Gram Parsons & the Derry Down: An Encore of Winter Haven’s Musical Past
By Donna Kelly
In December 1964, Winter Haven resident Bob Parsons opened a small place along the railroad tracks near downtown Winter Haven so his stepson’s band would have a place to play music.
Gram Parsons, the stepson, not only went on to find national musical success with The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, but created a new genre of music, now known as country rock or alternative country. He called it Cosmic American Music. He’s also credited by many for discovering Emmylou Harris, a folk singer and 13-time Grammy Award winner inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. Despite never having a hit record, Parsons accomplished all this before his untimely death at age 26 from a drug overdose in Joshua Tree, Calif., on September 19, 1973.
While Parsons has become somewhat of a legend with a cult following, the listening room Bob Parsons opened for his stepson, called the Derry Down in homage to a British folk song of the same name, was more than just the place Gram Parsons honed his talent.
The Derry Down became the launching pad for a host of musicians who became successful in their own right — among them country-pop singer Jim Stafford, remembered for a string of hits in the 1970s; Les Dudeck, who played with the Steve Miller Band and Steppenwolf; Roland Kent LaVoie, better known as Lobo; Jim Carlton, who worked with a variety of artists, including Stafford and the Smothers Brothers; and cousins Gerald “Jesse” Chambers and Carl Chambers, who played with the Bellamy Brothers, among others.
As these musicians grew up and followed the path music led them down, the barn-looking building at 297 5th St. N.W. housed a number of small businesses over the decades before eventually deteriorating into an eyesore. Last owned by Six-Ten Corporation, the music landmark had been slated for demolition until late last year.
But soon the Derry Down will once again offer a place for musicians to perform and aficionados to enjoy different genres of music.
Demolition plans for the landmark changed when author Bob Kealing, who wrote “Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Root of Country Rock,” arrived in town to have a book signing at Winter Haven Public Library and met Bud Strang, the CEO of Six-Ten, and his wife Anita, executive director of Main Street Winter Haven. Until then, the Strangs had no idea they’d owned a historic landmark.
“We (The Strangs) were looking through the book and we say, ‘Isn’t that the storage shed?’” says Anita Strang, executive director of Main Street Winter Haven.
This revelation and Kealing’s book signing led to a visit to the building and the reunion of several musicians who’d played there as teenagers. It also generated talk of restoring the Derry Down as a historical landmark to be used as a listening room and event venue.
“Mr. Kealing asked to see the Derry Down and they all walked down to the Derry Down,” says Anita Strang. “I thought, ‘This is incredible.’ People were saying, ‘I remember this…’”
During the visit to the old building, musician Jim Carlton played a recording of Gram Parsons and the Shilohs he’d made during the Derry Down opening nearly 50 years ago.
“Everybody had chills,” Anita Strang says.
Since then, the plans to restore the Derry Down have spread across the globe, sparking websites, Facebook pages, blogs, tribute concerts, phone calls to Strang, and a lot of conversation.
“The plan is to create a space where musicians want to play and people will follow,” Anita Strang says.
The plan is a viable one. The Derry Down Project Facebook page had generated more than 300 likes one week after it was created. Within six weeks, Strang had heard from a number of national bands expressing an interest in playing in the old teen club.
“People want to play where Gram Parsons played,” Strang says.
Six-Ten Corporation donated the Derry Down building to Main Street Winter Haven and ownership was transferred in late May. The Derry Down Committee, chaired by former Winter Haven City Commissioner Jamie Beckett, will oversee the fundraising the renovations. Main Street President Jay Gray sits on the committee as the organizations representative.
The fundraising kickoff event featuring performances by several musicians who played at the opening of the original Derry Down will be held 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 28. Refreshments will be available for purchase from food trucks.
Future fundraising plans include an event on Dec. 20 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Derry Down. The committee is also considering raising money though the crowd funding program Kickstarter. Strang says additional details about upcoming fundraisers will be released at a later date.
Gram Parsons – The Legacy Continues
Kealing, a reporter for Orlando TV station WESH, says Parsons’ life was amazing — both musically and personally — and makes for fascinating reading.
“I chose to write about Gram Parsons because his is an amazing story; not only regarding his travels through some amazing music scenes, but also the tragedies related to his family story,” says Kealing. “It reads like fiction. I also tired of his considerable legacy being marginalized by his death in California and the theft and failed cremation of his body.”
