Walter Parks Cultivates Swamp Cabbage
You have a raspy, gospel, singing voice. Is that something that came natural to you or did you develop that over time?
I guess it’s natural and it makes sense with this style of music. I actually studied opera and when I first started singing using proper technique, I was playing this swampy groove and the two didn’t make sense together. I was playing these four-hour gigs in clubs and I was starting to get fatigued and my voice quality changed. I would listen back to the tapes and interesting enough my voice sounded better later in the night, so I naturally started leaning in that direction. My voice sounded better when I put an edge on it with the swampy music. The music took me in that direction.
When Richie stopped touring in 2010, you said you had to reinvent yourself, can you explain?
The fact is when I was playing with Richie my schedule was pretty much laid out for me. I was dedicated to him. I had to really get serious about trying to make Swamp Cabbage work and trying to connect with audiences as a solo artist. I had only those two sources to rely upon to support me, but that’s a really exciting thing. It helped the band tremendously. It’s that old saying: Destiny is the mother of invention. We had to make ends meat by Swamp Cabbage and me playing solo and I think oddly enough my music got a little better and I started connecting in ways that I wasn’t before, because quite frankly I had to. I started playing a lot more gigs. In the last two years, we’ve covered almost every roadhouse, every biker bar, every BBQ joint, and every fish camp that liters the whole Southeast from Florida – where I’m from – all the way through Georgia to Mississippi.
And you got to open for JJ Grey and Mofro in 2012? What was that like?
We played four or five gigs with them and it was fantastic. The very first one we did was in my hometown of Jacksonville. JJ’s from Jacksonville too, he records at Jim DeVito’s studio so that’s how we know JJ. So we’re always bumping into each other in the studio down in St. Augustine when we’re working. But when we first took the stage – it was big room, a couple of thousand seat room – and everybody was looking at us like, “Who are these old guys?” Then we ripped into it with a banjo song called ‘Squeal.” We started playing banjo music and in came the electric guitar, in came the drums, and in came the bass and people just started screaming and we ended the set with a cover of The Who’s “We Won’t Get Fooled Again.” It was so funny, because when we got off the stage, the drummer from JJ’s group looked at us with a smile on his face and said: “You left us with nothing. What are we going to do? Get up there and play a bunch of ballads.” We had this take no prisoners attitude. We had 30 minutes and ripped it up and had a great time. What’s really cool about JJ is that he’s got this swampy vibe and nobody does anything like him and nobody does what we do. The Northeast Florida pocket of the South is really unique and you had to have lived and grown up there to have that kind of sound. I think JJ feels a sense of camaraderie with us because we’re both from the same area. We picked up a lot of fans from playing with JJ and I hope we can more gigs with them.
Getting back to Richie Havens, how did that friendship develop?
I think he respected me musically because he seen me play with The Nudes. We used to open for him as we shared the same booking agent. Richie and I came to enjoy each other’s company as time moved forward. When we first started working together, we didn’t know each other that well, other than, “Hey, how are ya?” We got to know each other when we were on the road. And especially more during a time stretch, where it was just me and Richie out on the road. I would be the road manager, so we just sit and drive for six hours and talk about everything. We would travel the country together and Richie’s perspective was very interesting and he had his own way of using the English language. A lot of times I could be right there with him right on his wave length and sometimes it was just so tiring to figure out what he was saying (laughing).
When I was most in sync with him was when we were making the best music together. Richie really didn’t use the thinking process in dealing with his music. He tried to let the music happen and let the music be. If I used my mind too much and thought about the harmony and thought about the rhythm, I really couldn’t play with him at all. But when I turned my mind off and felt my way through things it jelled right. Richie’s perspective on the world was different from mine. He came out of the first generation hippie era. He had such tremendous faith in mankind – that the average person would do the right thing for each other. Often, we would have these debates about the essence of human nature and it made for some very interesting trips across the country. We saw so many amazing things and talked to so many wonderful people. It was quite a fascinating ride and, so many people knew who he was and Richie had abundance of time for the average guy. You had to be very patient to travel with Richie because he would stop what he was doing and talk to someone for 20 minutes. Trying to keep Richie on a schedule was very challenging sometimes. I learned so much about what was really important. He knew that his audience was the average guy and Richie never saw himself as elevated above anyone else. And essentially that’s the best attitude to have.
Was there a favorite story that he told? One of the most interesting stories that he told me was that his first job was delivering telegrams for Western Union. And often, he would deliver telegrams to people with bad news, so the recipient of the information would fall apart in front of his eyes and he was just a teenage boy at the time. So he learned early on how to comfort people and developed a sense of empathy for people and I really think it influenced how he made his music and how he went through life. And the good news is that his perspective was contagious. It helped change me for the better.
On Aug. 18, 2013, you performed at Back to the Garden: A Day of Song and Remembrance Honoring Richie Havens, you played “Hope and Waiting,” and “People Get Ready.” How emotional was that moment of time?
It was hard do justice to Richie and all of the great music he made. And here I was on the original Woodstock grounds, stepping in for that short moment and trying to live up to Richie’s honor. It wasn’t just a gig – it was way more than a gig. The sound system went haywire before “People Get Ready,” and I thought, “What would Richie do in this situation?” My thought was that he was just unplug , go acoustic and still keep trucking on and that’s exactly what I did. I unplugged, walked to the edge of the stage and we made it work. And at the end of the day, I did that because I thought that would be the way, Richie would handle it.
Is there a piece of him in your heart that you bring to the stage every night when you perform?
Absolutely. I feel like more than anything. I’m playing for people. I’m trying to give people good quality music that they deserve and more importantly I’m trying to be present and be in the moment because that’s the best way to honor an audience and that’s what Richie did every gig.