2 mini book reviews: Calling Me Home and Key West on the Edge

Tampa Bay Times
Published Oct. 13, 2012

Born Ingram Cecil Connor III in 1946 to an upper-crust Southern family in Winter Haven, Gram Parsons improbably became one of the most influential figures in mid 20th century American popular music, creating a singular amalgam of country, gospel, rock and other influences that still echoes today. Orlando writer Bob Kealing's Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock is a well-researched, engaging biography of Parsons. It's also a fascinating chronicle of the music business.

Parsons' life was the stuff of legend: He was a confidant of Keith Richards and an essential member of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. He launched Emmy Lou Harris' career. His overdose death at age 26 was the stuff of legend, too: Friends hijacked his coffin and set fire to it in Joshua Tree National Monument. Kealing, fortunately, focuses less on scandal and more on Parsons' enduring achievements.

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University of Tampa professor Robert Kerstein opens Key West on the Edge: Inventing the Conch Republic with an account of the 1982 mock-announcement of secession by Florida's southernmost outpost. It's an apropos metaphor for the island's cantankerous history. It also captures Key West's core problem: Its eccentric charm and natural beauty are in danger of being loved to death.

Kerstein's history of Key West focuses on the perennial tensions between residents and tourists. He begins with the earliest visitors, tuberculosis patients in the 1830s, and takes the reader through the impacts of the railroad and the Overseas Highway, as well as cycles of real estate boom and bust. Artists and writers from Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Buffett attracted the tourists — and often decried their presence. As earlier economic engines such as cigarmaking, the Navy base and commercial fishing declined, tourism became, for better or worse, Key West's biggest industry. Kerstein talks to those who thrive on it and those who detest it; it's a fascinating fight, and one unlikely to end soon.