Michael Parrish Band – Don’t shoot me, I’m not the piano player
Anyone who ever did hang time with the late Townes Van Zandt has tales to tell, and Michael Parrish is no exception. First time they met, at a mid-’80s Townes gig in New England, where Parrish was then the piano-playing half of a country blues duo called the Puritans, “Townes stole my flask and tried to buy my leather jacket off me,” he recalls.
Some years later, when Parrish was passing though Austin, they reconnected for a marathon hang that culminated in a comedy of errors at Lake Travis. During the course of their attempt to drain 200 pounds of water out of a paddleboat by gouging out a dime-sized hole in the boat’s bottom with a Swiss Army knife, Townes fell asleep on a bench in the houseboat bar, only to re-emerge in a blind rage when Parrish walked out on deck to check on the progress of their draining project.
“He comes running out of the bar, grabs me and says, ‘Don’t you ever do that again!’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Man, there’s a sheriff eatin’ in the restaurant! You don’t ever leave me asleep in a bar when the law is nearby!'”
Still, what Parrish recalls most vividly about that night was not the Keystone Cops antics but a quiet conversation.
“Townes told me to give up,” he confides midway through our second pints of Murphy’s Ale on a Sunday afternoon at Jack Dempsey’s, the downscale Irish bar in New York’s East Village where the Michael Parrish Band passes the pitcher for tips every Friday night, and where we’re now ensconced in the men’s-room-adjunct alcove pictured on his sophomore release, Beautiful Rocks, on Geographic Records. “He said you shouldn’t do it, it’s not worth it. Why the hell would I want to choose the life of a folksinger? At the time, it was devastating. Townes told me to quit! Oh my god, he’s my hero! Then, after he died, it suddenly struck me how privileged I felt that Townes Van Zandt told me to quit.”
Townes is one of four departed heroes to whom Parrish dedicated Beautiful Rocks, his “tribute to rock ‘n’ roll” that pays homage to Bay Area boyhood influences from Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and John Lennon to Gram Parsons, Roger McGuinn and Hank Williams, whose “Lovesick Blues” was covered by Parrish’s dad “8000 times” during family road trips. But, he hastens to add, “Townes’ spirit was not a part of the creation of this record. Except insofar as Townes’ spirit was a part of the creation of me.”
The album’s other late dedicatees also had a hand in that process, chief among them Guitar Gabriel. A strikingly original bluesman dragged kicking and screaming out of self-imposed retirement in Winston-Salem’s drinkhouses by young ethnomusicologist (and former Puritan) Tim Duffy, Gabe scripted Parrish into a classic buddy movie. During the first half of the ’90s, the crotchety elder statesman and the young-snot stride pianist played Carnegie Hall, toured the world on the festival circuit, and recorded two of the finest albums on Duffy’s fine roots-blues Music Maker label: Deep in the South and Guitar Gabriel, Vol. I.
But though Gabe’s influence as an improvisatory songwriter seeps into every track of the lyrically improvised Beautiful Rocks, there’s not a single trad blues cut. Nor does Parrish tickle the ivories once on an album he so consciously designed to break with his immediate past that he actually erased a couple piano tracks so the engineer couldn’t mix them in. But there’s a method to this apparent madness: His apotheosis as a piano sideman to such blues greats as Hubert Sumlin and Lefty Dizz was achieved when he recorded a soon-to-be-released Geographic album with the legendary Pinetop Perkins.
“I brought Pinetop here from Chicago and we sat down with two nine-foot Steinways and recorded an improvised blues boogie album,” explains Parrish, who cites Vladimir Horowitz’s 12-year hiatus from the keyboards as a precedent for his own piano purge. “That was the culmination of all the piano I could do. I was so over it I couldn’t wait to get back to writing songs and playin’ my music on the guitar.”
The halfway point on his circuitous journey from leader of San Francisco rock-‘n’-rollers Man-Eating Porcupine Tumbleweeds (band name courtesy Joe Bob Briggs) to “a conscious choice to become a sideman to learn what I needed to learn” to his current Townes-told-me-to-quit incarnation as a populist troubadour of his own quirky vision was Automobilty. Self-released by Geographic (his own label) in 1995, this “transition record” continues to have a life of its own. Its signature track, “Psychedelic Cowboy Rasta Muslim”, recently was adopted as a theme song by San Francisco’s WUSF DJ Billie Sharpe, and it could also be the ad hoc anthem of the cross-pollinated postmodernism of whatever the hell constitutes alt.country: “Ridin’ on his Harley listenin’ to Bob Marley/On his custom-made African radio/He’s got a country guitar a moon and a star/And a soft spot for Leadbelly.”
While Automobility was easy to peg — Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke did so quite astutely when he noted Parrish “writes about the road like he knows the potholes personally” — Beautiful Rocks tackles the far more treacherous territory of what happens when you come off the road and actually commit: to a relationship, to a fixed address, to a for-real band that’s in it for the long haul, to the words that tumble out of your mouth without being submitted to an internal board of songcrafters. That the title track was born several months after a sequencing session when he appraised the finished tracks out loud — “rocks…rocks…beautiful…rocks” — is emblematic of an album true to the disparate tendrils of Parrish’s convoluted roots. Where does it fit into the No Depression universe?
“Well, I’m against depression in all forms. I’ve got a very optimistic outlook. Painfully optimistic. Naively optimistic. There’s nothing to be depressed about. Except the state of the world.”