|Ever since his early death, the legend of Florida’s Cosmic Cowboy, country rock pioneer Gram Parsons, has overshadowed his considerable talent and musical legacy.
Parsons left his mark across the Sunshine State, from his boyhood home in Winter Haven to his college stopping-off point in Winter Park to his two stints at the prestigious Bolles school in Jacksonville and to his performances beginning as a Polk County pre-teen.
Even then, Gram Parsons (who would have turned 60 in November) had a kind of rock star aura about him. It was the mixture of looks, talent and charisma.
“You knew Gram was in the room even if your back was turned and you couldn’t see him,” said his childhood friend and former band mate Jim Carlton.
The two boys met in parochial school, even though neither was Catholic. Carlton’s father ran a music store in Winter Haven and gave lessons. Carlton himself is an accomplished guitarist, writer and loyal gatekeeper of his late friend’s musical legacy.
Strumming an old Gibson acoustic guitar, Carlton remembered when he recorded Parsons on a Sony 500 reel-to-reel machine.
“It was one of the best toys a teen-aged boy ever had,” Carlton reflected.
These historic recordings mark an important and transitional time in the iconic singer’s short life when he was splitting time between Harvard, the folk scene in New York City, his birthplace in Winter Haven and his adoptive father’s new place in the Orlando suburbs.
Parsons' family history reads like a Gothic novel of the old South, with tales of rampant substance abuse, suicide, enormous wealth and the privilege that came with it and bushels of God-given talent only partially realized.
His father committed suicide when Gram was only 12. Parsons himself died at 26.
When Gram's adoptive father Bob Parsons wanted to escape the whispering campaign that followed the death of his wife, Gram's mother Avis, the Parsons left Winter Haven and moved to Winter Park. Their refuge was a 4,000 square-foot estate on Lake Maitland with separate guest quarters and a boat house. Hidden from the road off Summerland Avenue, the home still stands today. It has yet to be mentioned in the growing body of biographical material about Gram Parsons.
It was June, 1965. On the day he was graduated from the Bolles High School, Gram received word from Winter Haven that his mother had died of complications from alcoholism.
In his book, Hickory Wind, The Life and Times of Gram Parsons, writer Ben Fong-Torres reported that Bob Parsons later admitted to Gram that he had smuggled in to the hospital, miniature bottles of liquor, insisting it was what Avis had begged him for. Her relatives, a wealthy Winter Haven citrus family named the Snivelys, believed Bob Parsons did it to hasten her death and seal his claim to her part of the family fortune.
If that wasn't bad enough, at the time of his wife's death, Bob Parsons was already having an affair with the family's babysitter. Eighteen year-old Bonnie had been hired to care for Bob and Avis' baby daughter, Gram’s half-sister Diane, born in the fall of 1960. In 1965, 23 year-old Bonnie was Bob Parsons’ new wife. With all of that baggage, Bob Parsons moved Bonnie, Diane, and Gram's sister known as, "little Avis," in to the home on Lake Maitland.
Despite lackluster grades and a general lack of interest in school, Gram managed to write an essay clever enough to earn admission to Harvard. “I remember Gram opening a letter from Harvard asking if he wanted his bed sheets pin-striped, white or Harvard Crimson,” remembered, Carlton.
At school, Parsons did more LSD than studying. He dropped even the veneer of attending school within six months. There was something Parsons wanted far more than an Ivy League education.
Ever since he was young, Parsons wrapped both hands tightly around his ambition to be a professional musician.
He'd already toured all over central Florida with bands like The Legends and the Shilos. When Carlton recorded Parsons on that reel-to-reel machine, it was a few years after the two played cover tunes together in the Legends, and a few years before Parsons’ fleeting yet famous association with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman in the Byrds.
During that short stint in 1968, the Byrds recorded and released what has come to be recognized as the first country-rock album entitled, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
Carlton’s tapes, which he later co-produced as a collection of “lost” recordings called, Gram Parsons Another Side of This Life, capture Parsons still heavily influenced by his time spent exploring the evolving Greenwich Village scene of the mid-1960s.
