Ashley Smalley of TSY interviews family friend and renaissance man Walter Parks–internationally renowned blues / jazz guitarist, singer, songwriter on his musical beginnings, history, and latest CD — Swamp Cabbage “Jive” available now here.
(Join us in the TSY shop on Saturday, October 29th 7:30pm for a private live performance by Walter Parks in the TSY shop in New Hope, PA! Purchase a TSY x Walter Parks commemorative Koozy at the door for $15 to gain admission while space and supplies last.)
Ash: So Walter I have a tiny hunch that not many of our TSY fans or readers know who you are– JP and I do. We really appreciate the opportunity to sit with you and give everyone listening a little visual of who you are, where you came from, how your style of music and song writing came about. So you and I know each other, we are both from Jacksonville Florida. We are natives, born and raised.
Walter: Well you know I did grow up in the North Florida heat, and I always had a love for jazz music and I knew I needed to be in New York. That’s where the best jazz players were. I also wanted to test my original music. And so I knew it was going to be hard, and I knew that even though Jacksonville livin’ was sort of easy, I was making good money there. I made the decision to pull up from my roots and go up to NY. It was a great decision. The NY environment is very competitive, it made me a better musician, it made me a better person. But I haven’t forgotten, you know, where I came from. And the important thing for me is that I feel like Jacksonville and North Florida is still in my music. As a matter of fact its pretty much written my music for me. But I just had to let it write my music and style is always important for me. I always envied and respected musicians who had their own style. And it wasn’t until I came to NY that I was, it was noticed in my playing by people who weren’t from the United States actually. They said what you have is kind of swampy Southern groove to your playing, and I thought well geez I may as well succumb to that and accept it rather then trying to be European which I wasn’t. So that’s how that all started. I knew it would be a challenge but, I did it.
Ash: And you actually knew my dad, who at the time in Jacksonville was a local musician, and well respected luthier in the Southeast.
Walter: I met Gary Smalley in clubs in Northeast FL and I think one of the first clubs I saw him at was The White Lion in St. Augustine. And I had a band called Sneakers at the time, it was a jazz fusion band, fusion was kind of new jazz in the late 70s that’s what they called it. And he was playing in a group called Curtis Willis Band. We were sort of comrades in a sense in commiserating because we both had our respective vintage, precious Fender Stratocasters stolen around the same time. He had his yanked from an open window that allowed access to the stage. And a guy who was on the street reached in and grabbed his Stratocaster right off the stage– his ’64 vintage Stratocaster, as I remember. And took off running and of course nothing could be done, the club was packed. And I lost mine around the same time on tour in France. I went in to see a cathedral in the town, I love cathedrals. I love the way they sound almost more then the way they look. And I put my Strat in a garment bag, stupidly, and left it in the car. So I thought no body is going to mess with this it’s a garment bag why would they want to steal that? And they were surprised I’m sure when they broke into my car.
But anyway, so I met Gary in the clubs first in Northeast Florida, we were both playing in the clubs at the same time. But later on I would really get to know him as my guitar repair guy. And still to this day I never met anyone who could set my guitars like the way Gary set them up. He just knew what to do for me, I like to keep my action very low and my strings kind of thick. It was a relationship where we didn’t have to talk, you know, he just did it, and he knew what I wanted. And unfortunately he’s not replaceable. But that’s the wonderful thing about life, you know, none of us are. And if we do good work, there’s a certain indispensability about it. I don’t like the saying that everybody is replaceable. I don’t believe that. It’s just nonsense.
Walter Parks at home in Jersey City, NJ — photo c Ashley Smalley
This is actually a bass that I acquired from Gary’s collection after he passed away. And I’ve held onto it, it’s a ’65 jazz bass. And I covet it. It’s part of my morning ritual. I actually fantasized and dreamed to be a bass player some day even though I sort of made my living playing guitar. But I really love playing the bass because I sing, so that takes care of the high and the melody, but the bass is the root and the driving force behind the band. So every morning I just kind of play some grooves. Every morning I try to come up with a different groove and I’m archiving them so one of these days I’ll have my own band and play bass in it or with this bass. But the thing about this bass, that I think a lot of people can apply to their own situations is, whereas this wasn’t a gift, you know, I purchased it. It is a gift of sorts because I’m playing a bass that belonged to someone else, belonged to Gary, belonged to your father, I think of him, I think of Gary every morning when I play it. So there’s a ritual and an honoring at the same time.
