Interview with bluesman Walter Parks an artist with deeply music background and genuine personality

"The blues expresses ubiquitous and perpetual unfortunate human condition. There is great blues music being made today."

Walter Parks: A Rare Lotus in Swamp

Veteran blues and jazz guitarist Walter Parks has built an international career as the lead guitarist for Woodstock legend Richie Havens, as half of the folk-duo The Nudes, and as leader of the neo-southern rock group Swamp Cabbage. Just as Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp has served as the headwaters of Florida’s Suwanee River, so has it served as the inspirational headwaters for Walter’s unique guitar concept – a banjo-esque fingerpicking style that toggles between expressing the swamp’s foggy, ambient underbelly and it’s eminent danger via the use of a modicum of pleasant distortion. Inspired by the sultry black gospel that wails from storefront churches and roadhouses in the American southeast, Parks’s raspy vocal lows and soaring operatic falsetto explore the frontier of the modern human spirit in search of a place where it can flourish.

Photo Credit Standard-Examiner Photographer Cam McLeod

After a transition to the guitar in 1973 he formed his first group, The Parental Tears Band. Succumbing to his parent’s advice that he lay the foundation for a more stable career, Parks enrolled in business school at the University of Georgia in Athens. In the early 1980’s, Parks returned to his hometown to form a fusion jazz band called Sneakers. Managing his own clothing store by day, Walter took quarterly buying trips to New York where he became magnetized by Manhattan’s pace and serious music scene. To fund his eventual departure from Jacksonville Walter created a society band called The Wing Tips taking full advantage of the prosperous Regan years. In 1989, after winning a Tangueray Rocks talent contest piloted by rock impresario Don Kirschner, he took his first original electric band Dear John, to New York.

Road-weary and searching for a new perspective, in 1999 Parks traveled to Plum Village, Tich Nat Han’s Buddhist monastery in southwest France. In 2000 Parks returned to New York in a business role as a label manager for indie MPress Records however in 2001 the New York scene re-ignited Walter’s urge to perform and he was asked to join Richie Havens’ trio. Walter formed Swamp Cabbage and used any down time in Richie’s schedule to meticulously craft three recordings–Honk, Squeal and Drum Roll Please. The band’s fourth CD “Jive” is due out soon.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the music? How has music changed your life?

I first started listening to the radio during the early 70s and I became entranced by the early soul groups: Al Green, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers and Timmy Thomas. Years later I figured out that in addition to the performances on those records, that I was magnetized by the sounds of the records. I had “heard” plenty of music before that time, as my father used to wake me up in the morning with country music.  It was a horrible way to wake up and naturally I detested the genre, because it kept me from sleeping!  It wasn’t until I heard Robin Trower’s Bridge of Sighs that I developed the dream of having a three piece band with a comparable degree of simple beautiful power.

I wedged myself constructively into society via music. In my early teens, before I became focused on the guitar I’m sad to report that I was a bully to boys and shy with girls. I was very much in need of having my ass kicked but no one but my brother ever attempted it because I was so tall. Music was my entrée into a constructive social life. I had little use for destructive behavior as it kept me from my music. I earned money early on by getting my band hired at church dances and debutante balls all over North Florida. I painted houses to buy great musical gear. I took it all very seriously.

"The blues delivers the message via plain “street” language but rap endeavors towards a more poetic approach that creatively twists street language."

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the “Blues” mean to you?

The blues is the most humbling music form that I have attempted. I am very hard on myself sometimes because I endeavor to not be a fraud. To be honest it’s erroneous to describe me as a blues player because I have not lived the blues. I am inspired by blues guitarists. Furthermore I am inspired to visit the epicenter of all blues music – The Mississippi Delta, but when there I am all too aware that I am only a visitor. When I imagine myself juxtaposed with poor American blacks who actually live the blues, I feel embarrassed to be described as a blues guitarist.  

 I am grateful to have not endured much hardship in my life. A career in the arts in the U.S. has not been easy to maintain, but I have not suffered. Because I have not suffered I would not consider myself qualified to “play the blues” because I have not had them. That said, I am qualified to play the feeling of the conflict between the races that I grew up with in the American Southeast. When I was a boy, blacks and whites still had to use different bathrooms and water fountains. I can play the feeling of the land and peoples of the place that I was raised in – Northeast Florida. The south, where I am from, lost the War Between the States. The shame of this loss still reverberates in the deep-south culture because we knew that the eradication of slavery, shameful as it was, was used as an excuse for war. Southerners from the U.S. who know their history, know that the real reason for that war was the northern desire to control prospering southern commerce.  It conveniently gets overlooked that the cotton that the slaves picked in the south was shipped to northern mills to be processed.

When I was younger, I was taught, not in direct verbal lessons, but in the behavior of whites around me, that blacks were tainted, dirty, lazy, undignified. All this was a personal conflict for me because I liked black music so much therefore I recognized much dignity in the culture. Suffice it to say that today when I play, I don’t play the blues, instead I try to honor black culture and the best two music forms that the U.S. has ever produced, the music art form created by blacks – the blues and jazz.

How do you describe Walter Parks’ progress and what characterizes your music philosophy?

