The history of music is filled with tales of bad breaks, what-might-have-been, and the overlooked genius that never got the proper recognition. Many musicians keep soldiering on, refusing to give up on their dreams. For others, the struggle to pursue their art slowly crushes the spirit that drives their artistic vision.
Guitarist Peter Parcek experienced one of those moments after the turn of the century with the release of his first solo recording. Evolution was filled with Parcek’s quirky originals like “Café Du Monde Boogie,” “Lightnin” Hopkins Goes Surfing,” and “Tiny Moore,” a tribute to the great mandolin player with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. The release was well-received in the Boston area, quickly selling through the first pressing. The momentum came to a screeching halt with the development of some legal issues concerning the project.
Ten years later, Parcek was back with a new release entitled The Mathematics of Love on the Vizztone label... The disc offered a rousing mix of vibrant originals coupled with tracks like Peter Green’s “Showbiz Blues,” Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Kokomo Me Baby,” and Jessie Mae Hemphill’s “Lord, Help The Poor And Needy” that highlighted Parcek’s unique musical vision. Also included was a slow acoustic blues, ”New Year’s Eve,” with Ronnie Earl on guitar and a lengthy instrumental workout on the Ray Charles classic, “Busted” featuring Al Kooper on organ.
The disc received widespread critical acclaim as well as nominations for a Blues Blast Music Award and a Blues Music Award, both in the Best New Artist Debut category. The affirmation of his work still resonates with Parcek. “I am nothing if not prolific. It is always a saga that usually revolves around money, or lack of. I met the great producer Ted Drozdowski. When we became friendly, we started talking about records that we loved and artists we adored. It was great to meet someone who knew so much about the music and could articulate it. Ted also had a real vision for the shape of a record.”
“So we started talking. Ted said isn’t it time, it has only been ten years! I played him everything we had. He suggested the Jessie Mae Hemphill song and we worked out what I hope is an original, and respectful, take on it. The one regret I have is that we had hoped to go down and meet Jessie to play her the track. But she passed away before we could make it happen.”
“We had a tremendous team on the project. The engineer, Ducky Carlisle, was amazing. He just did the new Buddy Guy record. The record continues to make friends all over the world, which is wonderful. I wish I had been able to get out on tour more to support it but it still has life.”
Attending the awards shows also left indelible impressions with the guitarist. “The Blues Blast Awards show was at Buddy Guy’s Legends club. Buddy was there, which was a huge thrill along with being able to meet all of the other great artists that were there. I also got to visit with Buddy’s producer, Tom Hambridge, who I had known from the Boston area. The folks from the Blues Foundation were incredibly supportive. Even though we didn’t win an award, they had us play on the main stage. It was an amazing and inspirational opportunity. We played with our hearts for a community of people that love, understand, and deeply appreciate the music. It is a couple of years down the road but I am still buzzing from those nights.”
Parcek came from a family of music lovers. His sister bought plenty of Elvis Presley 45s while his mother liked to sing along with records playing in the house. His mother remarried, and while Parcek didn’t care much for his step-father, he bought his step-son a radio. Parcek immediately bought the biggest antenna he could find and retreated to his bedroom in small town Connecticut, where he discovered a whole new world of music on stations like WVON from Chicago and WWVA in West Virginia.
“One day I went to the local record store and order a couple of records from the very nice older lady who ran it. By pure luck, I ordered two of the greatest records ever, The Best Of Muddy Waters and Moanin’ At Midnight by Howlin’ Wolf, both on Chess Records. So the nice lady is looking at the Muddy Waters cover, with the bead of sweat rolling down his face, and asks me where I heard these records. So I told her. She replied that she knew it wasn’t on WTIC, which was the local family-oriented station from Hartford. She seemed genuinely relieved by that fact.”
“I took the records home and played the Wolf record first. All of the hairs on my arm stood up! It just slayed me. Listening to Muddy’s record, I can’t explain why to this day but at some point I started crying. I believe it was recognition of something in the music that I didn’t yet understand. I immediately told my mother that I wanted to get a guitar, telling her that I found some music that makes me want to play guitar. Mom collected and collected and collected, until she had enough Green Stamps to get me a little nylon string guitar.”
“So here I am with this guitar that I didn’t know how to play. We didn’t have money for guitar lessons, so all I did was hug the guitar. I didn’t know anybody who played, especially that kind of music. Eventually I started figuring out some stuff on my own and I met some folks were into folk music, the Beatles and Chet Atkins – lots of finger picking on guitar. It was all very different from the records I had. Thankfully there were a lot of British bands at that time who were also pointing me towards the masters of the blues.”
While he has had a few lessons over the years, Parcek is functionally a self-taught musician. His first lesson was with a jazz guitarist who was a fine player who had no respect for techniques utilized by every blues player. “He told me to never use vibrato or bend strings. But that was all I wanted to do! That didn’t go very well. I was playing with a pick as I couldn’t quite master the finger pick style. I kept wandering through the wilderness. I must have quit playing guitar several hundred times. It was so hard and frustrating.”
The reality of the Viet Nam war caused a painful rift in the Parcek household. His mother had served in the U.S. Navy while his father served in the U.S. Marine Corp. Their son had a different view of the conflict, deciding he wasn’t going to go, becoming a conscientious objector. Before he could be drafted, a family friend kindly offered a temporary place to stay in London, England.
