John Andrew Parks was destined to become connected to the stars one way or another. From early on, his overall musical talents shone through as bright as the sun, and he would one day write the song "Planet Texas’, which would also become a hit for Kenny Rogers. Personable and genuine and successful in the music industry with a gold record for "Planet Texas", John remains humble, big-hearted and true to his calling, and is affectionately known in country music circles as the "Country Eastern" boy. His mystical musical journey continues to take him around the world, while his highly original country music and fresh takes on the genre bring universal ideas down to earth in such meaningful ways that the stars do seem a little closer. The Empress Arts & Music Zine is pleased to bring you this candid feature interview with John Andrew Parks. All photos are courtesy of John and his management, Mike Lane of 4 Entertainment.
Q: Your musical talent became evident early on with guitar virtuosity and songwriting, gifts that brought you a formal record deal by the time you were 18 years old. Briefly comment on the fast-paced roller coaster of experiences that propelled you forward into a music career.
Parks: It all started with Uncle Jaydubby's guitar. I was three or four years old at the time and I thought it was a boat ~ so I sat on it and broke it. My father tried to fix it, but no matter how many times we glued it the neck would just snap again. I sat in the garage each day to watch the glue dry. I was completely transfixed with this big brown "string thing". My father took pity on me,.and so we drove down to this little music store owned by the only gypsy in Dallas, Texas and he bought me an eleven dollar guitar.
By the time I was in first or second grade, I was playing it at 'Show and Tell' in my class room. Songs like 'Teen Angel' and 'Tell Laura I Love Her'. Later on I got a Woody Guthrie Song Book and started to learn old folk songs. It had diagrams above the words showing you where to put your fingers and that's how I learned the chords. By the time I was in junior high I was doing talent shows in the auditorium for the whole school. I think by then I was doing Roy Orbison songs like 'Pretty Woman' and 'Crying'. In high school I started a band called 'Larry, Andy and Wes'. Larry played drums, sang harmony and twirled his sticks. Wes played bass and also sang harmony. I sang lead and played the guitar. We went on the road in the summer of my junior year in high school. We ended up in Michigan where we opened for 'Peter and Gordon' as well as 'Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels'. We were just kids... I was younger than Larry and Wes but we were pretty good.
around the same time I started writing songs. My first song was recorded
by a local Dallas band whose members were a few years older than
us. Their manager ended up managing us and that's how we got up to
Michigan. A year later, after I graduated high school, Wes and I
went back up north as a duet. This time we stopped short in Indianapolis
and played the clubs there and worked almost every night.
Q: What was your experience with the band Cornbread Buddha? At what stage of your career were you involved with them, and what were the results?
Parks: Cornbread Buddha was formed in the mid to late nineties and was one of those special experiences that come around only so often. Over the last two decades while producing various records I befriended certain musicians that really stood out.
Chris Spedding and I had first met at my studio in New York City in the mid-eighties. Chris, as well as having had some of his own hits, was renowned for having recorded with Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, Paul McCartney, Elton John and three or four pages of some of the all-time great artists from the sixties on. Chris had a very quiet and unassuming personality, something like the English butler in 'Remains of the Day' played by Anthony Hopkins. However, when he picked up that Les Paul of his, it set my hair on fire and I knew I was in the presence of greatness. We first recorded a little song of mine called "Do a Little Dance" along with Fernando Sanders from Lou Reed and John McLaughlin. To this day, it stands as one of my favorites. Even though it was a very simple little song, it just felt really good and ended up on my first Capitol Album.
Michael Botts, best known as the drummer for Bread, was one of my favorite drummers of all time. I was introduced to him by John Boylan while we were co-producing the Capitol record. Michael was, I think, the best song drummer that ever lived. He used to study the songs before we recorded them. I rarely ever had to give him direction, he just always seemed to know exactly what to do. He was very dramatic, and his sense of timing was impeccable. We lost him last year to cancer; he was once so young and healthy, and then just gone. I miss him very much. James Jamerson Jr. was the son of the Motown legend James Jamerson, and was equally great. Many of the Chaka Khan records were hung around James Jr.'s bass lines.
Anyway, I had always dreamed of putting together a band of legends, a "super band" so to speak, and to my delight they all agreed to form 'Cornbread Buddha' with me. We played several showcases and then embarked on the 'Stargazer' album, a collection of songs I had been working on for several years. They were most certainly a major inspiration, and their spirits are deeply embedded into the album.
Q: How were Roy Orbison, Marty Robbins and others, who were/are gifted storytellers in song, mentors/influences to you? Who has been influential to you in the classical field and film score composing? What practical advice were they able to impart to you when it came to composing music and functioning in the music business in general?
