Parker Smith shows off his chops with Underground, the Atlanta singer-songwriter’s jazzy, Americana flavored collection of quarantine recorded songs that channel classic lyricists and Southern jam heroes. Having studied multiple musical facets at the University of Miami and the University of Texas, Smith returned to his native Georgia in 2015 and shortly thereafter opened up his own music school, the Guitar Shed, an impressive endeavor humbly formed as a one-man operation that’s grown to require a varied and accomplished staff. Underground blends deeply personal episodes with finely tuned skill, and on Thursday, September 30th, Parker Smith will share his stories on stage at JBA with a special solo performance.
AI- Let’s talk about your latest full-length album Underground. That came out back in the spring, in April. Recorded during the pandemic, during the quarantine– but you don’t really consider it a pandemic record necessarily?
PS- Yeah, that’s correct. One of the songs I wrote actually like 10 years ago, but the content of a lot of the lyrics from the tunes are not overtly about the pandemic. It was cool to record everything remotely. I set out by just doin’ a couple of songs with some buddies and emailing tracks back and forth to each other. And then it just kind of snowballed until we had a full record!
I read somewhere that you have your own studio at home and you just mentioned recording remotely, which is something that a lot of people have been doing, expanding upon, and really, I think innovating this last year and a half. Tell me about that process. Is that something that you had worked with before or is this something new for you?
No, it’s pretty new for me. I took the opportunity to upgrade my home studio, get some new gear, and then I taught myself how to use Logic, which is a recording program. It was brand new and I learned a lot in the process. It came together nicely.
Had you been initially planning to record a full-length album or was this just a case of you finally had the time to do it?
I hadn’t been plannin’ on it. I had some tunes kickin’ around and I initially only planned to do a couple of songs, but then they started soundin’ really good and I started writing a little bit more and then it just turned into the full-length thing!
Stylistically on the album, I can definitely hear a jazz influence. There’s a Southern Rock influence there that would, of course, be expected from a Georgia boy. Tell me about your songwriting. Is that something that you studied formally? Who do you admire in that arena?
It’s definitely those jazz influences and some bluegrass and Americana stuff, but I didn’t really study songwriting formally. I went to the University of Miami and there was a songwriting ensemble there called the Bruce Hornsby Songwriting Ensemble ’cause he went there. They had just started it and that was kind of what got me goin’, writing and singing my own tunes. I’d been kinda writin’ stuff for a while, but that got me goin’ singin’ my own stuff.
Who are the folks that you listen to? The ones that give you your inspiration?
A lot of the typical guys. John Prine, Tom Petty, those are my main guys. I love the Wood Brothers for more like contemporary artists, Justin Townes Earle, those kinda guys in more of the Americana realm, a lot of classic rock, Neil Young, folks like that.
I want to talk about some of the songs on the album. “Company Man”… That’s an amazing song. You wrote that, as I understand it, about your father’s infidelity– and you wrote it from your mother’s perspective! That whole story right there is just fantastic. Tell me about doing that and what that meant to you.
It’s pretty verbatim what happened. My parents got divorced when I was young, but I didn’t know all that went down until I was an adult and my mom told me and my brother. We just asked her about it! We were like, “What happened?” She came out with the whole story and it was just so wild! [“Company Man”] was my way of processing what happened and trying to think from her perspective– but also just a little bit from his perspective too. It was really cathartic writing that one, for sure. And my mom actually likes it!
Does she? That was gonna be one of my other questions! But also, you very easily could have made that song a very dark piece. However, while the story is definitely heavy, the music just sort of rolls along and keeps going. Was that intentional?
No, I think it just came out that way. I do like songs that have that juxtaposition sometimes, where it’s just like a little more levity in the musical content. It’s just easier to deliver a heavier lyrical thing. But that wasn’t intentional. A lot of times when I’m writin’ a tune, I’ll just come up with that initial groove or initial chord progression and then start hummin’ along with it, and the words come. That was one that came pretty quickly. Sometimes it takes me a while to figure out what a song is about, but within the first several minutes, I was like, “Okay, I know the story I’m trying to tell here!” (Laughs)
Well, then let me continue with that line of thinking. Tell me about the song “Limestone”. It’s got kind of a Lou Reed, Velvet Underground guitar part to it, kinda that same kind of cadence. How did that one come to you and where does it come from?
That’s the one I mentioned that was about 10 years old. It’s gone through a couple of iterations and I’ve changed the key a couple times, but I finally settled on an arrangement I liked. That one’s about processing grief. There’s a Jewish tradition of when you go and visit somebody’s gravesite, you’re supposed to put stones on their grave. I remember doing that as a kid. That’s where the stone imagery comes from. It’s about grief in general, but it was actually inspired by a really influential high school teacher who was just this super cool guy. He used to have a guitar in his room and was super intelligent and just really [impressed] myself and a bunch of students. And this was like right after he passed away, so it was processing that grief and trying to honor people’s legacy and just remembering the good stuff.
I’m glad you brought up teaching. You are an educator yourself. You talked about goin’ to the University of Miami, you went to the University of Texas, and you have the Guitar Shed, which from what I’ve been able to see of is an amazing thing.
Thanks, man! Guitar Shed, the name comes from shedding, which is a jazz term for when you go into intense practice mode. I had spent a bunch of years teaching in different places and different formats, and after grad school, for a minute, I wanted to go the professor route. But then those doors weren’t really opening, and I started having second thoughts about that and just decided to open my own shop about six years ago. It’s been awesome! It was just me teaching, initially, and now we’ve got about 20 teachers, all sorts of different instruments, and we’re gettin’ ready to open a new location!
I saw that! Give me just a quick overview of the kind of things the Guitar Shed offers.
It’s mostly private lessons and mostly kids– probably about 70/30 kids to adults. That’s kind of our main thing, but we do plenty of performance opportunities throughout the year. We have recitals and student showcases and then we also have a couple teen bands and then some adult bands as well. We have an Americana ensemble, an acoustic ensemble, and a rock ensemble for the adults.
You just recently released a new track, I think a little over a month ago, “Bird Song”. Kind of an epic track. Tell me about that one. And is it signaling a shift for you that’s more jam-based?
It’s actually a Grateful Dead tune. It’s kind of one of the lesser-known Dead tunes, but it’s a good one! They run this contest every year where they call on fans to submit a YouTube video performin’ a song. So we did that with my band– and it was super last minute! We only had a week or two to pull together, but I just texted a bunch of people from all around the country, really. I had some friends in New York and California, and we put that together remotely. There is a video associated with that out there, but we ended up releasing the audio. Yeah, it turned out well!
I definitely have strong jam influences. The Allman Brothers were my favorite band. That’s kind of what got me into playing guitar. And you know, from bein’ in Macon, it’s hard to play guitar in Georgia without being influenced by them! I’ve been to the Big House a buncha times and visited the cemetery… I love the Brothers! That’s what got me into playin’ guitar, but as I’ve gotten older, my music is a little more songwriter-focused.