“It was a big leap of faith but I was young and ready for a big adventure. The amazing thing was that I landed right in the middle of British blues boom. I got to see outstanding artists like Eric Clapton, Stan Webb with Chicken Shack, and Jeff Beck. Most often, I would see Peter Green at the height of his powers, when he was a force to be reckoned with. It was truly inspiring to me to hear a musician who wrote his own songs, sang them well, and played moving, emotive guitar. I saw him as many times as I could afford to. I saw him in a trio in addition various versions of the original Fleetwood Mac. I was singing and playing harmonica instead of playing guitar at that time. I did some gigs with some great musicians but soon got asked to leave the country because I thought I could get by without a permit. They take that very seriously over there”.
Returning to his home, Parcek quickly had the draft issue resolved when a physical determined that issues with his feet would prevent military service. His London experiences were the impetus to concentrate on improving his guitar skills. “Those guys were playing at such a high level. I realized that I had been messing around, not applying myself. I owned a guitar but I wasn’t really playing it.”
So he started going out to see legends like B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, and Otis Rush whenever they were in the area, often at the Shaboom club, run by Lefty Foster. You could get up close and watch the guitar player’s hands. Then I would go home, sit in my room, and try to work it all out. The guitar is a difficult instrument to be any good on. Being self-taught, it was a long process getting from knowing what to play to actually being able to play it. There weren’t any tapes or videos to study in those days.
“So I spent about 8-10 hours a day in my room for a two year period practicing. My Mom really began to worry about me, wondering if I was ever going to come out of there. At some point, if you dedicate yourself to it, music and the guitar will eventually open up to you. At the heart of it for me is the electric blues guitar. It takes time to learn how to bend notes in tune. Albert King would bend one string but get multiple tones and microtones out of it.”
Living in a college town, Parcek formed a trio to play local gigs. One memorable experience from those days occurred when some friends on the entertainment committee booked the trio for a festival that had the Grateful Dead as the headliner. “I got to meet some of the Dead, including Jerry Garcia. He was very knowledgeable about blues guitar. After we finished our set, he started talking to me and he knew all of the references, the Otis Rush stuff, and the Freddie King licks. He was very articulate and very supportive. He also was a life-saver because at the end of our talk, he told me that I really shouldn’t drink anything that was backstage!”
Soon he followed a woman to Boston, where the relationship quickly fell apart. It was another period where the guitar took a backseat to the rest of his life. But he connected with some like-minded musicians that lead to the formation of Nine Below Zero. It was a fun, forward-leaning band that was rooted in the traditions. They were a bit ahead of the times but the experience got Parcek back on the path of being a working musician for good.
He also met an engineer who was working on a new Pinetop Perkins recording project. They were looking for a guitar player for some of the tracks and approached Parcek to see if he was interested. “It took me a nanosecond to agree. They sent me three tracks to learn. Then I went in to record my parts so the record label could decide if I passed muster. The engineer stressed that I needed to learn the piano riffs because they wanted me to double some of Pinetop’s signature riffs. They liked what I did and I played on some other songs that were released on the Perkin’s album on the 95 North label.”
“I also had the honor and privilege to do a bit of touring with him. He did occasionally miss gigs when he got a better offer financially. The first couple of gigs I was trying to be respectful. He was the reason people were there, so I was sitting way back and not playing much. Pinetop became more perplexed than angry, finally walking up to me to say I hear you, I know you can play, so why don’t you play? I want you to step forward and play. He couldn’t have been kinder to me. At times he brought me to tears.”
Parcek is now putting the finishing touches on his latest project that was recorded in Nashville at the home of Marco Giovino, a drummer who has played with Parcek briefly in Nine Below Zero and has played with Buddy Miller in addition to Robert Plant’s Band of Joy. Giovino put together a killer band that includes Spooner Oldham on keyboards, Luther Dickinson on guitar on several tracks, Dominick Davis and Dennis Crouch on electric and upright bass, Mickey Raphael from Willie Nelson’s Band on harmonica, and the McCrary sisters doing backing vocals on one song. When Marco and Dennis were together, they insisted that Parcek join them in sharing some moonshine to enhance the recording experience.
“I feel that this is the next step from The Mathematics Of Love. It is essential to study the music and the master figures that we all revere. But originality also has to be part of the search. It is incumbent on all musicians to find our individual voice. That might involve going outside metaphorical boundaries, whether it is tonal or harmonic You might not play as well as the masters. But we honor those legends when we take what they did and bring something of our own to it. There are people that don’t see me as a blues artist but in my heart, that is where I am coming from.”
“The music that I love has a deep level of humanity. Whether it is a bent note on a guitar string or the sound of the human voice, I respond to the human cry. The sound of Muddy Waters’ voice and guitar was profoundly moving, seemingly creating meanings in the music beyond the actual lyrics. It gave me a way to work through the joys and the pain of life, a way to ponder what we are really doing here. There is a release when the music is nuanced at a higher level. It is a testament to the greatness of the legends I was lucky enough to hear and be inspired by”.
Photos by Rick Lewis © 2015