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Redemption song

Bob Kealing's biography of Gram Parsons, "Calling Me Home," refuses to let the legendary alt-country singer's life be defined by its tragic end.

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

Perhaps Kealing was able to approach the story without prejudice because he was never really a fan – his interest in Parsons, he says, was due to the singer's ties to Central Florida. Parsons' grandparents were the Snivelys, wealthy Winter Haven citrus barons, and he spent some of his formative years in Central Florida playing gigs with up-and-coming musical talents in the region's "youth center circuit" – a network of community centers where teens growing up in the 1960s gathered to catch shows and listen to music. Little spots like the Loch Haven Youth Center in Orlando (now the Loch Haven Neighborhood Center) and the Winter Park Youth Center hosted the likes of the young Tom Petty, Les Dudek, Gram Parsons, and Duane and Gregg Allman. Kealing was just as drawn to the idea of documenting the youth-center circuit as he was by Parsons – though he quickly found that Parsons' story was not a simple one.

During his life, Parsons brushed elbows with some of the biggest names in rock and country – the Rolling Stones, Roger McGuinn, Charlie Louvin – though he never enjoyed the same success as a lot of the people he knew and worked with. "The more I researched him, the more I found he was like a Forrest Gump figure," Kealing says. "He was in and out of so many music scenes in the '60s … and he always seemed to be in interesting places at the right time."

Much of that element of Parsons' life has been well-documented, but some of the more mundane musical and personal relationships hadn't been explored. Kealing talks to Parsons' childhood friends, schoolmates and neighbors, as well as early musical colleagues. Encouraging them to talk openly was cathartic for some – particularly those former friends who took part in the drug abuse and drinking but don't care to sensationalize it these days.

"There's really an element of redemption in this book," Kealing says. "Whether it's Polly Parsons [Gram's daughter] running a substance-abuse center or other musicians saying, 'Hey, that could just as easily have been me.'"

Since writing Calling Me Home, Kealing says he has become a Parsons fan – he says his favorite album is Return of the Grievious Angel, "because it has a lot of Kerouac imagery in it," and Kealing, as literary Orlandoans probably already know, is also the author of Kerouac in Florida: Where the Road Ends. As well, he's a founder of the Kerouac Project in Orlando, which purchased the College Park bungalow where Kerouac lived out some of his later years and turned it into a writers' residency. He says he sees an opportunity for someone – not him – to do something similar to honor Parsons. Parsons' fame is obscured by his tragedy, Kealing says, only because he didn't live long enough to realize his potential. But that doesn't mean somebody else can't help propel his music forward posthumously.

"Gram Parsons never had the big hit record," Kealing says. "But I think if someone were astute enough to put it all together and start re-releasing some of his songs … I think his time could come."

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

By Bob Kealing
(University Press of Florida, 296 pages)

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