Book Review: “Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons & the Roots of Country Rock” (University Press of Florida)
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.
Epilogue: This book dropped in September of this year (2012), one month before the annual Gram tribute in Nashville known as Gram InterNational, an event dedicated to Parsons’ proposed induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Emmylou. Journalist Bob Kealing was there; Bob Buchanan sang “Hickory Wind” and Fred Neil’s “Another Side of This Life” and Jock Bartley, former Parsons band mate on the Fallen Angels tour and guitarist with Firefall, performed as well. Walter Egan of “Magnet and Steel” fame and who was present at the first meeting of Gram and Emmylou performed his fifth annual (see http://bit.ly/Tpbv0M for video of all this) . Tailor to the stars Manuel Cuevas was also there to everyone’s delight. But of even greater significance, the Country Music Hall of Fame invited Bob Kealing to sign copies of his book at the Hall the following day. Long lines formed to have their copies of “Calling Me Home” signed while Gram and Emmylou’s music played throughout the room. As the sun shone brightly through the windows on the glorious wall of gold and platinum records, it indeed seemed to all of us who were present like the momentous occasion it actually was.
Originally posted at Gram InterNational.