Parmalee Interview: ‘Carolina’ Singers Overcome Perceptions, Shooting and Six-Figure Credit Card Debt for Country Debut
Parmalee know firsthand that being seen as commercially viable is as important as talent in the music business. What good is talent, after all, if no one knows what to do with it?
The North Carolina country-rockers’ story of triumph after a fatal shooting in 2010 is well-known. The less exciting (but perhaps more imposing) obstacle was overcoming a perceived identity crisis.
“We were too country for rock, too rock for country. Too pop for rock, I don’t know,” singer Matt Thomas tells Taste of Country. “None of the labels would find a spot for us. I think that was a real tough deal.”
To be clear, the family band (Matt and Scott Thomas, their cousin Barry Knox and close friend Josh McSwain) always had a vision of who they were, but that too evolved over time. In the beginning, they leaned toward a heavy rock sound, even working with Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx. Opportunities materialized and disappeared like morning mist, but Parmalee persevered.
Their roots began to show with age, however. As 2010 neared, songs like the heartfelt ‘Carolina’ (their first No. 1 hit) had been penned and they’d visited Nashville. Then, as they unknowingly neared the precipice of their dream, drummer Scott Thomas was gunned down during a robbery after a show South Carolina. One of the shooters was killed in the incident, the other wounded. Thomas clung to his life in a Charlotte, N.C. hospital, eventually recovering, but needing years to finish physical therapy.
The four men don’t seem scarred by the event or the long, hard road they took to signing with Stoney Creek Records in 2011. ‘Feels Like Carolina’ is a 12-song party with enough lyrical depth on songs like ‘Carolina,’ ‘My Montgomery’ and ‘Another Day Gone’ to make sure country fans take them seriously. John Wayne would be proud of this group, as they have true grit.
ToC: The song ‘Carolina’ climbed the radio airplay chart slowly. Did it feel like this was a make-it or break-it song?
Parmalee: Yeah, it did. It did when it first came out because, you know, I felt like we kind of got here, to Nashville on the song. It kind of brought us here and helped us get the record deal. Everybody at the label felt like it was a hit song and so did we, so it was kind of like this should be a no-brainer. But it was a little nervous when we first put it out.
Did you always have faith in it?
Well, they lost it one week in the mid-30s, but … I don’t know. I have to let the radio people do their thing and I always felt like the song was connecting well and doing well and selling well. But there is that aspect of it that you have to let the (the record label promotions staff) do their thing.
We’re a touring band. We’re always out there grinding. It’s not like we were just sitting at the house just waiting for it to go up the charts. We’ve been going after it, playing nonstop for a year-and-a-half.
For us it was just a timing thing and the crossroads we kind of came to. I think it’s just the evolution of the music, to be honest with you. We have so many people that were influenced by so much. People are on playlists now, they’re not on records. It used to be you’d buy yourself one record — now I think everybody’s got playlists of everything.
Oh, yeah. Definitely it is. Big ’80s arena rock is full-on now. I remember Bon Jovi when I was a kid growing up … seeing him fly over the stage. The ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ video was probably the coolest thing ever, so you see that stuff.
The song ‘Move’ is a highlight on ‘Feels Like Carolina.’ What attracted you to that song?
That actually was a song that was pitched to us right after we signed the deal and I listened to it a couple of times and Bennie from the label really liked it. And after listening to it, and really after we learned it, that’s when I really fell in love with it and the guitar lick. That actually is like exactly Parmalee music.
How hard was it for you to learn the lyrics?
It was pretty damn hard, I had to pick it apart. There’s a lot going on in that song and I’m picking at the lick and singing it at the same time.
You’ve said ‘Another Day Gone’ is a song influenced by the shooting. It’s not obvious.
Yeah. I had written some songs that were specific to the shooting, but I didn’t really wanna go there. I felt like that will eventually come out when it comes out. ‘Another Day Gone’ is about the fact that you’re never guaranteed tomorrow. So if you wanna take care of everything, you better do it while you’re still here. That’s kind of the premise of that song. Not exactly about the incident, but about that thought.
Do you guys get tired of talking about that?
I think we have our version of it that’s whittled down to where it doesn’t get long and drug out, but it’s part of everything, so you have to talk about it. Some people are more interested in different parts of it. Some people are interested in the story as a whole. So it depends on if you get somebody that wants to go in depth, with details and that kind of stuff. It gets kinda … you never wanna revisit bad things, especially all of the time. But we are here. We’re in the spotlight, it is our story. People wanna know so they have the right to know.
To finish, would you mind answering some rapid-fire questions?
Fill in the blank. We would not be at this point if it were not for ____?
Our families. Actually, you might put “credit” on that one [laughs]. Like credit cards and all that. They financed us for the first five years.
If you could pick any tour to open in 2014, whose would it be and why?
I think Jason Aldean would be the tour. I feel like his fans are our fans.
The fashion or trend that you just don’t understand?
High pants on girls. High-waisted pants on girls with the jeans, the cut-off jeans that are pulled up past they’re belly button [laughs]. You see, I wanna say something but I can’t be the guy that is like, “Girls, come on!”
Do you exchange Christmas gifts as a group?
No, [laughs] we’ve never done that. You know what we do, we take a drink. Everybody gets together, even with my dad and my dad’s best friends when they were around. It was always the thing. We didn’t buy each other a gift for Christmas, but we always made the time to sit down and have a (drink) over a good conversation.
Last time a club or venue stiffed you?
It’s been since we were signed. A promoter gave us a check and the check was bad. They ended up making it good.
Was the total credit card debt you assumed to get here over or under six figures?
I’d say over six figures. Yeah, combined between all of us … Individually, and collectively and we all had, over the years, before we got here … yeah. It would be over $100K for sure.
I was at 36 percent interest credit cards at one point. It was horrible. Horrible.