There were times, along Walter Parks’ journey, brief and inexplicable moments where he imagined something deep, warm, southern and well, kind of old.
“I’ve always been magnetized by the inspiration and aesthetics of Savannah,” says the career guitarist. “I always knew Savannah was there, but I never knew it’d be a part of my life.”
Parks had been on the road, more or less, for 20 years, touring the nation and the world as a member of the acoustic band The Nudes, then as guitar–slinger and onstage partner to folk music legend Richie Havens.
In his heart, though, he’d always been a Florida boy, born and raised in Jacksonville, and weaned on trailer–park rock ‘n’ roll and swampy country blues.
Two years ago, when Havens retired from public performing, Savannah once again popped into Walter Parks’ thoughts.
“One day the light went off, and I thought ‘Well, we can just go there,’” he says simply, “and my wife and I just packed up and left New Jersey.”
His trio, Swamp Cabbage, makes a rare local appearance (they’re always touring somewhere) Thursday, Oct. 4 at Moon River Brewery — it’s the 5th annual Rivers Rock! Benefit bash for the Ogeechee Riverkeeper.
Parks had first headed for the big city in the late 1980s, with a Jacksonville rock ‘n’ roll band called Dear John. “When I moved to New York, I was kind of running from my Jacksonville roots,” he explains. “I was hoping nobody would notice my southern–ness, so to speak. I was thinking I was the newest contributor to the Euro–rock sound.”
When that inevitably fizzled, he decided to simplify things by playing acoustic guitar exclusively. He and cellist Stephanie Winters formed The Nudes, and from 1991–99 the eclectic duo released three acclaimed albums and played all the major folk festivals.
For Parks, however, this required a bit of priority–shifting.
“I yearned for the electric guitar back then,” he says. “When I was a kid I thought the acoustic guitar was sort of sissified, in a way. It’s kind of banal to admit that, but regardless, that’s the way I felt.
“It took two songs to turn my opinion about the acoustic guitar around. One was ‘Black Mountain Side,’ the version that Jimmy Page did, and the other was ‘Little Martha,’ on the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach. I thought wow, this is great music and it has such power, but yet grace.”
So that’s what he did. And yet ... “During those years with the Nudes, I yearned for something a little more aggressive, that had a little bit more dig to it. Some manliness, if you will.”
A move to Nashville, and session work, re–introduced him to the pleasures of the plug–in, and in 1999 he was asked to come to New York to work with Havens.
“Richie’s leadership style,” Parks explains, “was ‘Just do what you feel, man.’ That was essentially it. He would never mandate to me what to play. But he did say that he wanted our guitars to sound like one guitar. To me, that meant that I had to do some math. I had to figure out a way to thread and weave my way into his already iconic strumming style.
“And I came up with this sort of banjo–type picking style, this arpeggiated style, that actually wove very nicely with Richie’s galloping style. It started to become a real natural thing for me. It was very southern, but it didn’t sound southern because I was playing it on acoustic guitar, for the most part. Yet if I’d had a banjo in my hands, it would’ve sounded like a banjo player.”
At the same time, Parks put together the first version of Swamp Cabbage — playing the amazing finger–picked riffage he used on the Havens shows, but using an electric guitar. “I figured out constructive ways to meld the two,” he says, “and they interweave concurrently now. It’s not challenging for me – I sort of just play the same repertoire.”
With Jim DeVito’s percolating blues bass, and New Orleans stroll-parade drumming by Jagoda, Swamp Cabbage is an amalgam of rural country blues, Big Easy jazz, honky tonk and R&B.
At the heart of this bubbling gumbo is Parks, who sings like a carnival barker raised on old Tom Waits records, and plays incredible electric guitar that stings, burns, rolls, pinches and cries the blues. They’ve just released the album Drum Roll Please, with their particularly particular interpretations of everything from the Who anthem “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (Parks does the Daltrey and Townshend parts, both, on guitar) to “Theme From Shaft” to a killer medley of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” and Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein.” Plus “Little Martha” and “Black Mountain Side.”
He and his wife Margo spend the winter months in Savannah, and the rest of the year in the northern states.
And then there’s Swamp Cabbage.
“I’ve always been romanced by the archetype of the rock ‘n’ roll trio,” Parks says. “It necessitates a lot of hard work. And I always gravitate to a challenge. It forces me to flip roles a lot — some times I’ll play a bass role, or lead — you just gotta wear a lot of hats. I like that.
“I’m a person who has to stay busy all the time; I think that’s why the trio is entrancing to me.”
Ogeechee River Revival
Where: Moon River Brewing Co., 21 W. Bay St.
When: 7–10 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4
A benefit for the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, with food, craft beer, a silent auction with local items and a raffle
Tickets: $35 at riversrock.org; $45 at the doorThere were times, alo
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