Parks: In the beginning, I think that all young singers, songwriters and artists in general learn by imitating their heroes. Later on, after your craft has developed some, you begin to find your own voice, so to speak. I had many influences, but I suppose I should start that list off with Marty Robbins. Not only was he a musical guide for me as a child, I think that he may be the one most responsible for me making the decision to be a serious musician. Until he came along, music was just this fun thing that I’d do for a hobby. I was only nine or ten at the time, but his effect on me was profound. Marty was an incredible singer, and what was really unique to me were his stories. How could a kid listen to 'El Paso" and not get excited!? Roy Orbison was also a major influence, a storyteller as well, and his sense of melody and the power of his voice lent drama to everything that he did. I burned a hole through his records with my turntable. I couldn't stop listening to him. Ray Charles was also influential. I think it was the soulfulness in his voice. There were many, many others as well: Sam Cooke, Dean Martin, Glen Campbell, Bobby Darin, Merle Haggard, etc. They were all unique and inimitable.
As for Classical music, Debussy stands out to me as one greatest of the greats. Franz Schubert was probably one of history’s best songwriters. Gershwin, Brahms, Beethoven ...don't get me started. Classical music is "classic" for a reason; it's timeless and I believe, like all great music, is Divinely inspired.
Film composers are some of my favorite magicians. The thing about film is that there is usually about 120 minutes to unveil a story instead of the 3 or 4 common to pop music. This means that there is usually a very broad array of emotions that can be portrayed. Especially in epic films. Composers have to paint the entire gamut of these emotions. I love that. Some of my inspirations in that area were John Barry, Michel Legrand, Thomas Newman, James Horner and so many others. When I arrange long story songs such as 'Planet Texas' or 'The Ghost of Johnny Ringo,' I like to treat each verse as a new scene in a movie and paint them differently from each other, very much like done in film. I owe so much to my all of my movie scoring brothers. I recently scored a small film myself and I just loved the freedom of time!!
Q: What is unique and different about your "signature phrasing"?
Parks: Phrasing is maybe one of the most important parts of singing. I like to make my vocals come off like conversation. In everyday conversation, you tend to naturally punctuate certain key words to help get your point across. I don't think it should be any different with singing. While I was still in my teens, I had the wonderful opportunity of having Dale Robertson, the star of 'Death Valley Days' (a network series of the 1960s), give me a private lesson in phrasing. I remember he had me sing 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix'. Then he asked me to play the guitar while he narrated the song in spoken voice. He was very effective, and the power of phrasing was forever etched in my mind. Thank you Dale, wherever you are, for the excellent lesson.
Rhythm is also an important factor. That can make the punctuation even more compelling. I think that my own phrasing comes off best in my unplugged solo act. When you're alone, you can change the tempo without messing up the musicians in order to add dramatic effect. You can even stop time all together and let the silence speak. This can be very effective. Acting and singing are very close cousins. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Willie Nelson are all great studies in phrasing.
Q: When did you first discover you had a three-octave range? How has this been of benefit to your music and how do you decide to employ this talent in individual particular songs?
Parks: I don't think that you need a big range to be a great singer. That said, it can be of great advantage to be able to sing anything that you hear in your head, not just audibly. Range just gives you more possibilities musically, more room to expand if you need to in a song. I was never big about taking voice lessons, but I did take a few in order to learn the exercises and gain some knowledge of the instrument. My first teacher's name was Gerald Tate. He got me off on the right foot and was very encouraging. He was not just a great singer, he was a vocal scientist. I think that his guidance was an important factor not only in developing tone and range, but in how to use your voice correctly so that you might live to sing another day. In my mind, you can never go wrong if you combine honesty with inspiration and good technique.
Q: You designed and operated The Ranch recording studio in Manhattan where such stars as The Eurhythmics, Plasmatics, Blondie and Marianne Faithful recorded, all the while working on your own material. Did knowing the technical sound and recording aspects of music help you in your own songwriting or presentation? Did it make you more aware of any limitations or possibilities creatively?
Parks: When I was a kid, the first time I got my leg wrapped in a guitar cord and tripped, I realized that either I was going to master technology or it was going to master me. Understanding the medium that you are working in is always an advantage provided that you are not distracted by it -- and you are more likely to be distracted by it if you don't understand it. The studio is just an extension of your instrument. As far as that goes, the studio is an instrument. Understanding that environment can make a good song record savvy. But remember, at the end of the day, I don't want the listener to say, "Wow! What a great singer," or "Wow, what a great song!" or "Wow! What a great production!" I prefer if they just said, "Wow!" I think a great record should just take you away, kidnap you into its world, and leave you elevated and deepened all at once!
