectly well performed. ‘The New Soft Shoe’ is another Parsons original, and sounds like many of his songs, totally otherworldy and beautiful – more affecting vocals here in particular. ‘Kiss The Children’ opens with some entertaining fiddle playing, great little pure country guitar parts and is a fun, less serious song. ‘Cry One More Time’ is a little blues, rather strained and breaking the mood of the album a little. ‘How Much I’ve Lied’ contains more accomplished playing, the closing ‘Big Mouth Blues’ a little funky country blues, although like ‘Cry One More Time’ doesn’t sound at all matched to some of the other material here, the Gram Parsons originals in particular.
You never know how much a ‘secondary’ figure in the band can suddenly influence the sound of the whole band. Just like Mick Taylor revolutionized the Stones’ sound a year later without the band even realizing it, the arrival of Gram Parsons on the scene proved to be crucial and, in the long run, disastrous for the Byrds. McGuinn originally planned a double album drawing on every genre in the history of American music, a kind of anthology of Folk, Bluegrass, Country, Jazz And Blues – an idea later shared by the Doors, surprisingly. However, neither of the bands had enough guts to carry out the idea, so the Doors recorded The Soft Parade (bummer), and McGuinn took Parsons’ advice and recorded an all-country album instead. This isn’t even country-rock – it’s just pure country, with pedal steel guitar as the only prominent instrument in existence. The result is that it gets boring. And boy, does it get boring…
Now I don’t know that much about country music – I’m no expert, really. But I know for damn sure country music can be really really entertaining – like, for instance, the countryfied version of Dylan’s ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ that opens the album. Once again, McGuinn does an outstanding singing job on this one, maybe their third best Dylan cover after ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘My Back Pages’: for once, the composition can be called ‘improved upon’, at least as compared to the rather sloppy version on The Basement Tapes. And the Parsons-led choruses are particularly impressive, with the band soaring up to the skies with simple and uncomprehensible, but beautiful lyrics (‘ooh-wee, ride on high/Tomorrow’s the day my bride’s gonna come…’)
But what about the rest? One after another, we get ten dull, gloomy, ploddering numbers that resemble each other like two drops of water and make the record sound horrendously dated and pointless – sometimes it seems that McGuinn didn’t really care at all about what he was singing as long as it featured some steel pedal. The songs are all covers, except for the sole Parsons original (‘Hickory Wind’) which everybody seems to love for no obvious reason – to me, it sounds like everything else on here: a slow, dreamy pedal steel ballad with a primitive melody and typical country lyrics. It’s… how do you describe it? It’s like the proverbial country song – all the necessary ingredients to form a country song are there, but there’s nothing to distinguish it from every other country song in existence.
In fact, I pretty much prefer listening to Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’: at least it’s fast, and I like the tongue-in-cheek accent of McGuinn on this one. Another good number is ‘Nothing Was Delivered’, yet another Dylan cover: which actually convinces me as further proof to the fact that they just didn’t get enough good material. ‘The Christian Life’? ‘Blue Canadian Rockies’? ‘Life In Prison’? Bores the living hell out of me.
I mean, really, country music can be much more exciting. It’s not the great melodic diversity, of course – like all ‘root’ genres, country is pretty limited – but it’s the interesting tricks and mood shifts you get that make a country track sound great. Songs like the above mentioned ones, or, for instance, ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’, don’t lift their heads up from the ‘zero level’ not for a single second: just the same expressionless, formulaic slide guitars (God knows I love slide guitars – but you gotta diversify the chords, too), expressionless, soulless vocals, and trivial arrangements. Berk. Country my ass. I’ll take Dylan’s Selfportrait over this stuff easily, at least Bob shifts tempos and puts some colour and flavour into his voice as he goes along.
On the positive side, I don’t have anything in particular against this stuff – it doesn’t offend me nohow. But I tell you, these songs shouldn’t have all made it to the same album, because it ruins their individual charm (not that all of them have individual charm: ‘Blue Canadian Rockies’ is as dull as may be). And some sound like countrified takes on their earlier and better material (‘I Am A Pilgrim’, a pale shadow of the far superior ‘I Come And Stand At Every Door’).
The endless bonus tracks on here mostly add alternate takes with Parsons vocals instead of McGuinn ones, which isn’t as interesting as it might seem. However, it does include three previously unreleased cuts which liven up things quite a bit, just because they break with the pattern: ‘You Got A Reputation’ is still countryish, but it sounds mean and menacing, with an atmosphere that recalls the dangerous psychedelia of ‘Thoughts And Words’; ‘Lazy Days’ is a groovy Chuck Berry-style rocker where McGuinn sounds like Ringo Starr, so you just have to give it a listen; and ‘Pretty Polly’ is one of those scary, nightmarish folk songs that Bob Dylan was so fond of, with a lyrical subject that reminds me of ‘House Carpenter’. Why they haven’t made the grade back in 1968 seems obvious – they have next to none pedal steel; however, in retrospect it seems that, were they included, the album would only have benefited from that. And yet – didn’t they inspire Dylan for Nashville Skyline? I mean – lead for once instead of follow? Who cares? Skyline isn’t one of his best albums, anyway.
