This piece was originally published in the April - July 2017 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Journal.
Jackson’s musical dichotomy has had a strange, often polarizing environment for musicians to grow in over the last decade. Often touted as the bathroom break between Memphis and Nashville, Jackson—with the exception of Carl Perkins’ aeonian influence on rockabilly—is not critically recognized as a musically significant city. To say that Jackson is part of a bigger delta blues triangle would be more plausible. Music scenes are often planted in Jackson but never seem to flourish.
The mid-2000s offered up a small pocket of growth, but if you weren’t a scenester or in a cover band, steady work was hard to come by. Once the mini-scenes from the mid-2000s were sloughed off by the start of the folk boom in 2009, Jackson’s musical soil returned to its acrid state garroting the potential for the city’s next musical permutation. But like in all harsh and unforgiving environments, some musicians manage to continue on by adapting while others simply move to more music-friendly places.
Colton Parker is one of the guys who decided to stick around Jackson. You may know him as Jackson’s session bassist or for his live playing with Skyelor Anderson, 1NuKru, or Lauren Pritchard (when she’s home for Christmas). There isn’t a musician in Jackson who is as well-liked, kind, and respected for his dedication to music. The voice Colton has created through his instrument is unmistakable, and if you have the chance to hear him play, you absolutely should go listen.
Sometime around September of 2015, I had the chance to sit down with Colton and discuss his music. We had been around each other a few times at shows or the Downtown Tavern, but we didn’t really know each other. I won’t go into much detail here, but the conversation led to interesting dialogues on music, musical identity, and personal growth.
Have you been playing much lately?
I’ve been driving to Memphis every day to play on Beale Street. I make more money now playing than I would at a desk job, so I feel pretty good about it.
It’s tough finding well-paying gigs like that. I’m glad you seem to be enjoying it.
Man, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
So what got you into bass? You’re terrifyingly good. Did you play anything before, or was it always bass?
Well, when I went to [Caywood Elementary School], we had the option in fourth grade to join band or pick another arts class. That led to me starting music on the trumpet. I also couldn’t play football yet, so band seemed like a good idea. I started on trumpet . . . but I kind of wish I had played saxophone.
Sax is such a cool instrument.
Yeah, Chuck McGill really made me want to play. When I was working at Bandstand, I’d get there early in the morning, and Chuck would be practicing. It was some of the most beautiful stuff I’d ever heard.
Back to the bass, though.
Yeah, I had always been drawn to the bass. My dad played bass back in the 70s. He had a little family band with his brothers. He used to play by ear, too. I remember when I was four years old, he bought me one of those short-scaled Mustang basses, and I pretty much ripped the strings off it. My mom decided to put it up in the closet for the time being. She’d let me look at it, but she wouldn’t let me play it. I guess when I was in fifth grade we started going to church here in Jackson, and I saw this guy named James play bass. I immediately said to myself after watching him play, “I want to do that.” Nothing on the stage appealed to me more than the bass did.
That’s an incredibly mature decision to make as a fifth grader. That dude must’ve been grooving so hard.
Man, he was an older guy, too. He just had this bounce. The way he moved when he played was just so cool. He was supposed to start giving me lessons, but he and his wife had just had a baby, and we didn’t have a ton of money, so my mom just got the bass they put in the closet fixed. Once that happened, my dad taught me how to tune it with this melody he used to play to make sure it was in tune, and I’ll never forget it. That melody was the first thing he ever taught me. I’ll sometimes play it every now and again as a little flashback to the beginning.
What was the first song he taught you?
You know that Sly & the Family Stone song, “If You Want Me to Stay”? My dad has an amazing voice and used to sing that one a good bit. Following that, he used to put songs on the radio for me to learn. He’d go cook, mow the grass, or something while I was staying with him. He’d come back, I’d play the song for him, he’d say, “Alright.” And then he’d give me another song to learn. I visited him every other weekend when I was a kid. I would sit in his room, listen to records, and play all day.
That’s a good way to do it.
Yeah, I remember hearing Michael Jackson’s “You Rock My World” bassline. I thought it was so fat. I remember my dad saying, “Alright, now when I come back, I want you to teach it to me.” That’s how I learned the bass. I didn’t choose the bass, the bass chose me.
How do you keep yourself motivated to practice? You’ve got to be woodshedding a ton.
I watch people that are a lot better than me (laughing). Y’know what I mean?
Yeah, nothing quite lights that fire under your butt like seeing someone a lot better than you play.
There’s always someone better than you. I watched this video of this guy the other day who played a whole song on one string. I’ve never thought of doing something like that. That’s the thing about music, though: interpretations and options are unlimited. I think that’s why music never gets old to me. I can always do something different or learn something new. I know I’m never going to be as good as I want to be, but I want to be the best that I possibly can. You get to a point where you realize there truly is no level to “reach.”
That’s a truly beautiful thing. I can be a pretty simple player when it comes to practicing. I think it’s super easy to watch someone fantastic play their instrument and then want to quit playing afterwards. Their creativity and ingenuity seems so much cooler than what I do.
Yeah, but what we don’t realize as players is that we have our own sound. The reason we don’t notice is because we’re used to hearing it. Our playing doesn’t excite us because we’ve heard it again and again.
It’s easy to get lost in that feedback loop.
I think that’s why a lot of musicians struggle with depression and stuff like that. The plateau effect is real. You feel like you can’t get where you want to be, but really you’re doing your own thing, and people are impressed with it.
We just aren’t.