His short life vacillated between the exhilaration of musical success – which included moving among musicians like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones — and the devastation of his father’s suicide, mother’s alcoholism, and his own battle with substance abuse.
“There are some people who utter nonsense about Gram being a rich kid so he didn’t have to pay his dues,” says Kealing. “But money doesn’t solve all of life’s problems.”
Cecil Ingram “Gram” Connor III was born Nov. 5, 1946 in Waycross, Ga., to Cecil “Coon Dog” Connor, Jr., and Avis Snively Connor, the daughter of citrus magnate John A. Snively.
He learned to play the piano when he was 9 years old. The same year, he began his quest to become a professional musician when he saw Elvis Presley perform live.
Three years later, his father committed suicide and soon after he moved to Winter Haven with his mother and sister, Avis.
He legally became Gram Parsons when his mother married Robert Ellis Parsons.
“Bob Parsons really cared about Gram and his future,” says Jim Carlton, a close friend and band mate of Gram Parsons during their teenage years. “Bob was ultimately a good influence. He was charming and always treated Gram and me like adults.”
At 14, Parsons started out playing rock and roll with the Pacers, a local band that morphed into The Legends with Stafford and Lavoie. In 1963, he organized The Shilohs, a folk band that traveled through Florida on the teen club circuit.
Carlton, now a resident of Mount Dora, was such a close friend during his teenage years that he was given the keys to Parson’s Austin Healey Sprite when Parsons occasionally lost his driving privileges. He remembers Parsons’ sense of humor and love of the spotlight, as well as his music.
“Gram was a very likable, charismatic guy. You’d know he was in the room if your back was turned.” Carlton says. “He was always a ham in the best sense.”
If music brought them together, their friendship was bonded with humor.
“He was very amusing, a sense of humor similar to what they wrote for Hawkeye Pierce on (the 70s sitcom) MASH,” he says.
Folk singer and songwriter Jerry Mincey — whose band, The Panics, opened for The Shilohs at the 1964 Derry Down opening, describes Parsons as a “pretty boy.”
“The girls loved him,” Mincey says. “It wasn’t just his looks, it was his personality.”
Parsons formed the International Submarine Band in 1966, was a member of The Byrds from 1966 to 1968, and formed the Flying Burrito Brothers with Chris Hillman in 1968. He performed as a solo artist from 1971 to 1973.
Locally, Parsons’ main contribution was the Derry Down, says Mincey.
“On a broader level, he invented a genre of music — country rock or off country or alternative country,” he added. “He took music that wasn’t cool in the late 60s and early 70s, added long hair and an electric guitar.”
According to Carlton, Stafford suggested he make the switch from folk to country music as the folk scene of the sixties began to wind down.
“Gram was a willing pioneer, a maverick in that place. He was more interested in being a celebrity,” Carlton says. “He was always grooming himself for stardom.”
Like Kealing, Mincey believes Parsons should be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“He exposed a generation of people to songs they’d never heard. He’d take gospel songs and rock them up,” Mincey says.
“Rolling Stone Magazine” lists Parsons as one of the 100 Greatest Artists.
Kealing believes Parsons deserves both distinctions.
“Gram definitely deserves to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame,” says Kealing. “He was a pioneering visionary who was instrumental in giving rise to Emmylou Harris and the alternative country movement we take for granted today.”
Kealing’s hope is that Parson’s contribution to music will someday eclipse the macabre events following his death. Parson’s manager, Phil Kaufman, removed the body and casket from the funeral home and took them to the desert and burned them, supposedly according to the musician’s wishes.
Carlton says Parsons was a master at spinning a yarn and a genius in creating his countrified public persona. The reality was that Parsons was bright, intelligent, and urbane.
“Country music became a vehicle for his talent. He would have found a way to make the Polka a vehicle for his talent had he grown up in Wisconsin,” Carlton says. “He was no s**t kicker. That mythology was built up. He created a lot of it himself and promoted himself.”
“Gram Parsons was about as countrified as Gore Vidal,” he added.
The Derry Down and Youth Center Circuit
The Derry Down was a tangible symbol of the faith Bob Parsons had for his adopted son, but it also represented Winter Haven’s entrance into the vibrant network of venues open to young musicians throughout Florida, dubbed the “youth center circuit” by Kealing.
“The Derry Down building is a perfect example of the youth center circuit, a phrase I coined in my book to describe the hip venues across the peninsula, which during the 60s helped give a constellation of important young artists their start, Gram being one of them,” says Kealing. “It’s Florida’s great unsung musical tradition.”