I once boldly stated without checking that Gram Parsons had more books written about him than anyone else who died by age 26. Someone did their homework and corrected me: King Tut and Anne Frank evidently have had more (perhaps others). By pointing to such notables from history, I think this critic made my case.
So, why another book about Gram Parsons? If you throw in the Gandolf Hennig movie, one wonders what more one could know about this gentle though brightly shining comet that seemed to come out of nowhere and burn out far too quickly for most to see on the horizon.
Turns out a journalist from Florida now gives us the reasons why. Seems there actually were parts of Gram’s life that had not been thoroughly explored and people who were close to Gram that had not said much before, possibly because no one thought them important enough to talk to. Bob Kealing sensed their stories untold, and they opened up to him.
It took a journalist with Bob Kealing’s cred and easy manner to uncover these friends, relatives, and band mates and their informative tales. How? Like any good journalist does: by going after the story. By finding those folks, and squeezing all he could from them without them even knowing he had done so. By taking the pieces, putting them together, and going where the story took him — with no preconceptions based on previous works or even on a complete knowledge of Parsons’ catalog. And perhaps most importantly by nature of being a journalist who shared a homeland that Parsons loved and that informed his art; where others covered Gram’s early years in the South mainly from the viewpoint of his tragic family background and left it there, Kealing found there was much more to discover and share with us.
This review is not going to do the obvious: once again summarize the usual and well-known facts about Gram’s life and death. Kealing’s dealing with the latter is key to his overarching reason for writing about Gram, someone he actually knew relatively little about when he began the project. While many if not most over the years have focused on Parsons’ death in the desert, Kealing does the opposite; his focus is primarily on how Gram’s formative years informed his art. While the book covers the arc of Gram’s career, this focus makes the narrative special. “Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock” (University Press of Florida) is about just that: a land that always beckons, that underlies most of Gram’s songwriting, especially on his best songs, a land that informs not only him but all others with whom he associated and who learned from him, from Keith Richards to Emmylou Harris to all those many present-day performers who attest to Parsons being the reason they do what they do. It’s a land, whether or not we know it as intimately as Parsons or Kealing, that calls us all back home, that all roads lead to, a place made universal by an artist who made us all feel, through his art, that we all long to be “safe at home.”
This is not to say Joshua Tree should be ignored. Southern California and Joshua Tree, the region usually associated with Gram Parsons, was without doubt important to Gram personally and to his career path. But to the author the sanctification of the Room 8 and Joshua Tree mythology ultimately becomes obstructive to a full appreciation of this seminal artist. Yes, after 40 years that is being overcome, in part thanks to works such as this, but still 40 years is a long time. Kealing compares the need to look South to Waycross and Florida to that of another subject of this biographer, Jack Kerouac. Kealing states, “It just gives all the cynics more fodder to look at Gram and his legacy as some sort of twisted, drug-addled joke. There’s a strong parallel with Kerouac. Before we brought Orlando into the picture, people always talked about Kerouac’s Florida years in narrower terms; before his death in Saint Pete as a drunken, pathetic joke. It’s where he went to die. Turns out, his years in Orlando, his last prolific period, saw him catapulted from nomadic nobody to literary immortality. I have no doubt this can happen for Gram’s legacy too.”
The author, therefore, mercifully doesn’t spend much time on the death and next to none on “the caper.” Kealing concludes with an account of one of the annual Waycross events a couple years ago that he attended. The late great Charlie Louvin headlined the bill; he had recently put the Country Music Hall of Fame medal around the gorgeous neck (sorry for editorializing) of Ms. Emmylou Harris. Also there was “Hickory Wind” co-author and Parsons band mate Bob Buchanan. They met and shared stories on the steps of the old Waycross City Aud where Gram had been inspired by Elvis as a youngster.
In doing his research, Kealing has uncovered some surprises along the way, and I’ll leave it to the reader to find them. As a historian and one fascinated by the early days of rock as it merged with folk and country, the stories alone about Florida’s youth centers and the region’s rich heritage from garage bands to Coconut Grove, where Gram’s idols and peers often hung out, including Bob Buchanan, the great Fred Neil, and others like John Sebastian, are priceless. It takes an award-winning journalist such as Bob Kealing to tie all this together with final events such as the historic Houston Liberty Hall Fallen Angels concert to complete a portrait of a seminal artist as a young man right up to the time of that still young man’s death.
Five years ago when this reviewer began the Gram InterNational concerts in Nashville, it was held on the date of Gram’s death. I used a picture of a Joshua Tree as the background for the poster. Several years ago I moved the event to Parsons’ birthday, and this year a lush green setting with a large live oak provided the backdrop for the poster. The parched desert that holds the stars together overhead joins with the South, where the verdant land “trembles and it shakes until every tree is loose,” to form a metaphor for the whole of this American original, and it’s nothing but a good thing that the entirety of his short but undeniably influential life is now being explored. “Calling Me Home” does much to take that exploration beyond metaphor.