The University Press of Florida recently released Bob Kealing's informative and enjoyable work, Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock. It is the latest biography of many exploring the life and music of Gram Parsons. What I believe sets Calling Me Home apart is the book's sharp focus on this remarkable artist's life and work, including his southern roots. The biography traces the trajectory of Gram's role in fusing country and rock music like never before, the lasting impressions he made upon his peers and collaborators, as well as his resonant influence on artists and fans alike over the years since his passing.
I recently reached out to author Bob Kealing to discuss his experiences writing Calling Me Home. I would also like to mention that in addition to this interview feature, readers can learn more about Calling Me Home by following Bob's facebook page and visiting his No Depression page (where he has already posted the first two chapters of the book!).
Hi Bob, can you begin by sharing some of your previous literary experiences/ works?
Bob Kealing: My raison d'etre is identifying central Florida stories which I think deserve more exploration and inform people of this region's rich pre-Disney history and culture. My first book, Kerouac in Florida: Where the Road Ends, examines the great Beat author's significant time in the Sunshine State. He was living in Orlando when his seminal book On the Road was published. My research spawned a literary movement you can examine further at http://www.kerouacproject.org.
My last book is an investigative chronicle about the trailblazing businesswoman Brownie Wise, who brought the Tupperware Company to central Florida in the early 50s. She was Martha Stewart, Mary Kay and Oprah long before any of them came along, then was fired and written out of the company history. The book is entitled, Tupperware, Unsealed.
Can you talk about your personal history with Gram Parson's music?
Bob: I came to his music as a journalist rather than as a fan. I think that helped me see his story more objectively. I do enjoy it a great deal. I think his later work with Emmylou Harris enabled Parsons to explore a greater depth of emotions than his earlier music.
Knowing his story, his writing and music was his emotional outlet through some turbulent times. To think that Gram sold America's most important band of the 1960s on his risky country vision is astonishing, especially since he was barely 21 at the time!
Gram's was fearless about what he wanted to do musically. He absolutely influenced the Rolling Stones. Unfortunately his fascination with them and his friendship with Keith Richards, seriously undermined his work with the Flying Burrito Brothers, America's archetypical "Country Rock" band. Coming of age I enjoyed many of the alt country bands who owe so much to Parsons' trailblazing vision: the Jayhawks, Wilco, Uncle Tupelo to name a few.
When and how did you get the idea to write the biography?
Bob: I found it offensive how the madness and sadness surrounding Parsons untimely death in Joshua Tree, California has overshadowed his legitimate legacy as a pioneering music visionary. I saw Parsons as the thread to talk about the amazing music scenes here in Florida in the 1960s which Gram was a part of and produced a constellation of big stars: the Allmans, Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, Fred Neil, Don Felder, Barnie Leadon, Les Dudek, Bobby Braddock, Jim Stafford, John Anderson, Dickey Betts, the Outlaws...the list goes on and on.
I found that by emphasizing Gram's southern legacy, this biography became much more about the music. I see Emmylou Harris' 2008 induction in to the Country Music Hall of Fame as a line in the sand where Parsons' legacy can no longer be questioned and all the legend hoopla surrounding Joshua Tree should be looked at as old news.
When did you get started and what were your goals for the book?
Bob: I started in 2007 and I set out to celebrate Parsons' music within the context of his considerable southern influences and legacy, to write an objective story which was not hero worship in any way, to celebrate the many musicians who benefitted from what I call central Florida's "youth center circuit", and to explore opportunities for historic preservation.
What were your favorite recordings before beginning the bio as you were going into the project?
Bob: Both of the solo records Gram recorded with Emmylou: GP and Grievous Angel.
What has changed for you as you you listen to Gram's music now that the book is finished?
Bob: What amazes me is the quality of the music Gram was able to produce despite being in the throes of alcoholism, drug abuse, and often despair and turmoil in his personal life.
A number of artists worked with and have been influenced by Gram's life and work. Can you discuss some of your own favorite artists who have collaborated and/ or have been influenced by his music over the years?
