Interview: Greg Parker

posted February 21, 2005

by Corinne

Greg ParkerHow are you?

Wonderful. Thanks for asking. And you?

Great, thanks. Care to introduce yourself?

Well, my name is Greg Parker, I'm 26 years old, and I live in Nashville, TN. I'm originally from the small coal-mining town of Hyden in Southeast Kentucky, and I was raised in Knoxville, TN. I moved to Nashville about three years ago after graduating from college at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. My great joy in life is music, but I also enjoy good books, movies, food, company, quiet night spots, clothes, shoes, and cars, to name a few things.

You have a very unique sound for today's music scene. What made you gravitate towards that style of music?

That's kind of a long story, so let me give you the semi-condensed version. I've always had a strong interest in music--I loved rock and roll so much in third grade that I had hair way down over my ears, which was unheard of for a third grader in Knoxville in 1986. In junior high I listened to country some for the first time; not the old stuff but whatever was on the radio at the time. I wasn't crazy over it but I heard some things I liked a lot. My favorite song was "Neon Moon" by Brooks and Dunn. It was one of their first hits; a lonely, down-on-your-luck-in-a-bar type number. It really captures the essence of what country music is to me and why I like it so much. And even at the age of 13 it struck a chord with me.

When I got into high school I really got into punk rock. I was one of those kids that heard Nirvana and then Green Day, then heard the Ramones and the Sex Pistols and then got really curious about everything else. I started a three piece garage band during my junior year that played as fast as Minor Threat, wrote melodies kind of like The Clash, and wrote lyrics kind of like The Ramones or The Dickies. That's not to say that we were as good as any of those bands though, cause we weren't. We played a few shows before it fizzled out a couple of months after I graduated, and a lot of people thought we were pretty good.

After I got out of high school I got really interested in jazz, bluegrass, and early rock and roll. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Bill Monroe were some of my new favorites. I also got into The Jam really heavily and as I got into their later stuff, they made me realize again that there was plenty of good rock that wasn't punk rock. That led me toward The Kinks, Bob Dylan, back to The Beatles, Elvis Costello, etc. The next few years would become an amazing period of musical discovery for me. Around this time I picked up a 12-string guitar and began writing these really quirky mountain folk tunes with titles like "Bobtail Bob," "It's Good To Be A Quaker," and "Oh Dee Do Dee Wah Day."

I was playing some of these at a party in 1998 when I met my friend Adam Hill. His band has just broken up and he was impressed with what I was doing, saw a lot of potential in it, and we began playing a couple of shows a month locally for a while. He also turned me on to a lot of old country, blues and pop. He also helped me hone my craft as a songwriter and as a singer, which I desperately needed at that point if I was going to entertain any serious notion of doing this professionally, which at the time I wasn't really.

A couple of years later I transferred from the University of Tennessee to Cornell. There wasn't really much to do up there for me except study and play music. I never had as much time to spend with a guitar as I did up there. I really began to find my voice as a result of the amount of time I spent playing music, my level of mental engagement from reading all the time, and being in such a different place. I wanted romance up there and there wasn't much to be had. This did not affect my already sour mood in a positive manner. As a result my music veered toward the country tradition that began with Hank Williams and the great American standards, with some rock and roll at its core. The central questions that I began asking myself in this time is what is true romance in the 21st century, how does one find it, and how does one keep it alive?

Since I've moved here my style has become a bit broader and more all-encompassing, and I've continued to improve as a singer and songwriter, but those central questions and concerns have not changed. And I believe all the music that I like and have liked in the past, combined with the key ingredient of my unique perspective and singing voice, give my music the sound and style it has today.

Because your sound is unique, are you finding it difficult to get an audience?

I wouldn't say that I've found it difficult to find an audience, because for the last two years I've had great responses nearly every time I've played a show. I would say the hard part for me has been trying to pick one area to target to get started in. I'm too country to play rock clubs all the time, and I'm too rock and pop oriented to play a lot of the country/Americana/singer-songwriter venues. And then I'm too country for country radio. I've had my best and most consistent success playing on bills with indie rock and Americana acts to audiences who are open to a new variation on the old theme, and I've had the most radio play from college stations and Americana and traditional country specialty shows. I think the keys for me right now are persistence and consistency. With those two things I believe a strong, loyal audience will follow.

How is your full length album coming? What can we expect to hear on it?

Right now we are still in the stage of picking a studio, coming up with a budget, and figuring out what songs are going on it. I'm hoping it will be recorded by the end of spring and be out by the end of summer. But there are a lot of uncertainties right now so I would check in on my website every so often to hear the latest developments.

How do you approach songwriting?

First of all, a song has to have a memorable melody with good hooks that engage a listener and make them want to hear the song again. This, to me, is the most important element of songwriting.

It isn't usually where I start though. More often than not, a phrase or a song title pops into my head, and that serves as the impetus to write the song. If I can get a good title then the rest comes easy for me.

I think the thing that differentiates me from a lot of other songwriters is that I try to have some kind of resolution and/or message in all of my songs. This is kind of abstract and difficult to generalize, but when I begin a song, there is some kind of tension or problem that is unresolved, and that when I'm done with the song, the tension is generally resolved, if not the heartache.

I think another important thing that most everyone has lost sight of anymore is to avoid hero worship and outright emulation. This is as important in songwriting as it is in singing or any other area musically.

How did you get involved in playing music?

I got my first guitar when I was nine years old. My mother recently found all these old tapes of me from around that time making some God-awful strumming on the guitar and singing these horribly depressing lines about some girl I had a crush on at the time. Some things change, some things don't so much.

What musicians have inspired you?

Mostly older, dead ones. Ray Charles and Hank Williams are the first two that come to mind. Simply put, Ray knew what to do with a song more than anybody. Hank is the archetype of what we know (or knew) as country music, is my favorite songwriter from the last century, and is perhaps the most emotive singer I have ever heard. Other notables would include Roger Miller, Duke Ellington, Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra, Ray Price, Loretta Lynn, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Miles Davis; I could go on and on.

People whom are only about a generation older than me have also given me a good sense of what is possible in this day and time artistically through music. I would say Elvis Costello is the prime example of this just because of the broad range of things he has done and done well in his career. I would also be remiss if I did not say that Chris Isaak, Dwight Yoakam, Paul Westerberg, and Nick Lowe (particularly on his last couple of albums) have also provided good models and lots of enjoyable music as well.

My friend Adam Hill has also been a great influence to me. There are also many other contemporaries who I enjoy and who inspire me in one way or another: The Flaming Lips, The White Stripes, Gillian Welch, Franz Ferdinand, Norah Jones, and Andre 3000 are a few that come to mind.

Name an underrated band you think deserves more attention.

They're becoming less underrated all the time, but The Legendary Shackshakers are a band from here in Nashville that has as much talent as any band around right now. Like a lot of other people at the moment, their style is very eclectic; a good succinct description would be to say that they are a very loud blues/rock band. They get lumped into that whole psychobilly category, which is very unfortunate because they are a lot more genuine and unique than that.

What have you been listening to recently?

Aside from things I've mentioned above, and some other things that won't come to mind, I've been listening to a lot of Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole Trio, Willie Dixon's Big Three Trio, George Jones, and Al Green.

If you could have written any song, what song do you wish you had written and why?

"Cold, Cold Heart" by Hank Williams. It summarizes so many of my experiences so beautifully and it has been recorded so many times that I imagine I could live very handsomely from its royalties.

Thanks for your time!

And thank you for yours!