I spent 30 years searching for a musical style and I finally found it in the repertoire that I wrote for Swamp Cabbage. I had left the southern U.S. where I grew up, for New York, hoping to rid myself of all things southern about me. Ironically, people in New York admired a southern sense about me that I didn’t think that I was showing. Eventually I realized that embracing my roots was the only path to artistic uniqueness, the precursor to artistic success.

This is a great time to be asking this question for only now, this deep in my career, have I found a way to answer it without arousing inner conflict. My music philosophy simply is to make quality, meaningful music to and look for people who want to hear it and pay for it. I would hope that I can inspire other people along my path to be brave enough to live a creative life and not surrender to a money oriented existence. I love making money but I have not steered my life towards the beacon of the highest monetary reward.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music? What is the best advice ever given you?

I am forever indebted to Jim Devito my producer for almost 20 years because he taught me the difference between what good and bad sound was. He taught me to value old tube amps and all things analog.

Daniel Lanois (producer for U2 and Peter Gabriel) told me not to try. By this he did not mean don’t attempt or don’t be inactive, he simply meant BE. Be natural.

Arlo Guthrie told me that an audience wants to feel like they know you.

Richie Havens never really gave me advice but I watched him give 100% of his attention to every “average person” that he ever had dealings with. Richie never scanned a room to determine if he could be talking to a more important person than the one to whom he was already talking.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The second time I played at Madison Square Garden with Richie Havens was the best and also the worst. The concert honoring Pete Seeger featured guests Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews and many others who were allotted one or two songs each with quick changeovers in between. In the rush to get set-up, the union tech who was a general stage hand (not working directly for me), inadvertently muted my primary guitar pickup leaving only a contact mic which I could not hear while I played. I had looked so forward to a moment of glory but in one quick action the anticipation morphed into frustration and disappointment. Reluctantly manifesting the motto “the show must go on” I persevered if for no other reason than to savor the moment as a significant career benchmark. I felt terrible during and after the show, thinking that I had let Richie down and I analyzed how I could have avoided the mishap. Later when PBS broadcasted the show on national TV, the sound seemed fine. The competent house engineer had evidently compensated and all was well. I was experienced enough at that point to plow on and keep audience connection and connection with Richie as the priority. This perspective paid off as neither Richie, nor the 20,000 other people in the Garden were ever aware that I had a technical issue.

"The blues is the most humbling music form that I have attempted. I am very hard on myself sometimes because I endeavor to not be a fraud."         (Photo: Walter Parks with Richie Havens)

Are there any memories from Richie Havens and Judy Collins which you’d like to share with us?

I prefer to recount stories of both as examples of two very different consummate professionals. After every hour and a half concert, Richie would clasp both hands above his head, prayer-like, and bow his torso towards his audience in their honor and back up slightly. One time he backed too far and fell four feet down to a concrete surface from the shallow stage. A surprise backwards fall like this would injure even a man in his 20’s, yet Richie at that time must have been 68. The audience gasped. Despite being in pain and slow to rise, per usual Richie’s focus was on his audience. He told his backstage rescuers

“Let the audience know that I’m OK.” Richie came out into the audience as soon as he got back up and signed each and every autograph that was requested of him.

As to Judy, I believe that she cares very much for her audiences but she manifests such concern less by boundless post-show accessibility and more by maintaining her musicianship. I was always impressed and inspired by her pre-show practice routine that her crew endeavored to keep private. She plays classical piano very well. She begins her warm-ups with beautiful baroque etudes that evolve into short pieces. The hour and a half ritual always ended in operatic vocal warm-ups. After most shows, Judy makes a quick “Elvis-like” exit from the hall. Whereas Judy’s folk fan-base might prefer that she be available for post-show autographs etc., Judy evidently feels that her work is done after her encore is played. I would agree with that perspective and can attest that she leaves nothing to chance, approaching each concert with 100% concentration. I am more like her than Richie in that regard and I endeavor to defend more strongly my need for private time before and after a show. Some nights, feeling completely depleted after a show, my impulse is to find a place to hide, but I never do.

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from recording time?

The recording studio is replete with contradiction. Some of the largest, grandest sounds are achieved with the smallest amps and played with the simplest of chords.  I like the “smoke and mirrors” aspect of making great records. I do everything old-school, recording only to 2” tape on vintage tube gear. It’s expensive and I can only afford to put out an album about once every five years.

In New York City, vintage amps and microphones are treated so reverently and handled so delicately. It’s a wonder that an old German Neuman mic get used at all in Manhattan. On the opposite end of the spectrum, in the studio in St Augustine Florida, I caught out of the corner of my eye, what I thought was a rat crawling across the carpet. Being a native Floridian, I’m never startled to see a rattlesnake, rat or gator for instance. Upon further inspection, the “rat” moving across the floor was actually a precious Neuman U-87 being delicately dragged by its cable by a technician working in another room. No harm was done. I died laughing upon thinking of how quickly the technician would have been fired for such disrespect in New York. It just exemplifies how things are done in different parts of our country.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? Which memory makes you smile?

