SO MANY TYPES of musicians have found inspiration in the boggy, sultry nature that we're so lucky to be surrounded in. But guitarist Walter Parks is the true master of that distinctly Southern sound.
Parks, who developed his unique style while touring with Woodstock legend Richie Havens, takes a banjoesque picking approach to electric guitar. Rippling in tremolo with a tough, bluesy swagger, it’s undeniable: if the swamp could sing, it would do so through Parks’ guitar.
Though he’s made a career (both solo and with Swamp Cabbage) around that geographical sound, Parks wasn’t always eager to show his roots.
“Being a Southerner and coming from the Southeast Georgia, North Florida area, when I first moved to New York, I didn’t want much ‘Southern’ in my music,” says the seasoned player. “I didn’t want people to detect that. They found that in my music anyway, and I started surrendering to that.”
The 56-year-old is in full stride, having recently performed with Judy Collins and toured wtih Emmylou Harris.
Parks spent the 2000s supporting Havens in his band, all the while honing his craft and writing his own original songs. There’s “a whole different pressure you have on you when you’re up there all by yourself,” Parks says. “My role is very clear when I’m in a supporting role as a side man: I try to make the band leader sound and look as good as I can—I have to completely serve him or her. Solo, there’s a lot more. I have to almost be a lot more open-minded and completely in the moment.”
Parks’ setlist can vary with his audience.
“Being that open is very much the distinct difference,” he explains. “I have to be open to turn on a dime. I might change from my swamp mode to my more ethereal, pensive, solo mode if I feel like the audience is a real listening type audience. That’s the wonderful thing about my repertoire right now—I can go in a different directions.”
The man sure knows variety. Parks excitedly shares that he’s been collaborating with a Chicago singer on a project that’s “almost operatic in nature, but performed on electric guitar.” He looks forward to sharing those songs, as well as his solo and Swamp Cabbage work, at his Trinity concert.
The Trinity show is also a kind of experiment for Parks—fascinated with the sound of the sanctuary, he’s opting for an acoustic guitar instead of his signature electric. He says his the tone that fans have come to recognize will still be there, though; he’ll be using a modified speaker system, salvaged from an old Southern gospel church, and a hand-wired tube amp, keys in attaining that swampy sound.
It’s a homecoming, too; a few years ago, the former Savannah resident relocated to New York for business opportunities.
“Every time I come back, I want to go straight to a realtor and get another place,” he shares. “It’ll happen soon enough.”
His last Savannah performance was at A-Town Get Down. Parks and wife Margo are both heavily involved in the festival.
Parks was actually a mentor to Andrew Townsend, whose life is celebrated at the day-long fest, while Townsend attended SCAD. Just a few weeks after their first meeting, the vibrant, aspiring artist was killed in an accident.
“Sometimes, the most free-spirited of us have to get taken away,” Parks says. “I’m not sure why that is.”
“It’s important that people understand how to constructively take charge of a free-flowing, free-spirited nature,” he continues. “A free-spirited nature can destroy you if you completely flow with your whims throughout life...on the other hand, you can do some tremendously constructive things with your art and your life in general if you know how to control and steer your muse rather than be completely led around by it.”
Helping people find direction in the arts is something Parks is particularly drawn to; he studied Business at UGA, and finds that it’s been a tremendous help to him in his work as a professional musician. He imparts this knowledge largely through his workshop “The Stewardship of Arts and Commerce.” Parks feels the set of skills he’s learned is of particular use to young artists in Savannah; plus, the town is a perfect example of art and entrepreneurship in itself.
“The prime reason I’m inspired to be in Savannah is it’s a creative, inspiring-looking city,” he says. “I’m talking about the design of yesteryear, the pre-Civil War era that was so meticulous and so mindfully adherent to a certain aesthetic of an era, and it’s still preserved. It’s so inspiring, and it drives so many dollars to that town because people were wise enough to not destroy those artistic structures.”
Parks looks forward to returning to a city he dreamed of as a boy. “When I finally moved there, I felt oddly at home like I never had been before. This place was perfect for me.”
“It always feels like an honor that I have to live up to, to play back in Savannah,” he says. “It’s kind of the symbolic epicenter of the music that I make.”