So whenever somebody gives you a gift or when you take possession of something that meant something to somebody else, you think of them. And I’m bringing that up because it’s just a good graceful thing to do in life, I think is to get a little something that means something to you, to someone, and you’ll stay connected to them, even if your not physically there.
I have one more thing I want to say about Gary. One thing about him that was particularly endearing to me was, Gary was the best player when I was young. I was much younger then Gary, I’m guessing 5 years, maybe 6 years something like that. But he was the best player that I had access to. And yet, he was nice. He was nice to me. And most of the really good players weren’t so nice to people that they didn’t know. So he was my first example of what you could do when you were nice and approachable to people. In other words, when I got to NY, if you would find a player who was as good as Gary was, they sort of by default wouldn’t be that nice. And there’s this sort of gauntlet that you have to run, I think, to deserve someones niceness. Which is absurd. But Gary didn’t make me jump through those hoops. And it was a great example to me and I’ve held onto it you know, all of my professional career. And I’m indebted to him for that.
Gary Smalley ~ Custom luthier, guitarist, guitar tech for Lynyrd Skynyrd ’96 – ’98.
Ash: Well thank you, we love hearing old tales, I certainly do. It brings him back for a moment’s visit for everyone who misses him. So that’s very cool, thank you.
I want to talk a little about how you made the decision to become an artist. Growing up in the South, and then a musician, and then a songwriter. I read you started on strings at a very young age, in middle school. And then off to college you made some bold choices. Tell me about that.
Walter: Well I started playing viola. And I always loved the bass end of things, again. I didn’t, I wasn’t attracted to the violin because it reminded me of fiddle and more of that country sort of thing which was ubiquitous in the South. So I thought the viola would be nice. It was like a bass violin, you know. So in elementary school, in Jacksonville Florida, when I grew up in the mid to late ’60s, classical music was a part of the curriculum of a public school. And so I started music with a viola, and I started reading classical music.
And then about ‘69 I think, there was so much pressure on me to switch over to electric guitar because Jimi Hendrix was you know, really steaming. You were just, you know, in Northeast Florida which is still in many ways kind of, sort of, they had a big football team and everything, but it’s very Southern to be diplomatic. You were considered a flat out sissy to play classical music in a sense, and if you were sensitive to that sort of accusation then you had to do something about it. And of course I succumbed. I picked up the guitar and I switched over, around the Woodstock time. And growing up in FL I was not able to go to Woodstock I was too young, I think I was 11 or something. But around that time I developed an interest in guitar.
Walter Parks with his prized Guild guitar — photo c Ashley Smalley
Ash: Awesome. Your bio and history is super rich with stories and amazing experiences. I have to ask about a couple of these run-ins that are popping off the page for us. Tell me how does one arrive in a situation where one gets to play Duane Allman’s 1959 Sunburst Gibson Les Paul.
Walter: Yea. Well to answer your question as simply as possible, it’s by being motivated and not being lazy. And I detest lazy people. And part of it is because I know the bounty of not being lazy. And that was a perfect example. When I was a student at the University of Georgia, I volunteered to be on the committee that brought bands and promoted concerts at the University of Georgia. We had a tremendous budget. And I had loads of fun but I learned a lot too. And what that meant for me was that when the band would arrive I would be there to greet the band, a lot of times I would be the only student on the committee or for that matter the whole campus, and I would greet the road manager and say, hey I’m here to help load in the gear. And of course sit through the concert. And at the end of the concert I would load out until the very last load cases were put on the truck. And this is where you get to the bounty of that.
I did this for a band that played in the Royal Hall in Athens, Georgia. It must have been 1976, probably was ‘76, the band was called the Dixie Dregs and the road manager was a man named Twigs, I think his name was Lindon, but Twigs as far as I remember, but anyway Twigs used to work for the Allman Brothers. And if you look at the Fillmore East I think there’s a picture of him on that record. But at that point he was the road manager for the Dixie Dregs. And as my reward for helping him do a lot of the heavy lifting and loading the Dregs’ gear back into the truck, which by the way was an old Allman Brothers truck, he said in this Georgia accent, “Do you wanna to play Duane’s guitar?” and of course I said yes.
I’d never played one of these, what I considered a holy grail of electric guitars. And they’re called Bursts, Gibson Les Pauls, and this guitar just sang with a sustain that I had never experienced before. It was light, first of all, compared to most Les Pauls which are traditionally heavy. But a lot of those from that particularly precious period in the late ’50s into 1960 were not that heavy. They were just wonderfully crafted instruments. They had a tremendous sustain and the tops were this figured maple, they haven’t, they would not be replicated for years and years until later.