As I said earlier I have high regard for black music. One time Richie was asked join the encore song at WOMAD festival in Reading England. He liked to have me around for support so I was often asked to play with him even if he was sitting in with others. The last band to play I believe was The Wailers. Richie bailed at the last moment but with guitar in hand and in an obvious state of readiness I was asked to sit in with the band anyway. I realized that I was the only white guy on stage – The Wailers, some African drummers and me. I was very proud when the other band members smiled because of what I was playing.

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between Blues, Southern Rock and Jazz?

Southern rock seems to me to me a mix of blues and country and has little to do with jazz, which is the most sophisticated of all three harmonically. I think of jazz as harmonically evolved/advanced blues. Often it’s appropriate to solo in a blues style over jazz chord changes but it doesn’t work so well in the other direction. Blues gets its power in its simplicity.  Jazz is powerful when rather complex musical knowledge is employed albeit tastefully of course.

"My music philosophy simply is to make quality, meaningful music to and look for people who want to hear it and pay for it."         (Photo: Walter with Swamp Cabbage,  Jagoda and Jim Devito)

You had pretty interesting projects The Nudes and Swamp Cabbage. How did you come up with it?

The Nudes was an acoustic project that cellist Stephanie Winters and I created in 1991. I had just moved to New York from Florida with a three-piece rock band, the logistics of which were expensive and difficult to maintain in the big city. Most bands in smaller towns find a cheap place to rehearse often, so they can improve quickly. I needed a practical outlet to manifest my songs so I searched for a medium (“a band”) that I could rehearse in an apartment as opposed to an expensive band rehearsal space which is the common alternative in Manhattan.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

The blues speaks to us all because it employs basic/non-complex lyrical language, rhythms and scales. The blues reminds us all of our human-ness. The blues unites us because we’ve all gone through travails. The blues reminds us of past hardships and/or makes us aware of the possibility of those to come. The blues is a humbling universal form.

Do you know why the Blues is connected to the Southern culture and what are the roots of Blues sound?

The blues as a musical form was the sung artistic expression of the descendants of slaves in the Mississippi Delta region of the deep American southeast.

What's the legacy of Blues in world culture and civilization? Do you believe the Blues has seen justice todays?

Many great music forms have not been embraced beyond their originating cultures but I don’t think this has been the case with the blues. The British musicians (Clapton for instance) seemed more influenced by the early blues masters than American musicians were at the time. Perhaps the blues hasn’t seen justice in the U.S. I think Americans appreciate the art form less than Europeans appreciate it. This to me is sad. I have played concerts and given workshops at black colleges in the U.S. where ironically the students are not even aware of blues music, and furthermore they are unaware that the form originated in their culture.

As to the legacy, perhaps rap music wouldn’t have happened without the blues. Lyrically, both rap and the blues are customarily sung from the perspective of discontent. The blues delivers the message via plain “street” language but rap endeavors towards a more poetic approach that creatively twists street language.                          Photo by Margo Parks

What experiences in life make someone a musician and songwriter?

The precursor for becoming an artist is being emotionally open and having a strong personal drive to make art. This career path is not really a choice, instead it is a path that we must take, a path propelled by faith in one’s self. This is the only experience necessary. Unfortunately, the odds are strongly against artistic success in the U.S. I have come to the conclusion that the business world in the U.S. regards artists as “getting away with something” or in other words, not pulling their weight in society.

It is absolute torture for a person of the artistic sentiment to hold what I call a “regular job” (or “9 to 5” job).  The artistic process occurs when inspiration hits yet the archetypical office worker must trudge on regardless of whether he/she/feels inspired to do so. I have held “regular” jobs so I do not feel superior to those who have them. In fact I am indebted to them because they comprise my audiences.  Artists provide the rest of society hope that life can be better.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

The blues expresses ubiquitous and perpetual unfortunate human condition. There is great blues music being made today.

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

What I see in the U.S. are sunglass-clad bands of white musicians that perform in shirts with flames imprinted on them or worse yet musicians who buy the loud colored church suits – matching jackets and pants that you find in black men’s stores in the South. White musicians think that these wardrobes render them cool and certified to play the blues.

What do you miss most nowadays from the old days of Blues and Rock?

I miss clubs being packed even on Mondays and Tuesdays for live music. I miss not hearing all other musicians play vintage gear and tube amplifiers.

Which incident of your life would you like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

Me with my beautiful wife.

What is your music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……

Playing my instrumental songs…songs with no words, on an electric guitar through my old tube Echoplex in stereo through two old tube amps.

What would you ask Duane Allman? How you would spend a day with Buddha? What would you say to JJ Cale?

Friends of mine who knew Duane said that he had a sincere concern for people. I would ask Duane why, when knowing that so many people loved his music, didn’t he drive with a little more caution on the motorcycle?

I would ask Buddha if he could hang out with me for a whole day and try to download from my mind my day’s honest thoughts. I would want to hear his comments. I would want to know how Buddha would deal with life in the modern age.

I would thank JJ Cale for his wah guitar treatment on Crazy Mama. I think he might have been the first person to entice me to the electric guitar with that song.

Walter Parks - official website

Photo by Chris Brinlee

 

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