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Bed & backbeat
By LANE DeGREGORY
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2001
Rich picks up Coors Light cans in the courtyard. The gay couple from Fort Lauderdale brews coffee in the kitchen. Pol, who's from Belgium, reads a paperback on his bunk in the boxcar-shaped Train Room.
Everyone stayed up late last night.
It had been too cold to skinny dip in the Jacuzzi. So the host dropped a Pine Mountain Super Log into his outdoor wood stove, pulled up lawn chairs and a church pew and a hammock, got out his old guitar. In a voice thick with cigarettes, soft with feeling, he sang songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Mick Jagger, Robert Johnson, George Strait. He told stories about the songs, the singers, the music.
Rich grabbed his own six-string and joined in on a Buffett chorus. One of the Lauderdale guys sang backup. Pol said he didn't play; all evening, his bare feet tapped in time.
Folks jammed and they talked and they listened and they drank and they traded tunes until their throats and fingers ached. The fire died. The beer ran out.
Guests started started stumbling toward their rooms.
"Cosmic!" the host proclaimed, raising a plastic cup of Wild Turkey toward the dawn. "Catch you in the morning!"
It's almost 2 p.m. now.
He's still asleep.
* * *
The sign on the gate says it's an "Artists' Retreat." The Web site calls it "The World's First and Only Bed and Breakfast, Guest House, Youth Hostel & Music Recording Studio." For tax purposes, it's exempted as a "Spiritual Sanctuary."
It's more like a crash pad.
Owner Mark Holland says all are welcome -- as long as they get it.
Gram's Place is two miles northwest of Ybor City, on the corner of Plymouth Street and N Ola Avenue, surrounded by a head-high wooden fence.
Two 1945 cottages are connected by brick walkways, shaded by ponytail palms, fig trees, old oaks oozing Spanish moss. Each house has its own courtyard constructed around a bubbling fountain. Holland dug the 1,000-gallon hot tub 5 feet deep, made it wide enough for six, trimmed it with blue painted tiles. He built a BYOB bar, presided over by pictures of Elvis and the Beatles. He wired stereo speakers to a 100-disc changer, so selections would be broadcast inside and out.
He set up a 16-track digital recording studio in the basement. It includes a basic drum kit, two electric and two acoustic guitars, an electric and acoustic bass, a trumpet, tambourine, clarinet and Yamaha keyboard. Microphones dangle overhead.
Guests are encouraged to play these instruments. Sometimes, Holland even helps record sessions. He's hoping to produce a CD, sort of a greatest hits from Gram's Place.
Five rooms -- plus the Train Room -- are available to rent. There used to be six, but Rich checked into the Adventure loft with his girlfriend in September. Apparently the adventure is still happening, because they haven't checked out.
Each room is themed, with stick-on letters spelling out the name on the door. The Train Room just opened. Relix magazine wrote about it, and a dozen Deadheads christened the six bunks on New Year's Eve. An electric panel by the door has six buttons: Push one, a steam whistle wails in the distance; try another, a locomotive huffs down the tracks.
The Adventure Room, Holland says, is "that tree fort you always wanted as a kid, but could never steal enough lumber to build."
The rest of the rooms are dedicated to music.
In Room 6, the Jazz Room, Dizzy Gillespie blows his horn above the reading lamp; Louis Armstrong is framed on the far wall; Billie Holiday is belting out the blues beside the TV. Scratched 45s hang in between: Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles.
By the phone, on the nightstand in every room, there's a clock/radio/cassette player and a homemade tape. Holland recorded his favorite blues songs for the Blues Room, his favorite rock 'n' roll songs for the Rock and Roll Room; you get the point. The walls sing.
In the 10 years Gram's Place has been open, with more than 5,000 strangers from around the world coming and going, only one thing has ever been stolen: the Folk Room tape. Holland considered it a compliment that someone would want one of his compilations. He's remastering a new one in his basement recording studio.
Room rates are $35 to $95 a night in season, depending on whether you want your own space or are willing to share a bath or bunk in with strangers.