So I played this guitar and I just felt like I was holding something that was like a spiritual artifact. But mind you this was 1976, Duane had only passed away 6 years before that. And I thought, being a college student, I thought that was just, you know, ions. The Grand Canyon could’ve been crafted in that amount of time, it just seemed like a tremendous, ages, you know. But it hadn’t been that much time. And I just, that was the first important vintage guitar, historical guitar that I had ever played. And yet I played one of the ultimate ones, that still exists. And it remains today in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It had Duane’s name figured in the old frets on the back of the guitar. Twigs had re-fretted it, and on the back of it he had put, he had taken the frets and shaped Duane’s name on it and pounded it into the guitar. So sure enough when I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame years back that same guitar was there. I just, I kind of went, a tear came into my eye, can’t reach out and play it now but I would love to put that through an amplifier and hear it.
Walter Parks’ guitar collection — photo c Ashley Smalley
Ash: Way cool. You’re obviously inspired by growing up Southern. But what was going on in your journey and your music that introduced you to the Northeast, specifically Manhattan, Brooklyn, Jersey City?
Walter: Well in spite of growing up in the South, and in spite of having been inspired by a lot of the Southern rock musicians, I always fancied myself and dreamed to be a jazz musician. And there wasn’t much jazz going on in Jacksonville. I knew I needed to be in New York. That’s where the serious jazz musicians were in the United States. So, you know, in life we have these ideas about how we want things to turn out and they don’t always turn out that way but you give it a try. And sometimes you have to take those steps to find out what it is you really are. And I realized I wasn’t a jazz player. Because I got to New York and there were just players that were so much better then me.
I had a decision to make, and I could be honest with myself and say well maybe I should veer a little bit and go into something that I’m better at then jazz, that I have a shot at being unique at. That I can demonstrate my own style with. So I could be honest with myself and go in that direction.
Ash: The jazz and you realizing whether you’re going to keep dipping your toe in this or you’re gonna go your own way.
Walter: Yea, in spite of having grown up in Jacksonville it was almost a prerequisite that I be influenced by Southern Rock. And I genuinely was, I loved it. But I think, there was something about Southern Rock that hinted of jazz. And I kind of fell in love with the possibilities, or the roots, of some of what the jamming bands were doing, Allman Brothers and so on, it was, I thought well if I could just get into the jazz thing I could maybe take that into a different place, a different level.
So I wanted to be a jazz guy and New York was the place for me. And you know, I made the move. I was doing well in Jacksonville but I took the risk and when I got to New York I realized that man it was a competitive environment. Jazz is very competitive. And there were so many wonderful players and they were serious, serious in a way that I wasn’t. And I loved that because it kind of gave me a boost and I realized that my standards need to change. My discipline needs to change.
But what I realized is that I hadn’t started early enough actually. And here I was 30 years old and I moved to NY and trying to be a jazz guy and it just didn’t, I had lost too much time. So I had some decisions to make. I had to be honest with myself. Was this a path I wanted to continue down? And instead I started veering more towards, back into rock. And sure enough I feel like I would later be rewarded by finding my own style in making that decision and going that path because that’s when I started kind of embracing the bluesy side of the music that’s sort of locked me in when I was younger, then people started noticing this Florida mess in my playing, this swampiness, and that’s when my style came out. And so I feel like it was a path, you know, I had an idea, I went for it, it was not necessarily the right direction but by taking that path I reformulated and I was honest with myself. Which is a very important part about it.
People are always clapping and telling you how good you are and all of that stuff but you know, you have to really ask, you know, are you? Is there a line out the door to my clubs, you know? Are people coming to me and asking for more or are people just saying its good? And so that’s why I changed over and I’m glad I did.
Walter Parks playing guitar in the wild of Jersey City — photo c Ashley Smalley
Ash: I think when we listen to your music we can all hear a worldly Euro vibe in your stuff but then you just can’t escape the Southerness of it. Me being from the South it’s such a pleasure to listen to your stuff, especially the new album the Swamp Cabbage album Jive, is a really cool journey to listen to. I mean, like the song Butta, and then you go to Sugar House, and then you pop over to Wind Up Monkey, which is just a really solid instrumental piece, good vibe stuff. And then sort of the culmination of the song Play. What was it like to sort of curate that album?