When Carlton visited Parsons in the guest house of his family’s Winter Park home, he remembered, “The closet having at least 25 of those blue Bob Dylan/Woody Guthrie work shirts.” That’s a striking contrast to the cosmic-cowboy-in-a-Hollywood-Nudie-suit image Parsons assumed later in his abbreviated career. Music historians believe his archetypical blending of country and rock with The International Submarine Band, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers paved the way for acts like, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Eagles, Dwight Yoakum and REM. The harmonies on his solo work soar thanks to Chris Hillman’s discovery of an unknown lounge singer with the voice of an angel named, Emmylou Harris.
But it all came to an abrupt end in 1973. After just two solo records and no hit singles, Parsons died of an overdose of drugs and alcohol, another victim of the live fast-die young bravado that was commonplace in the early 1970s.
That’s what makes Jim Carlton’s recordings so important. They strip away all of the excess, rock star posturing, and country rock stylings, to capture Gram Parsons on the cusp of what could have been a great career, in any one of a number of musical genres.
As for the substance abuse that claimed Parsons, Jim Carlton offered this, “His drug use was no doubt a way of exploring other psychic arenas as opposed to being an escape. Nobody with his personality would want to escape-explore perhaps but not escape.” Given the difficulties of his life, it wouldn’t be hard to understand if Parsons did need something to deflect his mind from the non-stop assault of sorrow, frustration and tragedy he had endured. But before the addictions took a firm hold, Parsons retained an ironic sense of humor.
With his adoptive father remarried to a woman just a few years older than he, nineteen year-old Gram would adopt a wry tone when introducing, “His parents.” Though never much of a student, Parsons was a great story teller and devoured the work of Beat Generation writers like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac. “These books can teach you more than I could ever hope to,” Parsons wrote his little sister Avis, still melancholy over the move to Winter Park, “Above all-believe in yourself.”
Despite the furor over his mother’s death, Gram and his adoptive father did establish a relationship. Bob Parsons treated Gram like an adult and when the draft board came calling, Parsons made sure Gram got a 4-F deferment. “The Commies will be at the back door before I let Gram go,” Bob Parsons was quoted in Fong-Torres’ book.
And when Gram was visiting Winter Park from Harvard or New York, often with his new group, The International Submarine band in tow, Bob Parsons welcomed them all with gourmet meals he cooked himself.
Other times, Gram would visit the Snivelys down in Winter Haven. The family owned much of the land on which Cypress Gardens was established. Gram grew up in the family mansion with servants and a trust fund. Despite Parsons’ privileged upbringing, his childhood friend Carlton says Gram retained an urbane, yet common man approach to others.
During two of those visits in 1965 and 1966, in his own bedroom, Carlton made his tapes of Parsons.The only musical accompaniment was the old Gibson guitar Carlton still owns today. He brought it out to play during our interview. “He was an urban folkie and damn good at it,” Carlton said of Parsons, and the tapes made in central Florida during that time, “To my knowledge, are the only surviving recordings of his foray in to the Village folk music scene.”
It’s too bad. Much of what you read about Gram Parsons deals with his untimely death in California, and the turmoil that came after. When talk does turn to his musical legacy, it’s usually centered on how he influenced other musicians.
By the time he died, Parsons had played the Grand Ole Opry with the Byrds, been a catalyst in their recording of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with the Flying Burrito Brothers brought some much needed peace to the Rolling Stones’ disastrous Altamonte Speedway show, became a friend and musical influence of Keith Richards’ and helped put Harris on a course for the stellar career she has enjoyed for decades.
Jim Carlton has helped keep alive Gram Parsons the musician. A rich kid to be certain, but looking at the Parsons’ family history, it was obvious money may have brought with it as much adversity as prosperity.
After a year in Winter Park, in 1966 Bob Parsons moved his family to New Orleans. That’s where Gram is buried. But his musical legacy lies not there, nor the remote desert motel in California where he died while on vacation, but here in central Florida where Gram Parsons lived, played and recorded. Many people like Jim Carlton very vividly remember the other side of Gram Parsons’ music and his life.
|© 2013. Growing Bolder Media Group. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.|