Walter Parks Cultivates Swamp Cabbage
Walter Parks is a non-conformist. He possesses no pick and strums unconventional chords on an unpopular guitar to make swampy, southern music.
“I’m 55 years old and people always tell me, You really look like you’re enjoying what you’re doing, and it’s true,” said Parks, who spoke by telephone from his Jersey City loft. “I haven’t lost the passion about playing, writing music and staying on top of my game. It’s something I live for. There are not a lot of guys my age who really look at things that way.”
Parks, who plays a Guild Bluesbird, is also well known for being the lead guitarist for the late Woodstock legend Richie Havens during a 10-year stretch that ended when Havens retired from touring. Parks’ band Swamp Cabbage is set to release its third studio album, Jive.
How are things going with Swamp Cabbage?
We just finished a record. It’s our third original record called Jive. I feel like I’m an old school writer in the sense that I don’t throw stuff together. The record was about five years in the making and all of our records have taken that long. It’s a travel log of stories about growing up in the South. I’m very satirical toward the South but I love it. It’s told like only a Southerner has the right to do. It pokes fun of the South but at the same time, it honors it.
How would you describe Swamp Cabbage’s sound?
The group is interesting. Our drummer is Jagoda. He’s from New York and he’s got this New Orleans second-line style. He’s perpetually playing the second line groove and I’m putting my North Florida influence into everything – electric, swampy, gritty and earthy – but it also draws from some unlikely influences like Scott Joplin’s piano playing.
I’m also influenced by many jazz musicians. I’m a huge fan of jazz pianist Bill Evans and I take a lot of his chord voicing and translate them to the guitar and put a swampy vibe on them along with a low thumping bass line. I think it’s a unique sound and it’s inspired by where I came from: Jacksonville Florida. We’re a jazz and blues group with a little bit of a Southern feel and we pay homage to the South and I’m very proud to have come from the best source of music in the word: The American South.
You mentioned the thumping bass line, who’s your current bass player?
The bass of the band is a very interesting place. We’re kind of changing concepts or experimenting right now. Our current bass player, Peter Sparacino, is playing the baritone sax. So, the baritone sax is taking the low end role. He’s a young guy and he takes off and does solos and I sit there and thump the bass out on guitar anyway. The record was done with a traditional bass player Jim DeVito, who’s from Florida, who has recorded all of our albums. He’s a great player, great producer but we’re looking ahead with this new sonic adventure of sax, drums and guitar without a traditional bass player. And what’s really cool about your world and how that applies to us, is that both Peter and myself, we come from a jazz background but yet we don’t want to sit there and play jazz all the time. This is swampy jazz that jams and we improvise a lot. There’s a lot of room for departure around traditional formed songs.
What made you switch to the saxophone player for the tour?
We’re rehearsing with it now and trying to figure out how to work it all in. We haven’t gotten in yet. Some songs work with the sax, and some don’t. It’s very possible that on some occasions we’ll play with Jim DeVito but sonically, I’m trying to get a different adventure. But what’s fun about it is that we go: Here’s a song, here’s the way we recorded and how do we reproduce the slide? It gives us something new and challenging to shoot for. The saxophone player uses some octave pedals that can fill-it out the low end.
I read that you record all of your albums live without any studio effects. is that true?
What is more real about our recording process is that we still record to tape. That means if we record a track and we think we can do it better, we have to record over the old track. I don’t believe in having 10 reels of material and sifting through it all. We only have one version of each song, and that’s because we try it, until we get it right. There’s a tremendous risk in that. You decide, Well I think we can do this, so lets tape over the past and destroy the old version. Being sure that we can better our last performance, keeps us on our toes.
How did you develop your trademark banjo-esque picking-finger style?
I started listening to bands that were inspirational to me growing up and that was mostly The Allman Brothers Band and bands like ZZ Top. I played with a pick for years but it wasn’t until I moved to Nashville in 1997 and I started listening to the guys play more of a country style. One thing that is real important to me is that I never go for a style. If everyone else is doing it, I’m not interested in it. I don’t even own Fender guitars because it seems like everyone plays them and I don’t want to sound like everyone else. I didn’t want to try to learn to be one of those telecaster slingers or country twang pickers. That sort of approach got in my blood and then I got the gig with Richie Havens in 2000-2001. And when I first started playing with Richie I had no idea how to really meld, blend and weave into his sound. Richie rarely gave me any direction about how I should play with him. One thing that he did say was that he wanted our guitars to sound like one guitar on stage. That meant, I had two choices: I could try weave with him and try to play something different or I could play exactly what he was playing and that was impossible because no one plays like Richie. So I came up with this banjo picking style that really tailored and sat-in really well with Richie’s galloping strum. First I had to figure out what it was that Richie was doing and it took me awhile. Essentially what Richie does is that he has a galloping picking style. Everything is interpreted in a constant gallop. Once I figured that out, I could then apply the banjo picking technique that I started developing in Nashville. I started doing it on the acoustic guitar and then I moved to the electric. I have a 1953 Gibson 175 that I was playing a lot with Richie and to me it was a wonderful contrast but as whole when we put the two guitars
together it sounded lush and wonderfully full.