Too Blue for You
One of the nation's lowest new blues talents calls the down-and-out streets of SLC his home.

Street musicians are a colorful part of life in nearly every major city in the United States and Europe—though not in this pretty strange place. Zach Parrish was once arrested for playing music in downtown Salt Lake City. Playing the blues downtown offended the police, but the arrest wasn’t really a shock to anyone because the blues is a unique American art form. Salt Lake City, or at least Salt Lake City under the former mayor, welcomed the world, but not the blues.

These days, it’s more common to find Parrish fronting his blues band in one of the local clubs. The recent release of his self-titled debut CD brought accolades from many in the local press—but that’s not all.

The May issue of Blues Revue, a prestigious national blues magazine, had some praise for Parrish. “Utah’s Zach Parrish Blues Band plays capital-B Blues in great old styles—New Orleans here, spooky tremolo-effect minor-key blues there, a Little Walter-inspired jump, and syncopated not-quite-funk or a rapid-fire stomp. … You’ll dig his impressively gutsy singing, too. … Brad Wheeler on harmonica and Leonard Thomas on drums are MVPs. The group’s self-titled disc is cool and classy.”

Blues critics are often a cranky bunch, not prone to handing out unwarranted approval—especially not to discs arriving unannounced from barely civilized Utah. The fact that the critic took the time to listen at all is shocking.

I caught up with Parrish at the completion of his Earth Jam 2000 set. The organizers, obviously unaware that a nationally recognized talent was in their midst, had placed Parrish on the second stage away from the crowd. Actually Parrish was in good company, because two other nationally recognized bands played on the second stage that day.

Anyone read Relix? Anyone ever heard of Smilin’ Jack or Up Yer Sleeve? Not many in the assembled multitude of tie-dye-and-sandal-clad were aware of the second stage. Their loss.

As many local scribes have noticed, Zach Parrish live is pretty damn phenomenal. He blisters the strings, pulls faces, dances around and when he pulls out the slide, get ready—the Delta goes electric. However, he doesn’t play his National Steel resonator guitar in the band setting. You’ll have to catch him breaking the law downtown to see that.

How long has Parrish played the blues? “Twenty years. I’ve been playing the blues since I was 8. I just got into it with Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. I’ve loved the blues ever since I was a little kid. I’ve been playing in bands for about seven years, since I turned 21. I’m still pretty green.”

Some around town might remember Parrish from Pepper Lake City, and he did play the resonator in that band. “That was just a bunch of us guys. We never made a demo tape, never tried to hustle a gig. We just got together for fun and played. We were just learning to play the blues. We played every Saturday night at Burt’s Tiki Lounge for about four years. It was great. We all learned how to play, and we played a lot of awful gigs, but towards the end we were getting pretty good.”

Wheeler offered a few words about their CD. The disc is simply a demo. The ultimate goal is to attract interest along with money. Wheeler describes how it was done. “We did that CD in about four hours for under $2,000. The response has been great. KRCL put us up there with all the national blues artists; we’ve got like the No. 5 CD. That Blues Revue magazine reviewed it. It’s doing really well.”

Parrish approaches things from a back-door perspective. He’s already revealed Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix as early influences. He isn’t exactly coming from the same place that so many other young guitar-slingers do. “My style, even on electric guitar, is kind of a country-blues style that’s adapted to the band format. I finger-pick, I play a lot of chords … and the bottleneck style I learned on acoustic and then switched over to electric. I started off with Mississippi John Hurt and Lightning Hopkins … and now I’m getting into Freddie King and B.B. King—stuff like that. I took a few lessons and read some books, but I just listened over and over and figured out my own version. I don’t do anything the right way.”

That statement reveals the prime reason Parrish’s disc and music are receiving recognition so soon after the disc’s release. The guy is original. He isn’t copying; he’s creating.

Even though Wheeler isn’t always with Parrish for live gigs, he is on the disc. His harmonica provided a major dose of satisfaction during the Earth Jam performance. Where did he learn? What equipment does he use? “I was lucky. This guy up in Ogden, Don Baker—he just passed away—owned a music store up there. He made it a point to make sure I started out on the right harp. He started me out on Less Oskar’s and Special 20s. I kind of have an unusual rig. I got this old microphone from Eddie Kirkland. He got me using this setup where I use multiple amps for different tones. I use a Fender M-80 for the overdrive, and I use a Blues Junior for the pure tube sound.”

Wheeler mentioned another of his mentors. “Big Robbie Kapp up in Ogden. I learned a lot of it from him. He’s been playing for over 30 years, and he’s done a lot to show us how to really work it as a band.”

Wheeler hit the nail on the head when he explained Zach Parrish’s attraction at the end of the conversation. “I’ve heard people in Salt Lake always say that Zach has this weird timing because his feet are so big. It takes just a little extra second for his foot to go down than everybody else’s. Zach has got that Delta time that a lot of people try to get, but Zach has been blessed with it.”

Big feet or not, the Zach Parrish Blues Band has something unique. It could be the country blues played from an electric perspective, or it could just be that Salt Lake City has a genuine world-class blues talent living amongst us. Maybe that’s why he was arrested. It’s too damn real for this place.

William Athey
Salt Lake City Weekly
May 2000

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