Walter Parks is on the road again. It's familiar territory for the modern troubadour, who's spent three-plus decades as solo artist, band member and in-demand sideman for some legendary players.
"I was over in Sweden a couple of days ago as a kind of scouting trip to get some work for my band in Scandinavia," says Parks, as he races a rental car from Fort Lauderdale to play a gig later that night in Pensacola. That group is Swamp Cabbage, a rootsy, Northeast Florida-based trio that is just one of Parks' musical combinations.
The 55-year-old Jacksonville native returns home for a gig at Mudville Music Room after his performance with Grammy-winning pop-folk legend Judy Collins in A Memorial Concert for Pete and Toshi Seeger, July 20 at Lincoln Center.
The Collins gig is proof of the effectiveness of Parks' career strategy — a willingness to put in the hours combined with a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
"I really believe that you have got to put yourself in the place where good luck happens to you," Parks says.
In 1989, Parks increased his odds of serendipity after he relocated from Jacksonville to New York City and began gigging around town, first with his band Dear John, then with the cello-guitar duo known as The Nudes. That twosome released three albums and toured the college rock scene and folk circuit. When they opened for Richie Havens, Parks' playing caught the attention of the '60s folk legend. That encounter led to Parks playing second guitar to Havens for a decade.
From 2001 to 2011, Parks played around the world with Havens, an opportunity that allowed him to sharpen his expertise as a musician and deepen his understanding of the music business. But he acknowledges that the elder musician's greatest lesson and direct legacy was one of living by example. "Richie had such an invitational quality on and off the stage with
people," says Parks of his friend and bandmate, who died in 2013. "He'd draw you in and knew how to create this atmosphere that's hard to describe — very warm. Richie would talk to a fan the same way he would with a music promoter. And quite frankly, Richie would always rather talk to a fan."
Collins, who first heard Parks play with Havens in 2009 at a Madison Square Garden celebration for Pete Seeger's 90th birthday, has praised Parks for his singular style. Equally impressive are Parks' talents as singer-songwriter and guitarist. His Gibson guitar drips in tremolo effects; the languid instrumental "Epiphany," from his eponymous 2011 release, features this shimmering sound to full effect, evoking somber, mid-'70s Neil Young guitar contemplations. "The Angel's Point of View" glides by on trippy harmonics, as Parks' vocal delivery comes across like a tip of the hat to country iconoclast Don Williams. Parks has been pegged as an Americana artist, but songs like Swamp Cabbage's "Jesus Tone" are all bluesy stomp, owing more to LA rock band Canned Heat than confessional neo-country.
This mix of roadhouse gigs and concert halls, unconventional approaches to songcraft and unique guitar-playing make it tough to categorize Parks, a boon for any artist — but the blurred lines of genre also throw Parks into a music marketing no-man's land.
Yet Parks keeps moving on, and he is serene about both his past accomplishments and where he can go next on his sonic adventure. "In my opinion, the most important goal of any artist is to find our own style. And my only hope is that by doing what I do, I can keep connecting with people."