The striped bedspreads and flowered couches are faded. The fuzzy bath mats are stained. The Jazz Room vanity is a piece of plywood nailed over the sink.
Breakfast is self-serve: Holland leaves a bowl of bananas, a three-pack of plastic-wrapped Otis Spunkmeyer blueberry muffins, a carton of Kash n' Karry croissants on the counter.
"Martha Stewart would hate it here," Holland says.
One middle-aged woman checked out because the soap dish was dirty. A couple from New England complained they didn't get any breakfast. Some balk at the all-night concerts outside their windows.
But most guests don't come here for privacy or fancy furnishings or hot breakfasts.
They come to escape -- and to capture something.
* * *
About 3 p.m., Holland emerges from his office on the converted porch, wearing a rumpled flannel shirt and navy sweat pants, clutching a stack of CDs and his cell phone.
"Morning!" he shouts, turning up the stereo. "Wow!"
Tom Petty cranks through the courtyard. Pol looks up from his paperback, nods his head approvingly. Holland thrusts a thumb's-up, lights a Canadian cig, combs his fingers through his thick, black bangs.
He's 49. He grew up in Tampa, graduated from night school, worked construction for a while. For a few months in '73, he toured the East Coast playing bass and singing back-up for the country-rock-gospel band Heaven Bound.
Then he drove a propane truck, often steering with his elbows so he could hold his harmonica.
He had always wanted to be a traveling musician, but this wasn't what he had in mind.
Holland got a job as a printer, got married, bought a house on Ola Avenue, got divorced. He started renting his spare bedrooms to two college students, to keep up the mortgage.
He turned his carport into a museum for his idol, Gram Parsons, a Winter Haven native known as the creator of country-rock for his work with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Holland collected the dead dude's silver velvet bell bottoms, a half-bottle of his patchouli oil, the master tape from one of his live radio broadcasts.
Holland spent four years in the late '80s researching and writing and producing a cable television documentary on Parsons -- though he had no filmmaking experience. In November 1989, he flew to Amsterdam to pick up an award for the film. He was still printing documents, renting rooms, giving tours of his carport.
But at least now he was traveling.
Music had been his means after all.
On the flight home, Holland had a vision.
Gram's Place isn't exactly what he saw.
But Holland believes in past lives and old souls and karma. He thinks everyone is connected, and sometimes ghosts lead you down roads you can't see for yourself.
* * *
By 5 p.m. Saturday, the gay couple has gone out for the evening. Pol is napping in the hammock. A 23-year-old General Electric engineer from Kentucky is due in at the airport any time.
Holland still hasn't showered or shaved or changed clothes.
He says he needs a good woman, to help run his oasis.
The cell phone on his sweat pants starts buzzing.
"Sure, sure, we got rooms for tonight," he says. "The Country Room is open, and the Folk Room. And there's always an extra bunk in the Train ...
"Sure, sure, bring your fiddle. And something for the bar, if you want it."
The caller is a Vietnam vet, a 52-year-old Oklahoma metal sculptor who has just flown into Tampa. Some cowboy buddies told him about Gram's Place. He'd stopped by a pawn shop on his way through town, picked up a used fiddle. He's itching to break it in. He'll be over in an hour.
"That's the thing about this place," Holland says, dropping a Mark Knopfler CD into the rotation. "You never know who's going to show up or what's going to happen."
* * *
Painters and poets and prophets lay their heads here. A high school teacher from Boston comes back each spring, penning verses in the Country Room guest book. A British writer asks Holland to rescue him for a few weeks every winter.
Pedal steel guru Neil Flanz, who played on Parsons' last album, spends his summers at Gram's Place, working on his tan and laying tracks for Holland's dream disc.
"About two-thirds of my customers are repeat," Holland says. "They find me on the Internet, in the phone book, by word of mouth. Most are musicians, or at least enjoy music."'
Holland has no idea what other bed and breakfasts are like. He has never been to one. When he started building Gram's Place, he didn't know how to market his concept, or if there would be a market at all.