Q: Discuss the period when you were developing and recorded your song "Planet Texas" with Bruce Springsteen's manager, Mike Appel. What do think it is about this song that later ultimately made it become a hit single for Kenny Rogers and would bring you a gold record? And please comment on how Kenny Rogers became aware of your song and how he came to record it.
Parks: "Planet Texas" was a pivotal song in so many ways. First of all, it was a personal statement. I had been hearing for years from various record executives that a good song had to be this and that or fit here or there. Well, the idea of writing songs with a Billboard Magazine on your music stand instead of a blank piece of music paper filled with infinite possibilities was, and still is, an alien idea to me. I didn't have a Mercedes and my bank account was almost nonexistent, but the guitar and the pencil belonged to me. In my opinion, the song was "My World" and in that world, I was "The King". I had written what several record guys thought were hit singles and so it was my turn to let my imagination go untethered.
Right around that time, I met Mike Appel, Bruce Springsteen's ex-manager. Mike was a very colorful character. But no matter what anyone might say about him (probably all true), Mike was a great song man. Mike and I had many battles, but there is one tribute that he richly deserves: Mike was a great force of encouragement when it came to songwriting. At the same time, he didn't have any problems telling you when something sucked. When I played the first few verses of "Planet Texas" for him he went bananas. He put up the money to record it and co-produced it with me. Jeff Levine, the pianist for Joe Cocker at the time, was the engineer and also contributed some great musical ideas. Around the same time, I was also involved with some computer geniuses from M.I.T. and they had made me a beta tester for the first music sequencer on a Macintosh. The lyric premise was a work of musical science fiction and fantasy. Nothing like that was going on at the time. 'Planet Texas' was a milestone both musically and technologically. I would work on the song until the program crashed and then Roy Groth, the inventor of the 'Performer' software, would send me the fix over a 300-baud modem. The whole thing was done on a 512k Fat Mac with the use of only floppy disks. It was very exciting on so many levels.
'Planet Texas' was probably the first record ever done on a Mac that ended up being a major label release. When Bruce Lundvall at Capitol heard the record he wanted to sign me. One afternoon Kenny Rogers came into his office and Bruce played it for him in order to get his opinion of this new kid that he wanted to sign. Kenny called me at home and asked if he could record it and the rest was history. Kenny did his version and I ended up releasing my version which, by the way, was the full 7-minute rendition. It became a hit for both of us. Kenny ended up doing a $600,000 video, which at the time was the largest budget ever assigned for a country video. It was first shown on an NBC network special, and was televised live from the NASA Space Center in Houston with Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. I still remember Kenny standing next to the Atlas Rockets introducing the song. (One more interesting note on the history of this song before its success: when Mike originally went out to shop 'Planet Texas' around, we were turned down by just about all of the record companies. They thought it was just too far out. So much for conventional wisdom!)
Q: It states on your MySpace profile that, "In December 2006, Parks was the headline act for a CCTV entertainment special that was broadcast to over 600 million people in China. The special brought attention to the HIV/AIDS situation in China. John Andrew wrote and performed "My Windows World" specifically for the program, which tells the emotionally touching story of an orphan child with AIDS looking out his bedroom window, longing to be with the other children he sees playing outside." Please share your feelings about this opportunity to raise awareness. Do you know how the special was received and any lasting effect it may have had on that region of the world?
Parks: About a year ago I received an email from a television director friend of mine from China. She and her husband have been friends and musical supporters of mine for several years now. She mentioned that she was going to be involved in the production of an upcoming AIDS television special and wanted to know if I could write a song about AIDS orphans. I told her that I would try. For several months I thought about it and couldn't come up with any ideas. It was such a dismal subject and I couldn't figure out how to spin it.
Then one night, I literally dreamt the song. I got up in the middle of the night and grabbed my micro recorder, and I knew that this was the song I had been waiting for. The next morning, I took a walk and the whole concept came to me like a bolt of lightening. I sent the concept to them that morning and everyone flipped! I began production immediately. The idea of a magic window really appealed to them and they decided that they wanted me to come to China and perform it on the special. Furthermore, they wanted to produce a music video as well. When I arrived in China and saw what they were up to I got very excited. The children that they had chosen to perform in the video were perfect. When I first met the kids my heart just melted. The little boy in the window was HIV positive in real life. Truthfully, it was when I actually got there and met some of the orphans and heard their stories firsthand that it really sank in what a profound tragedy AIDS is, especially in terms of the innocent children it affects.
