Calling Me Home (Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock) Book Preview…Chapter Two
Chapter Two: Legacy versus Legend
On a bluff overlooking a bend in the St. Johns River, boys in short-sleeved shirts and ties mingle with attractive girls in summer outfits, pausing from intellectual pursuits to watch planes landing in the distance at the Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida. In this serene setting, spectral strands of Spanish moss dangle in the cooling breezes. For decades, young people on the precipice of adult lives, beginning to shape dreams and opinions, have taken time out here.
On the back reaches of the Bolles School, Gram Parsons used to come to a stone gazebo to fight off depression the way he always did: with his poetry and guitar. At other times this place was simply a hangout: somewhere to grab a smoke, pass the time with classmates, and enjoy a view of the St. Johns River winding its way north.
“Oh, he was a beautiful boy back then,” recalls his friend and confidante from those days, Margaret Fisher. Girls swooned when Parsons performed solo at the Bolles School’s gymnasium or nearby at Bartram School for Girls, where Fisher was enrolled. His hair was longer than that of the other boys, and his perpetually tanned skin, talent, and southern gentlemanly way gave Parsons the kind of social status usually reserved for the school’s royalty—the jocks.
On this day decades after Parsons left Bolles, the vibrations of his time here are palpable. Many of the classmates, friends, and teachers who mentored him have remained in the area. Fisher was among them, living in a beach town forty-five minutes or so from the prestigious school’s campus. Arriving at the guard house in a dark, past-its-prime Jaguar, Fisher too had an air of withered, world-weary grandeur. She had come back to Bolles to relive the bittersweet memories of meeting Gram Parsons for the first time, in the gazebo.
“I tried to be as far from him as I could get,” remembers the formerly blond and bookish ingénue from a moneyed Jacksonville family—a doctor’s daughter. “He was playing his guitar and performing, and I was so socially awkward I buried my face in a Truman Capote book and tried not to notice him.”
As the bookish, fair-haired girl clutched her copy of Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, Parsons, always able to be the person he thought he needed to be, struck up a literary conversation. At that moment Parsons found a friend who would come in and out of his life for the next decade. When they met here in Florida, Parsons was beginning a quick upward trajectory, his confidence at an all-time high: his ambition and possibilities boundless; his ultimate success all but a certainty.
Fisher has come to be known as the woman who was with Gram Parsons a decade later when he died. Since then, Fisher has lived with the regret of not being able to stop him or somehow find a way to keep his death from happening.
“Imagine,” she said flatly, “being defined by the worst day of your life.”
As Fisher strolled past her first meeting place with Parsons, she was three thousand miles from that dark day, remembering the awkward but bright and beautiful waif she used to be, meeting the magnetic, handsome young musician. No tragedy, no drugs, no booze, no guilt, no questions why. They were just a couple of “inconvenient kids” sent to a boarding school by parents who had other things to deal with.
It was too much for Fisher to actually sit down in that gazebo and let memories of that first meeting with Parsons overtake her. That would have to come another time. “Not now,” Fisher said with certainty. “I’ve had enough for one day.” As quickly as Fisher led us back to that special stopping-off place where she and Parsons met, we were walking back to the Bolles School’s front gate, to our cars, to the safe tedium of today.
Gram Parsons has also been defined by the worst days of his life—pigeonholed by the bizarre and tragic events surrounding his death—as if time froze in September 1973 when he died at twenty-six. Critics minimize Parsons as a selfish, trust-fund dilettante, who didn’t have to work, suffer, and sell records for the fame all musicians crave. All he had to do was die young.
Had Gram Parsons found redemption, he’d have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame with the angel-voiced singer he introduced to the world, Emmylou Harris. For his fans, the vision of Parsons as an older, successful, and esteemed founder of the alt-country genre torments them. Why couldn’t he just have lived?
Gram Parsons’s lack of chart success and longevity make it impossible for him to ever achieve mainstream success or recognition. Unlike so many of his contemporaries who got caught up in the rock-and-roll life’s excesses, Gram Parsons got no second or third act. Thus, Rolling Stone’s description of him as “rock’s greatest cult figure” is particularly apt. Because of his early exit from this earth absent any meaningful stay on the Billboard charts, many stalwart music fans will forever say, “Gram who?”
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said the two most “pure musicians” he knew were John Lennon and Gram Parsons. “Gram wrote great songs,” Richards wrote. Entertainer Jim Stafford—Parsons’s childhood friend, bandmate, and mentor—said of those songs, “They’re underground classics.” One-time friend and bandmate Chris Hillman said Parsons “could’ve been quite a driving force in country music. Everything he wanted and dreamed he could’ve been.” By contrast, one country music legend confided he found Parsons’s playing “loose” and of his enduring appeal said, “I don’t get it.”
Scholar Clay Motley offers this explanation of Parsons’s influence: “A close examination of Parsons’s lyrics reveals a fascinating tension between raucous hedonism and religious redemption—‘Sin City’ and the ‘City of God.’ This unresolved tension running through Parsons’s musical career reflects his luminal position as a path-breaking figure between traditional country music and ’60s rock and roll.”
The key to Parsons’s appeal lies in the fact that he put so much of himself into the music. It may not have been technically correct by Nashville standards, but no one can deny Parsons radiated vulnerability, soul, and effortless cool. When he warbles, “I’m your toy, I’m your old boy,” in the poorly titled “Hot Burrito #1,” it’s as if all the need and longing in Parsons’s real life is right there at the surface. When he sings “her comb still lies beside my bed” in “Brass Buttons,” how can those who know his life story not be reminded of Parsons’s mother, Avis, who also died young?
Some believe one of Parsons’s best songs, the evocative “Hickory Wind,” is an ode to the good times he spent hunting and fishing with his war-hero father. The lyrics reflect an intimacy with a place and time in the South he would never again recapture, much like the sudden realization that the man he looked up to and depended on was gone.
In addition to enormous wealth provided by Gram’s grandfather, Florida citrus baron John Snively, Parsons’s other inheritance was the family addiction and melancholy. The extensive citrus holdings, family fortune, the white-columned mansion situated in the middle of Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Florida—none of it could buy Parsons or his sister a sense of home or family warmth.
In 1973, the news of his death and the bizarre chain of events that followed brought him a macabre kind of legend he likely would have relished. But it’s a kind of notoriety we might associate today with reality-show stardom: being famous for nothing particularly important.
It has taken decades, but finally his pioneering legacy is catching up. Gram Parsons has become an underground icon for the right reasons: creating a genuine country crossover blend of music that brought together disparate groups of fans and to this day provides the roadmap for legions of other hybrid artists to follow.
The next stop in this journey is an outpost in southeast Georgia, a railroad town named Waycross.