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“Walter Parks is an extraordinary singer whose songs can break your heart as well as get you dancing. Lyrical and political, personal and otherworldly at the same time, transcendent as well as down to earth, Walter is a musical treasure, an artist of the highest caliber. To hear him is to be lifted into a mystical sphere. I adore him.” – Judy Collins
“A listen to Parks’ soulful Americana rock is to be immersed in warm guitar melodies, smoky vocals and troubadour narratives that gather strength with age.” – WNYC
Veteran blues and jazz guitarist Walter Parks has built an international career as the lead guitarist for Woodstock legend Richie Havens, as half of the folk-duo The Nudes, and as leader of the neo-southern rock group Swamp Cabbage. Just as Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp has served as the headwaters of Florida’s Suwanee River, so has it served as the inspirational headwaters for Walter’s unique guitar concept – a banjo-esque fingerpicking style that toggles between expressing the swamp’s foggy, ambient underbelly and it’s eminent danger via the use of a modicum of pleasant distortion. Inspired by the sultry black gospel that wails from storefront churches and roadhouses in the American southeast, Parks’s raspy vocal lows and soaring operatic falsetto explore the frontier of the modern human spirit in search of a place where it can flourish.
Born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida at a time when classical music was offered in public schools, Parks began his music career studying the viola in the sixth through eighth grades. After a transition to the guitar in 1973 he formed his first group, The Parental Tears Band (an ode to their parents’ shared dread that their offspring would pursue music careers). Succumbing to his parent’s advice that he lay the foundation for a more stable career, Parks enrolled in business school at the University of Georgia in Athens. Parks recalls “Unfortunately the fall-back strategy ultimately backfired as I became disillusioned with the mentality of making important decisions only in allegiance to the bottom line. I withdrew one year short of graduation. The best the thing about college was serving in the Student Union organization that promoted big concerts. Our budget was astronomical, our allegiance was to quality and most shows made money. I was fascinated by concert booking and production and I stayed to the bitter end at every load-out and roadies loved me. I learned that great reward could follow extra effort, for after a Dixie Dregs show I had the opportunity to play Duane Allman’s 1959 sunburst Gibson Les Paul, which at the time was in possession of Dregs’ road manager Twiggs Lyndon. I still feel the power and magic of that cherished guitar, which is now on display in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
In the early 1980’s, Parks returned to his hometown to form a fusion jazz band called Sneakers. “It was an exciting time when we could draw 200 people every Monday night on instrumental music alone” Parks states. Managing his own clothing store by day, Walter took quarterly buying trips to New York where he became magnetized by Manhattan’s pace and serious music scene. To fund his eventual departure from Jacksonville Walter created a society band called The Wing Tips taking full advantage of the prosperous Regan years. In 1989, after winning a Tangueray Rocks talent contest piloted by rock impresario Don Kirschner, he took his first original electric band Dear John, to New York.
By 1991, burdened by the logistics of running a band in the big city, he simplified and formed an acoustic duo called The Nudes with cellist Stephanie Winters. The Nudes recorded three albums and enjoyed a successful career touring U.S. colleges and folk festivals, serving for a short while as Richie Havens’ support act.
Road-weary and searching for a new perspective, in 1999 Parks traveled to Plum Village, Tich Nat Han’s Buddhist monastery in southwest France. Allowing himself time to reboot and reflect, Walter refers to the adventure as “the best vacation I’ve ever taken – living amidst unparalleled beauty, in complete tranquility, with plenty of time to listen to my life. Up until my very last day in the monastery, I told no one that I was a musician just to find out what was left of me, without the guitar as my identity.”
In 2000 Parks returned to New York in a business role as a label manager for indie MPress Records however in 2001 the New York scene re-ignited Walter’s urge to perform and he was asked to join Richie Havens’ trio. “Accompanying Richie from 2001-2011 and hearing that wonderful voice by his side on stages all over the world was incomparable honor. The grandest shows were at Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, The Cannes Film Festival in France and The WOMAD Fests in New Zealand/Australia but nothing compared to the frenzy Richie would incite at The Jazz Cafe in London.”
“My first move to New York, in a sense had been an attempt to shed any influence that my Florida roots might have had on my playing. I was chasing other styles –mostly European. Hopelessly, everyone seemed to notice the southernness in my music. One day it hit me that I already had what myself and every other artist comes to New York to find and/or exploit – a unique style. I therefore accepted that my path would be to develop the swampy North Florida sound rather than to obscure it.” Walter formed Swamp Cabbage and used any down time in Richie’s schedule to meticulously craft three fine analog recordings–Honk, Squeal and Drum Roll Please. Since Richie’s retirement in 2010 and passing in 2013, Walter has been focusing on Swamp Cabbage and solo performances. The band’s fourth CD “Jive” is due out soon.
Parks’ various music projects express both his diverse background as a musician and balance distinct parts of his personality. “I’m as comfortable with rural culture as I am with so called “high society.” I enjoy doing construction, chatting with locals and driving my Ford F-150 through the Georgia back woods, but I also enjoy throwing on a nice suit and taking in a New York museum.”