Mustering an army of guitars, amps, and stompboxes, this dirt-pedal fiend explores the frontiers of blues on his new album, Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.
Like all great blues records, Peter Parcek’s powerful new album Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven cuts close to the bone. Yet, from the opening track—a gut-punch rendition of Peter Green’s “World Keep on Turning”—Parcek takes us on a two-way journey. One direction is back to the deep emotion that defines the truest blues of every era; the other is forward into a modern sonic approach with which he breaks blues conventions without dishonoring them.
“I wanted to try something that seems impossible when you say it out loud,” Parcek admitted when PG spoke to him on the phone. “I wanted the rawness of the blues—the rootedness, if you will—but I also wanted it to be contemporary.”
In this case, “contemporary” didn’t just mean using modern effects or production and arranging techniques. It also means “of the moment” emotionally. Parcek wrote and recorded Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven in the aftermath of his mother’s death, simultaneously mourning his loss and celebrating her life. These feelings were close to the surface throughout the making of the record, which was recorded in Nashville and near Parcek’s Boston-area home, and remained raw when we spoke months later.
The connection between Parcek, the blues, and his mother goes back to his musical awakening as a kid growing up in the 1960s. He first heard Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert Collins, and other heroes through the crackle of AM radio—listening at night when Southern stations could reach his New England bedroom.
Eventually, it inspired him to express himself through music. “When I was in high school, my mom saved up Green Stamps to get me a nylon-string guitar,” he recalls. “I also began playing harmonica, and early on made more progress on the harp.”
In his late teens, Parcek moved to London in the mid ’60s and discovered a whole community of musicians who shared his obsession with the blues. “I’d go see players like Clapton and Peter Green all the time,” he says. That’s when he began to get serious about performing. “Back then, there were so many great British blues guitarists that I focused on vocals and harp,” he says. “I didn’t really get serious about the guitar until I came back to the States.”
He found work as a sideman (most notably with blues piano legend Pinetop Perkins), bandleader, and, eventually, as a solo artist who always seemed willing to infuse his blues with a little something off the menu. Fast forward more than four decades, and Parcek has tapped into something that Peter Green did so eloquently in his days as Fleetwood Mac’s talisman: bringing forward the blues without being imprisoned by purism. On the sequel to his national debut album, 2010’s Blues Music Award-nominated The Mathematics of Love, Parcek is aided by producer/percussionist Marco Giovino—of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy—as he paints his blues with tonal colors ranging from earthy to ethereal, and puts his signature on the style using dazzling chromatic runs, elegant bent notes, grizzled and soaring tones, and a variety of influences from Wes Montgomery to Django Reinhardt. But even when he’s constructing distant ambient soundscapes on songs like Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and his own “Every Drop of Rain,” the emotional truth remains close. And, of course, the pounding pulse of “Ashes to Ashes,” the raw drive of “Things Fall Apart,” and the playful instrumental romps “Mississippi Suitcase” and “Shiver” show plenty blues bona fides. As a contemporary once said of Green, it’s the “blues feeling” that’s important. And on Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, that feeling is abundant, deep, and visceral.
If I had to pick two words to describe Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, they’d be “lush” and “raw.” That’s a pretty unusual combination. Was that your intention?
Some of this is very personal. I hadn’t made a record for a while. I didn’t have the budget. And in the midst of that, my mom passed away. One way that artists react to deep loss is to create from it, in honor of it. Songs like “Every Drop of Rain” and “Ashes to Ashes” started to come through, and they were really in honor of her. So thematically, we’re talking about mortality, aging, impermanence, and loss.
TIDBIT: Guitarist Luther Dickinson and bassist Dennis Crouch were drafted to play on the album's Nashville sessions.
That comes across in a lot of places, but you break away from those themes, too.
Well, early versions of the record were just unrelievedly about loss. It struck me that I needed to give listeners a breath—something fun, but still, hopefully, deep and rooted. So that’s where some of the instrumentals came from. If you only do the themes we were just discussing, you’ve only got one palette. But if you include playful moments in the correct way, then it works.
And it’s more true to the person when you include the fuller spectrum, emotionally. Particularly because, all along, my mother was incredibly supportive of my music—from buying me my first guitar to helping me get to London to everything after that. The album feels truer as a tribute because it has emotional range. I’m really proud of that.
The instrumentals give you a chance to stretch out on the guitar a bit.
I also used them to pay tribute to some great guitar players I adore. “Shiver” is basically an homage to Albert Collins. “Pat Hare”—even though it’s not a mimic of one of his records—is a tribute to him.
“Mississippi Suitcase” was inspired by a cab ride in Memphis. The cabbie talked the whole ride. He started telling me about his son and his ex-wife. And when he got onto his ex-wife, he said, “We broke up. She got everything, and I threw all my clothes in a Mississippi suitcase and got out of there.” I said, “What's a Mississippi suitcase?” and he just laughed: “Oh, you’re from the north! A Mississippi suitcase is a green Hefty bag!” [Laughs.] So I tried to put some John Lee Hooker in there, and there’s almost a “Tom Waits falling down the stairs” sort of vibe. But with the instrumentals, I started to feel like we had a complete album, with the depth of the blues, but with the playful thing, too.
How did the band come together?
I was very lucky to have Marco as the producer and percussionist on the record. All the basics were done at Marco’s house, which, at the time, was in Nashville. He assembled the band, mainly Dennis Crouch and Dominic John Davis [both on bass] and Luther Dickinson [guitar], who were brilliant. Luther throws it down as great as anybody, but he’ll mix it up with you and have fun. He’s on “Shiver,” “Ashes to Ashes,” the title track, and “Pat Hare,” as is Mickey Raphael [harmonica]. On “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” and “Mississippi Suitcase” we did the overdubs up here in Massachusetts, with a local lap steel player named Andy Santospago.