Bob: Definitely the Louvin Brothers, Fred Neil (maybe the most influential Florida musician ever along with Parsons), and Dylan. I also admire greatly the solo work of Gene Clark who is arguably the most genre bending musician of them all. Parsons gets a lot more attention, but after I started writing the book and becoming familiar with Clark's post-Byrds work, the more I started to respect him as another visionary.
What would you say are the timeless aspects of Gram's life and music that continues to connect to artists, as well as listeners?
Bob: For his fans, there's this palpable feeling of what could have been had Gram just lived. They know his tragic life story and they feel his pain in the raw emotion Parsons poured in to songs like "Hot Burrito #1", "Song For You", "In My Hour of Darkness", "Love Hurts", and "Brass Buttons".
For new listeners, Parsons' music is still so hard to find on conventional radio that it comes across as so fresh and new whenever they finally do hear it; kind of like reading Kerouac's On the Road for the first time. It's often shared with them by someone who is a passionate fan.
As a biographer who was taking on the subject of Gram's life and music (knowing that there are a number of other works out there on the subject), what "kind" of story did you want to tell to make this book stand apart?
Bob: Like all my books, this one is a literary journey. I often find new information and revelations pursuing journalistic roads less travelled. In this book, Gram's family appreciated my approach and gave me access to his sister Avis' memoirs which provides some of the most emotional moments in the book.
A former girlfriend gave me access to a trove of Gram's letters, at the Newseum in Washington. I discovered the historic Ted Polumbaum Harvard photos of "GP". Gram's niece told me a startling family revelation she only became aware of in the last few years. Jim Stafford took me back to his parents living room and recounted with greater clarity his advice for Parsons to pursue country music. Roger McGuinn gave me a very candid interview about Gram's time during and after the Byrds.
I also try to get as close to the story as possible. I walked around Gram's house in Winter Haven with a friend of his who hadn't been there in 45 years. I sat with Charlie Louvin in Waycross City Auditorium where he and Ira opened for Elvis in the '56 concert that changed Gram's life. I found a guy who covered the Byrds' '68 Ryman performance and interviewed them for his school paper. This gives you a sense of how deep I dug and how far I travelled to find new things.
A lot of writing, even films, glorify Gram's overdose and after-death story. Can you talk about why you decided to not jump on this bandwagon and sidestep this glorification?
Bob: The minor characters in his overdose and after death story have made a career out of self-aggrandizement to the detriment of Parsons' legacy. I had and have no interest in perpetuating the Gram mythology nonsense. There's no myth in the music. They seem to have a lot better focus on Parsons the flawed but pioneering musician here in the south. I would much rather feel the vibrations of his history at the Ryman in Nashville or the gazebo at the Bolles school in Jacksonville where Gram would go to write and play.
I understand the need and desire of fans to remember Gram at a special place like Joshua Tree. After all, it's what attracted Parsons to the desert in the first place. But I want no part of all the morbid exploitation of what went on there. It gives detractors ammunition to see Parsons as some sort of drug-addled joke. I also think it's fueled some of the revisionist comments made by contemporaries of his whose own careers would be far less had they not associated with Parsons.
What were some of your most unexpected discoveries of Gram's life and body of work?
Bob: Gram has long-lost blood relatives he never knew. I'm also stunned at the extent of devotion people have to Parsons work. It's a testament to how good and lasting his music is.
How does this book connect to your other literary work?
Bob: It's been another rewarding trip in to history. Exciting things are happening as a result.
What sets it most apart for you?
Bob: I tried to find more compassion and redemption in writing the Parsons book. I also found an uplifting ending back home in the South. I find that people are far more judgmental of Parsons' early death than many other promising musicians who experimented with drugs and never got a second or third act in life.
What would you say were the most rewarding, memorable, and lasting aspects from researching and composing the book, as well as from interviews and your own personal experiences?
Bob: There is talk of a permanent, living memorial to Gram Parsons in Winter Haven. Also, when I rolled out the book at the Country Music Hall of Fame in early November, Gram and Emmylou's music played throughout much of the hall all afternoon. I'd like to think this book is playing another part in putting the emphasis back on Gram Parsons the musician and artist. There were numerous unforgettable interviews, and I've forged some friendships along the way.