That makes me think of Victor Wooten. I think he became as good as he did by finding ways to reinvent himself, most notably through his spirituality. All of my friends who have met him say his spiritual presence is almost superimposed on whatever room he’s in. He’s also supposed to be the nicest guy ever.
I’ve met him twice, and he couldn’t have been nicer. Growing up, I watched a lot of his videos and listened to him a lot. Meeting him in person was not what I expected. He’s very spiritual and super uplifting. You think someone that good would have to be cocky, y’know, kinda like Jaco Pastorius. But Victor is so humble and encouraging. I want to be good enough to do that.
I feel like the music community in Jackson is really trying to make a comeback.
It kind of feels like that comeback is only happening downtown, though.
Agreed. There aren’t any all-age venues for young bands to play. We all need places to cut our teeth.
The comeback’s gonna happen, though.
Absolutely, but it’s because people like you are ushering in that community mentality.
We’ve got to be that way, man. There was a point in time when no young musicians were coming in Bandstand, and that really bummed me out. There’s scientific evidence that the minds of kids who grow up playing music develop differently in a very positive way.
I don’t know what I would’ve done without music in high school.
I used to fall asleep with my bass in
I had this moment in my high school jazz combo when we were playing Charlie Parker’s, “Now’s the Time.” It was during the time we spent on that tune that I realized that playing music, specifically percussion, was right for me. Did you have any moments like that?
The first little band I was ever in was a three-piece with Ryan Russell and Sam Grant. We used to jam almost exclusively on John Mayer Trio stuff. Pino Palladino, man. . . . There’s just something about Pino Palladino. He is the ultimate bass player. I think that’s why John Mayer’s going back to the Trio stuff. I think he has realized that that is the best his live show could ever be. I hate to say that, but it just can’t get any better. It just can’t.
What aspect of your musicality took you the longest to develop?
Learning to play in different genres. I’d play with Tyler Goodson, which was primarily blues stuff. So I couldn’t play too much. I’d have to hold it down. But then I’d go play with a rock band, and they’d want me to shred. That was confusing for me. I didn’t always know what to listen for. Now, I like to stay quiet. I listen to everyone playing in the band first. Once I get the feel for everyone, we start the conversation. You know what I mean? Playing music is totally a conversation. It’s like talking without ever uttering a word. Music is its own language. To get to a point where you realize that, though—that takes a lot of time and experience.
My favorite musicians are the ones who are completely part of the ensemble. They’re watching and listening to everyone so they can facilitate that conversation you’re talking about. Without that level of awareness, the music suffers.
It’s all about building that tension. That’s why I don’t like playing with people who are completely closed off. It’s a group effort 100% of the time.
Musicians who don’t pay attention during the performance remind me of that one guy in every conversation who isn’t actually listening to what’s being talked about. He’s closing everyone else off trying to figure out how he can assert some sort of superiority. I think that ruins the experience.
Especially when you’re playing a gig where nothing is written out. You’ll go and play the same songs every night, but nothing’s the same. One night you may do a pop song with a reggae feel; the next night it might have a more driven feel to it. There are certain musicians you can’t have that experience with because they’re stuck in the mindset that they have to play something the same every time. This reminds me of those friends from high school. You knew them for who they really were and what they really wanted. Now, they’re completely different. If you get a few drinks in them, though, they’ll tell you that they’re unhappy because they lost track of what they really wanted out of life.
This brings me to my next thought. I decided to finish my master’s degree in business, but now I’ve decided to pursue music full-time. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and tell me I’m wasting my time or that I’m wasting that master’s degree. I just smile. They really have no idea what level of happiness I have playing music. Those people aren’t happy because they aren’t doing what they wanted to do. They never decided to go after it. I will never stop playing music. I will live on the street before I quit. I’ve had a fantastic system of support, though. My parents have not once tried to sway me into another career path at any point in time. That level of support from your family is incredible.
The level that you understand your instrument is truly inspiring. It’s as if you are able to speak the language we were talking about fluently. You express yourself so well on and off the stage. I think it’s incredible how some musicians are so good at having that conversation when they’re playing . . .
. . . But then they just can’t unplug.
Yeah, they’re the players that go hide in the corner after they play because they know nothing but their instrument. You, sir, can do it all, which is definitely a breath of fresh air. I really appreciate you talking to me today, man. You’re a gem to Jackson. Keep doing what you’re doing.
If you're interested in contacting Colton, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bo Kitzman likes music and sports, but playing music is his favorite. You should buy Bo burritos. Bo loves burritos.
Photographer Josh Garcia is a writer and photographer who landed in Jackson in 2008. With a B.A. in English from Union University in his back pocket, he’s abandoned other adjectives for “home” when describing this city. He enjoys reading, writing, photography, and cultivating community around the dinner table. #INFJ
tags Vol. 3 Issue 1, A Night of Storytelling, A Night of Storytelling Spring 2017, Jackson TN, Tennessee, Josh Garcia, Bo Kitzman, Colton Parker, music, local music, bass, the arts, Skyelor Anderson, 1NuKru, Lauren Pritchard, Memphis TN, Beale Street, Caywood Elementary School, Lexington TN, Union University, Chuck McGill, saxophone, Bandstand, Sly & the Family Stone, Michael Jackson, Victor Wooten, Jaco Pastorius, community, Charlie Parker, Ryan Russell, Sam Grant, John Mayer, Pino Palladino, Tyler Goodson, blues, jazz, entertainment, Our Jackson Home: The Magazine