The AIDS problem in China is vast. For many years the government has been really hush-hush about it and this was a real turnaround for them. The show was a huge success. It aired on December 1st (2006) and they received thousands of e-mails and phone calls about 'The Cowboy Guy'. I had worn a cowboy hat in the performance, and I think that in China I will always now be known as 'The Cowboy Guy'. They’d had the biggest stars in China on the show and I was the only American. They treated me with such incredible kindness. The director, I'm told, is up for the equivalent of a Chinese Emmy for the show. I'm very proud to have been a part of it. Time will tell just how effective the show will be on the government of China's policies in dealing with this catastrophic epidemic.
Q: Comment on how your latest CD Stargazer came together, about some of the songs, and the experiences which inspired the project.
Parks: I tried to create an album that would crossover the genres. I've never been a big fan of continuity. I don't want one song to sound like the other. My tolerance for boredom is very low. Songs are like children, each with their own unique personalities. I listen to the song and let it tell me what it likes in terms of production. All of the songs on 'Stargazer' are unique unto themselves, each with it's own concept. I'll tell you about a couple.
Many years ago while living in New York, I created a short musical sequence. I had no idea what it meant, but it came to me and it was very mysterious at the time. For me, music usually evokes certain images. This small combination of notes was very elusive in that regard and I was compelled to respond with lyrics. I listened over and over, and the only image that came to mind was deep space. There's not much to say about a void. What is it by nature? Empty. And I kept coming up empty regarding lyrics, so it went into the "untitled trunk" in my computer and remained there for several years.
Then, one night years later, I was driving up Mount Pinos, an hour of so north of Los Angeles. When I reached the top there was a parking lot filled with telescopes. I had stumbled onto the meeting place of twenty or thirty amateur astronomers. Some of them had some pretty serious looking telescopes. I wrote a poem about the experience. I remember the first line started off with "I saw a field of telescopes pointed at the stars". At first I didn't connect this experience with the long forgotten sequence still waiting in the untitled trunk. But soon enough, my poem from that night served as a catalyst for the song that had been brewing for so long. It started me thinking about writing a love song revolving around telescopes. My thought process went like: Wait a minute, how about a love affair through a telescope .... How about a kid who is half blind who can only see though a telescope. Anyway, you can see how one idea spins off another. The whole time that old musical sequence served as a musical backdrop to the story that was developing, helping to set the emotional tone for the song that one day would become known as 'Stargazers.'
'Burn the Road' was inspired by working with the band. Chris, after many years working with Robert Gordon, had a great sense for Rockabilly and so he played a big hand in the production of that song.
'Love Is' was written after I had played a gig doing old standards. I've always loved Jerome Kern, Hoagie Carmichael, Gershwin and so many other contemporaries of their generation. I'd have to tip my hat to that group of composers as having been a major inspiration for that song and many other songs I've written in that genre.
An old music producer I knew years ago in New York once said to me, "You can have the best musicians, the best producer, the best studio and a starstruck entourage. But if you don't have a good song you're all dressed up and no place to go." I'd take that a step further: You can be very clever with rhyme, alliteration and all of the other poetic devices. You can have a doctorate in literature and creative writing. But if you don't have something to say, you're all dressed up and have no place to go. For me, the concept is the key as well as the most elusive part of songwriting.
Q: Regarding your latest CD release, "Stargazer', and promo photos, please explain the cosmic connections and affinities to the stars.
Parks: Years ago, I remember giving an interview to KTNN 'The Voice of the Navaho Nation' up in Four Corners along the Arizona-New Mexico border. They had just voted in the new Chief, so it was a very auspicious evening. I recall commenting on a common bond that Cowboys and Indians shared in that they both spent their nights sleeping beneath the stars. And how that must have reminded them each evening of what a wonderful vast and magnificent thing that they were all a part of.
Modern man is separated from view of the heavens by a ceiling. If we live in an urban centre, even when we walk outside, we are blinded to our true natures by the city lights. I can't help but look up into the sky at night and feel a sense of awe and humility. And to think that when we close our eyes and look into the inner life of our spirit, it's even greater and grander than all of that!
Q: How would you describe your own style of music? Is it traditional, some form of a hybrid, or something totally new and distinct from more conventional Country?
Parks: I don't think that I'm the right person to comment on that. However, maybe there is a reason why they call me 'Country Eastern.' (Editor’s note: John wrote that accompanied by a "smile" symbol.)
Q: What would you like to see on the musical horizon for yourself in the years to come?
Parks: I'd love to continue having the opportunity to work with great musicians. It would also be nice to perform some epic pieces with a symphony. I think, though, that the most important thing is to be able to share the experience of live performance with as many folks as possible. When a performer gets together with an audience, the sum is always greater than its parts, and I've always been a sucker for a magic moment!
Official website for John Andrews Park: http://www.myspace.com/johnandrewparks