The experience was invaluable, says Carlton.
“The Legends were basically a rockabilly band. We did a lot of Ventures covers. It was just kids who were a meat and potatoes rock and roll band, and the teen centers were a place for us to learn what we needed to learn,” Carlton says. “We certainly weren’t going to scare Steely Dan.”
“It gave us a place to be bad,” Carlton adds.
Mincey says the Derry Down was designed to ride the wave of the British Invasion.
“It was like an English Pub. They wanted a British flair to it,” he remembered. “It was kind of dark with colored lights focused on the stage.”
The Derry Down was a cozy but simple little performance venue.
“The stage was on the north side in the center of the building. It had tables and chairs and a kitchen area,” says Carlton. “It was quite nice.”
The Derry Down was also known for its virgin daiquiris and delicious hamburgers made by Bob Parsons.
According to Strang, the Derry Down stayed in the downtown location for two years. It was moved to 509 Cypress Gardens Blvd., where The Bike Shop is located now.
“It’s important for people to understand there’s a component of all the music that came from this area, like Jon Corneal and Carl Chambers. We need to acknowledge them,” says Strang. “The Derry Down was definitely a crossroad for Winter Haven and so many musicians at the time.”
Reviving the Derry Down
“If you’re going to save a building in the downtown district, save one that has meaning to people,” says Anita Strang. “This is not about the building, not about the molding. It’s a very basic structure. It’s what happened in this building that makes it significant.”
And this one has a history near and dear to many folks, and not just former Derry Down regulars who still live in town.
“You can’t separate the legend of Gram Parsons from the Derry Down,” explains former City Commissioner Jamie Beckett, chairman of the Derry Down Project Committee who spent several years working as a professional musician in New York City before embarking in a career in aviation and writing. “That’s where Gram’s career started. Because of that, there are people who want to play on this stage.”
But those involved in the project don’t see it as a shrine to Parsons, but a nod to all musicians who played music there and other youth centers during that era.
“It’s a shrine to music. I think the people he played with have been very successful,” says Kealing. “You are able to pay tribute to the many people who benefited from the youth centers throughout Florida, to see the type of place that made Gram Parsons ready to perform with The Byrds and become the performer he was.”
Carlton agrees. “It’s a venue that chronicles history, Polk County’s history,” he says. “Any kind of venue that promotes art is valuable.”
Anita Strang stands in the center of the building now used as a storage shed and looks both to the past and present to find value in the place – history and potential uses as a listening room and rental event venue.
While the Derry Down Project Committee is searching for a copy of the original designs — Gram Parsons is said to have helped design it — renovation will bring the building up to code and allow for modern conveniences such as air conditioning.
Initial plans include:
•Chipping away peeling exterior paint and re-painting over it.
•Building a new roof over the old one.
•Restoring the original barn-style doors and hanging them over new doors.
“We’re pretty sure we’re putting things back where they were,” says Strang. “We’ll save and reuse as much of the original wood as possible.”
But it’s more than a building.
“This is a music revival through the restoration of the historic Derry Down for those who love to play and those who love to listen,” says Strang.
It’s also a positive addition to downtown, says Beckett.
Those involved with the Derry Down Project envision the building becoming an integral part of downtown offering the following:
•A listening room where people can listen to lightly amplified music.
•A performance opportunity for emerging musicians.
•A venue for local musicians.
•A place where seasoned musicians can mentor developing musicians.
•A future anchor location for a music festival.
•A rental space for events.
“This is about establishing a place that has a historical context but draws people downtown,” says Beckett. “We’re trying to honor a tradition here. We’re trying to tap into excitement that already exists and build onto it.”
The Derry Down will be open for musicians and audiences of all ages and musical preferences.
“We’ve got people in town who could already draw a crowd,” says Beckett.
A Community Project
“We want this to be a community project,” says Strang.
There are plenty of ways to help the effort.
The Derry Down Project committee is looking for volunteers to assist with fundraising, volunteer when it is open, and perform onstage. Renting the restored facility for an event will enable the Derry Down to become self-sustaining.
“This could be a unique, multifaceted educational resource in the context of real history. There are people from all over the world who will come here to play in a place where Gram Parsons played,” says Beckett.
For more information on involvement with the Derry Down Project, check out its Facebook page, Facebook.com/TheDerryDownProject, or contact Beckett at 863-224-2133.