who: Swamp Cabbage
where: White Horse Black Mountain
when: Thursday, Oct. 11 (7:30 p.m., $12. whitehorseblackmountain.com)
Walter Parks on his swamp-rock trio, the value of instrumental music and his WNC roots
“When I’m singing, I feel like I’m entertaining. When I’m just playing an instrumental song, I feel like I’m truly an artist,” says Walter Parks, frontman for roots-rock outfit Swamp Cabbage (and solo artist, half of folk duo The Nudes, and guitarist for iconic folk singer Richie Havens).
Which is not to say that Swamp Cabbage’s show next week, at the White Horse in Black Mountain, will be an all-instrumental affair. The band may take cues from jazz, folk and Southern traditions, but the trio (with drummer Jagoda and bassist Jim Devito) also keeps tongue firmly in cheek (“More Booty with Buddha” is a Swamp Cabbage classic).
“When we come up with a lyric idea, if it makes us laugh we know we’ve made the right choice,” says Parks. “What Swamp Cabbage tries to do by design is supply good-quality music that’s challenging to play but yet is accessible to where people can easily dance to it.”
What is a nearly all-instrumental affair is Swamp Cabbage’s new EP, Drum Roll Please. The six-song collection is a bit of a departure for this band, known for its original material: Drum is all covers, all culled from ‘70s-era rock. Songs from The Who, The Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Average White Band, Edgar Winter and Isaac Hayes made the cut. From the latter comes the theme song from “Shaft”; this is the one song on Drum with full lyrics. Here, Parks makes use of his soulful, bass-heavy baritone, posing the age-old question, “Who's the cat that won't cop out / when there's danger all about?”
When Xpress spoke to Parks (who currently lives in New York City), he was already at work on a next band album. And a next solo project. “I sort of go back and forth between the moody, ambient stuff and the more satirical Swamp Cabbage stuff,” he says. “I’m happy with the schizophrenia.”
He’s also happy with the relative minimalism of the trio. “It’s so easy to play a lot of notes and make a record sound full. It’s not easy to make a record seem full by sparse instrumentation,” Parks says. “With very, very few exceptions, on recordings, Swamp Cabbage maintains the trio motif. Because of our arrangements, we have a very full sound.”
The bluesy, folk-rock trio played its first show at Lake Eden Arts Festival a decade ago. Parks says coming back to Black Mountain now, with Swamp Cabbage fully matured, “is some sort of a redemption for us,” especially because this area “really appreciates roots music.”
Asheville’s relationship with Parks and his projects dates back farther, even, than Swamp Cabbage’s early years. The Nudes (with Stephanie Winters) used to play Be Here Now and The Grey Eagle when it was in Black Mountain. And Parks himself was an Asheville resident for a couple of years. He lived at Hanger Hall, where he wrote the bulk of his solo record. “Of all the places I’ve lived, Asheville always felt the most special to me to return to,” he says.
That might have something to do with his WNC roots. Parks is from Florida, but vacationed in this area as a child. His father grew up near Bee Tree Lake in Swannanoa where Parks’ grandfather managed the reservoir and dam under the auspices of the Army Corps of Engineers. Parks’ great grandfather ran a general store in Swannanoa, artifacts of which were featured in a recent exhibit at the Swannanoa Valley Museum.
The musician’s bands and other adventures have taken him far from WNC over the years. He even moved to Nashville at one point where he, ironically, took a break from music and worked for a stock brokerage firm and a food bank. “It was the only time in my adult life I’ve had straight jobs,” he says. “But it endeared me to the people I play for every night.”
And there’s this, culled from Parks’ time playing and traveling with Havens: “Probably the most beautiful thing about Richie, outside of his magnificent voice, is that after his show he would make himself available to any fan who wanted to say hello to him.”
It’s apparent that at this point in his career — whether he’s playing folk, blues, roots, rock or some swampy-satirical concoction of all of the above — Parks feels the same way. “This is the best job in the world, to be able to do what I do: To play for people who’ve had a chance to spend a little time with your lyrics and your music,” he says. “I feel like the audience knows so much more about me than I know about them. I always try to do the best I can, during the show, to even that up.”
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.