Gay and lesbian couples poured in from all over.
"I didn't mean for that to happen. It wasn't what I was trying to get," Holland says. "But I'm grateful; they built this business."
Now, about half the guests are straight.
In the dog-eared pages of the comment books, everyone hails Holland's oasis.
"Last night, you met an anxious woman and an overworked man who could not think of anything but getting back to work," Lisa Metcalfe of Tampa wrote June 1. "We forgot how to enjoy life and each other. Your pleasant nature and relaxing home rejuvenated us. Fourteen hours later, we feel like honeymooners again. Thank you for caring so much about the world and the people around you!"
He wants to expand his small piece of paradise.
"What else could I want, except more of the same? I see second- and third-story tree houses out here, with covered terraces connecting them over the courtyard. I'd like to buy that empty house next door, continue what's going on here. I want to open Gram's Places in Montreal and Amsterdam. Why not? They have a Hard Rock Cafe on every corner.
"I'd love to think, 100 years from now, folks will still be sitting around fires strumming with strangers."
* * *
Saturday night, it's still too chilly to swim. So Holland moves his jam fest inside. He drops a Pine Mountain Super Log in his living room wood stove, pulls up kitchen chairs, a piano bench, a drum stool.
The Oklahoma fiddler, whose left hand took a bullet in 'Nam, is trying to tune. A mandolin player named John is plucking on the sofa. The Kentucky kid is beside him, smiling and snapping his fingers.
"Dylan," Holland suggests. "Let's do I'll Be Your Baby, or whatever it's called, in G." He sets the tempo and sings lead, shouting out chord changes so the fiddler can keep up.
Pol is mixing a batch of screwdrivers in a plastic juice pitcher. The mandolin player is chopping back-beats, an Irish drummer named Maureen singing harmony. A blues picker slips in with his lady friend, picks up the song midstrain.
They segue into Blowin' in the Wind. Pol passes out the screwdrivers, stokes the fire, sits on the stairs. The Kentucky kid asks him which bunk he wants in the Train Room, how long he plans to stay, what brought him here.
"After 20 years of marriage, I am recently divorced," says Pol, a 47-year-old banker. "I have two grown children. I just told them I was gay."
He wanted to get away for a while, sort out his head and heart, hang around strangers who might accept him better than his own family. He found a cheap flight to Tampa, looked up accommodations on the Internet. "It said 'Bohemian' and 'alternative,' so I know this will be the place.
"It is good," Pol says, sipping the last of his vodka. "But it is bad. Mark has made his own world here. We all are part of it for this time. But in two weeks, I have to go back -- you, maybe sooner.
"Only Mark gets to stay on here forever."
Pol pulls a ladder-back chair across the hardwood floor, starts sliding his fingers along the wide slats, playing percussion.
"My own instrument," he says proudly. "So I do join along."
Holland glances up from his arm chair, flashes the Belgian a thumbs-up between chords, starts singing a Merle Haggard number.
It's 1 a.m. Sunday, and the guests are just getting going.
Holland didn't plan it this way, but he has become a maestro, a modern-day minstrel. He's forever orchestrating jams, telling tales, performing on his living room stage. A new audience backs him up almost every evening, escapes in the maze of music they help create.
"Capturing magic dust," Holland calls it.
It is the opposite of his childhood dream.
"What I'm doing here is the negative of traveling: Instead of going all over the world by myself, the world is coming to see me -- right here in downtown Tampa," he says.
He refills his plastic cup with Wild Turkey. Toasts his guests and Gram Parsons and cosmic harmony. He adjusts the shoulder strap on his beat-up guitar, starts strumming another song.
The Rolling Stones were right, he says.
You can't always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes ... you get what you need.
IF YOU GO
Gram's Place is open all year. It's at 3109 N Ola Ave. in the Tampa Heights neighborhood of Tampa. The Web address is http://www.grams-inn-tampa.com.
Call (813) 221-0596 or e-mail email@example.com.
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