Walter: As all of my Swamp Cabbage adventures are, they’re stories, they come from real experiences. They’re stories of the South, growing up in the South, and they’re Satirical. Not always casting the South in the most favorable light, but I do love the South and I’m qualified to satire it.
The music I wrote mostly on tour when I was in Spain, and we had a road manager, somebody that was driving us around, so I just got such solid work done. In 30 days I wrote that whole album pretty much. The song Butta was about a fella that I knew, who wanted to try grits for the very first time, and he was from the North and we took him to the Waffle House to indoctrinate him. And he went in and ordered his grits without butter. He was very nutrition conscious and so on. The waiter in a wonderful Southern firmness said, “I’m sorry sir, but dey gunna be butta.” And so in the parlance of the band and the subculture of people who follow the band were now using that phrase to indicate when you get yourself in a pickle or in one of life’s inevitable predicaments, you know, you just say, “dey gunna be butta.” If you’re out on Long Island and you’re driving back on a Sunday night and are you wondering if there’s going to be traffic getting into Manhattan, “dey gunna be butta.”
Ash: That’s great. So I gotta say the song Beeksbaparoob, I totally googled that word. You were the only thing that popped up. What the hell is it and please translate it for all of us.
Walter: Well translation is the key to understanding what Beeksbaparoob is. I have a good ear for language but my Spanish is terrible, I speak French, but my Spanish is terrible. On the Spanish tour, Swamp Cabbage played 29 gigs in 30 days. We were just moving through the country. Every day, only one day off. And every other club I would hear people using the word beeksbaparoob, beeksbaparoob. And at a certain point, halfway through the tour, I asked the road manager, I said what is this beeksbaparoob I keep hearing about it. And he goes, you have that in the US. I said, how did I miss that, you know, I’m 55 years old or whatever I was at the time. And I go write it out. And he wrote it out on a napkin and it spelled Vicks Vapor Rub, you know. And the Castilian accent manifested it to be beeksbaparoob. So I said well that’s fine, so why the hell are people talking about it in the clubs? And it was told to me, as diplomatically as possible, that men are using Vicks Vapor Rub to make their masculine apparatus more robust, so there we go. And that’s the legend. And I’ll leave it to the viewers to try that out for themselves.
Ash: That was not the answer I was expecting. Thank you for that.
Walter: So I had to write the song about it. Whenever I tell that to an audience if they’re asking about it I immediately get this “ohhhh” when people find out the punch line. But that’s a true story.
Walter Parks playing guitar at home in Jersey City, NJ — photo c Ashley Smalley
Ash: So there’s a bit of a juxtaposition that I feel as a Southerner who lives in a faster pace North, I’m not sure if you can identify with that or not, I have a need for speed and execution. I love art, but I love business, I love working in NYC, etc. But I really feel whole as a person when I’m slowing down, when I’m home soaking up something Southern, a meal, a story, a breeze, a saucy guitar riff in my ear.
For someone who can appreciate Southern roots and history, do you carry it around with you when you reflect on modern life and politics for example, or does this Southernness just mainly live in your music?
Walter: I’m proud of my Southernness. You know, I don’t disavow the mistakes that the South has made, but I don’t walk around with the sense of oh how terrible we all were in the South. Because if you do that, if you’re really honest, you have to say ok then what did any culture, any country do to create itself. What abominable things were done and horrible things were done. So I’m proud of the aspects of the South, and I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the music, I’m proud of the cooking, I’m proud of the aesthetics of the South.
I love Savannah, Georgia, I love New Orleans. I think both of those cities are the most beautiful cities in the whole Unites States. Albeit, they both have European influences and I think that’s one of the things I like about them. Savannah, a colonial influence from England and New Orleans, Spanish and French. But I’m an efficient person, and you are too I take it, I can tell that from dealing with you. I like to get the job done. I love socializing, having a glass of wine or coffee and talking about it, but I like to do all that after the work is done. I don’t like to elongate a job and string it out, that’s torture for me. I can barely stand to work in the South anymore, regarding recordings and that sort of thing just because the pace is so slow.
I love the people that are involved with all of that, but the cultural pace is almost too slow for me. And the reason is, I know how to get what I want at this point, I’ve been doing this for a good long while. I know how to get the sounds I like, I know how to manifest my style. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to make the process longer then it needs to be. I just want to capture it, archive it, and then have a glass of wine and talk about it. And it’s also one of the things I like, and I feel like Northerners understand that as well, they understand efficiency, sometimes to a fault.
Richie Havens & Walter Parks
Ash: I want to touch on your tenure with touring with Richie Havens. What a cool career move and opportunity. Tell me.
