Even Utahns Get the Blues
Zach Parrish represents Zion tonight at South by Southwest showdown.

Zach Parrish's uncle gave him his first guitar when he was 6 years old, and later said it was the worst thing he ever could have done to the child.

Parrish didn't turn into a juvenile delinquent, or a devil-worshipping headbanger, but his uncle did create an obsessive compulsion in Parrish to practice, practice, then practice some more. Twenty-three years later, Parrish's obsession is intact, but far from being a distraction, his guitar is taking him places.

Tonight, the Zach Parrish Blues Band plays at Antone's, the legendary Austin, Texas, blues club where Stevie Ray Vaughn developed his style jamming alongside towering figures like B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Parrish and his players -- drummer Goran Miletich, bassist Larry Alexander and keyboardist Gerry Lee Stong -- won this year's South By Southwest Showdown, a three-tiered battle of the bands sponsored by Salt Lake City Weekly for the past decade. Parrish and Co. beat out dozens of Utah musicians for the chance to represent the state at the South By Southwest Music Conference and Festival, the largest annual gathering of music-biz movers, shakers and hangers-on in the country.

As a Taylorsville native trading in the blues, you might expect a little trepidation on Parrish's part, heading to Austin, the "live music capital of the world," to play at Antone's, which USA Today called "the nation's best blues club."

You would be wrong.

"I've got something to prove," Parrish said, chatting over a beer at Midvale microbrewery before playing what he refers to as a "cocktail set" for the folks eating dinner. "We've gotten better. I've got these guys [pointing to his band setting up in a corner of the dining room]. I've been practicing a lot and working hard."

Make no mistake; Parrish has met some resistance from out-of-state club owners when he tried to book gigs in the past. They could not believe any quality blues could originate within Utah's borders -- not a completely irrational preconception -- and Parrish found himself more marketable at times by claiming he was from Idaho instead of Utah. Why an Idaho bluesman is more acceptable than a Utah bluesman is anyone's guess.

Regardless, Parrish has a confidence heading down to Texas that is impressive. Not to mention well-founded. His guitar-playing is a unique sound in the state's music clubs, a mix of Chicago and Delta blues that, paired with his gruff vocals, gives the blues an ample emissary in Zion.

Parrish's route to becoming a 29-year-old guitar wiz began with an early love of music, likely the result of his mother's job at KSOP, a Salt Lake City country-music radio station. From those twangy beginnings, he moved on to the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and ZZ Top. After his uncle bought him his first guitar, Parrish tore through a steady stream of instructional videos and books, never taking a guitar lesson from a live teacher, and started delving into the old-school bluesmen he now covers in his live shows, folks like Elmore James and Freddy King.

To hear Parrish tell it, it's perfectly natural for a Taylorsville kid to grow up wanting to be a porch-sittin' Southern bluesman.

"I really don't think I chose the blues," Parrish said. "I really don't. I think it kind of chose me."

Parrish began playing in bands when he was 21, starting the Zach Parrish Blues Band about four years ago. The lineup shifted through the years, but Parrish's guitar and energetic stage presence remain the group's prime draws. He forged a solid route of venues for regular gigs -- The Hog Wallow, Dead Goat Saloon, Ogden's Beatnik's and Park City's Mother Urban's among them -- and he ventures into Wyoming and Colorado on occasion.

"Salt Lake was a really good place for me to hone my skills," Parrish said.

Still, like any bluesman, Parrish wants to wander. He already toured solo, playing clubs, festivals and street corners across America and Europe, including a month-long stop in Austin in 1997, where he experienced his first South By Southwest festival.

This trip, though, Parrish will be onstage at perhaps the best blues club in the world, instead of on the sidewalk out front, and he's fully cognizant of the possibilities. His band is tight, having played 175 shows in 2000. They have 10 fully formed original songs and 10 or 15 more in development, along with his scrappy collection of potential cover songs.

"I take the more-traditional Delta blues [songs] and arrange them for bands," Parrish said. "I do that a lot, and the songs I write have to mesh with the other songs we play."

Who knows how the ridiculously literate blues fans in Austin will take to Utah's blues export? But Parrish has the same goals as most of the up-and-coming bands traveling to Texas; namely, a record deal and/or expanded touring possibilities. No matter what happens, Parrish knows he is heading to Europe for a spell, minus his band, after South By Southwest.

He has a date with a London street corner.

Dan Nailen
Salt Lake Tribune
March 2001

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