Walter: Well when I was a kid, I knew about Woodstock, I was 11 years old. And I think my favorite performer of Woodstock was this wild black guy with this beard that sort of looks like mine now, ironically. He looked like an African king, he looked regal, he looked important, he had a robe. He did this heel toe foot thing that kept all the rhythm that he needed to keep, in spite of the fact that he had a percussionist. He had a guitar style that was in a gallop and he had a voice that was unequaled. It was raspy and smooth and heart warming all at the same time. He sounded like the music of the world in one person. And I was entranced by him. And fast forward to me moving to NY, I would get the opportunity to play with Richie because one of my bands shared an agency, we had the same booking agent. And I opened for Richie a couple of times and he knew my face, he didn’t know my name, and we would always, he felt comfortable around me. So when somebody suggested that I, that Richie audition me when he needed a guitar player I showed up to the audition, because of my support role with him as an opening act. I came into the audition and he was like oh yea I know you, I think he felt comfortable with me right from then.
It was a wonderful thing to sit on the stool next to Richie Havens for 10 years. I was his last right hand man so to speak. And it was such an honor. I played all over the world with him. And I heard that wonderful voice to my left side, in the best seat in the house. From places like Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden to the Womad Festival in New Zealand to the Jazz Café in Canada and London. We would just do those routes and it was an honor to support him. I tried to support him the way that I like want to be supported if somebody were working for or with me. All the while knowing that he didn’t need me, the truth is. And what could I bring to the table that would keep him happy as a musician and also support him in a sense as a friend. And I tried to do the best that I could.
We got to know each other pretty well and at times we would drive for 4 hours and not say a word, you know a relationships been going on for a long time when you have nothing more to say to each other. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When we did say things it would crack open to a really interesting place. Richie never taught me any lessons with his words, so to speak. He never said, “Walter, here’s a shortcut.” I learned from observing Richie. He had time, 100% time for everybody, and most of the time he was the most generous with his time for the person who wasn’t in the music business. He would stop what he was doing and just talk to a janitor or the guy who was parking cars in front of the hotel. And just sit and chit chat and lose himself. We would find him on bridges talking to people and it’s like Richard we got a show to play. He would just lose himself in the moment. But he would lose himself in the average guy, and he loved it.
So the only thing he ever taught me, or the only directive that Richie ever gave me was that he wanted our guitars to sound like one guitar. He wanted two guitars to sound like one. And that puzzled the hell out of me for a while. I was sure I was going to get fired just trying different things out. But eventually I settled on this kind of arpeggiated style of playing. I’ll demonstrate it for you. So I’d been experimenting with the banjo when I lived in Nashville and Richie’s, if you’re a sideman with somebody, the key to un-coding or decoding, the key to finding the best role if you’re playing with somebody else is you have to figure out what they’re doing. What their interpretation of music is. And Richie would play everything with a gallop. Once I figured out that he was playing with a gallop then I could figure out how to play with him. But until I took the time to slow down and use my Southernness and just say what is it that he’s doing, then I could figure out how I should play. So it was as if I was playing a banjo on an acoustic guitar and Richie was doing this gallop and combined it all sounded like one thing. So I think largely I held onto that position because I liked to think I figured a way to weave with him in that sense.
Ash: And that is…
Walter: This is actually one of Richie’s guitars, or used to be. I got this from him before he passed away. I found this in his basement facedown. It didn’t have a case, and it had about 3 strings on it, if that. And I strummed it and I could tell it had structural integrity. And I thought this is probably a good one if it were nursed back to health. I looked at the neck, it was straight as a board, you know your dad Gary taught me to do that. And I had a good hunch about it and I said Richie, I’m gonna take this one and bring it back to life. So I did and I played it a little bit. I remember playing this one at Lincoln Center with him once, we played in Alice Tully Hall I think, but I mostly just kept it around the house when we rehearsed. Richie and I actually rehearsed once or twice a week, every week, in this very room actually. So it’s kind of special to me to even break this guitar out and play in this spot. This is not normally where I rehearse, so thank you for that.
Walter Parks at home in Jersey City, NJ — photo c Ashley Smalley
Thank you to Walter Parks for your generosity of time and hospitality.
Buy the new Swamp Cabbage cd “JIVE” on our site HERE!
A big thank you to Brian Isserman at Primer Inc. for producing this incredible video for TSY!
15 Byberry Road
Interview transcribed by Amanda Propcyk