It took Parker Brown a long time to figure out what he wanted to do with his many talents.
The 33-year-old had played guitar and bass guitar in rock, blues, fusion, country, jazz and soul bands, worked as a sideman for singer-songwriters, played in duets, trios and other combinations, dabbled in songwriting and appeared on at least 20 albums.
He took a four-year detour to study the bass, earning a bachelor of arts degree in solo double bass performance in the spring of 2015 from Rocky Mountain College.
He had also been taking lessons via Skype from Jon Hamar at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. After graduating, Brown practiced the double bass hard all during the summer of 2015, with thoughts of applying to the master’s program at Knoxville.
Following that route would have meant becoming “sort of an academic-type player,” Brown said, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a very different thing than he had been doing for most of his life.
Meanwhile, he had begun having regular dinners with four singer-songwriter friends—Matt Blakeslee, Ryan Kabeary, Grant Jones and Chris Smith—after which they would all perform songs they’d been working on.
The more he wrote and sang and listened, Brown said, the more he realized “that was the tradition my heart wanted to follow.”
By last fall, Brown had written so many good songs that Blakeslee, who also has a home recording studio, told him it was time he recorded an album of original tunes.
“When he started to share more and more of his songs with me,” Blakeslee said, “my passion was to try and bottle that in such a way that everyone could experience the magic of what Parker does.”
Brown said Blakeslee deserves a lot of the credit for the album, and not just because he produced and engineered it.
“He was the main catalyst for getting it started, keeping it going and finishing it,” Brown said.
Fans will be able to buy a copy of the CD, “We Were Young,” during an album-release concert this Saturday from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Garage Pub at the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co., 2123 First Ave. N.
Brown will be joined on stage by some of the best musicians in Billings, most of whom played on the album, including Erik Olson, Hammond organ; Keller Paulson, drums; John Roberts, trombone; Sam White, baritone saxophone; Tully Olson, trumpet; Laurel Linde, alto sax; Trevor Krieger, fiddle; Lauren Carr, viola; and Chris Smith and Becky Sappington, background vocals. Grant Jones and Phil Griffin will open the show.
You can listen to a couple of tracks on Brown’s website and decide for yourself what to call Brown’s style of music. This listener heard echoes of the Beatles, John Hiatt, Bruce Springsteen and The Band.
All of those but Springsteen were conscious influences, Brown said, but he was surprised to be reminded of Springsteen in the title track. Some of the songs are straight-ahead guitar-based singer-songwriter tunes, but there are excursions into soul, pop-rock and blues, too.
Blakeslee said he and Brown talked a lot about their favorite musicians and what they hoped to capture in the studio, resulting in “a giant casserole of influence.” He mentioned Blake Mills, the Rolling Stones, Alec Ounsworth, Wilco, Sturgill Simpson, Josh Ritter and Tom Waits.
Brown said other influences were Joe Henry—“he changed my life, he really did”—Nick Drake and Jason Isbell. Also, he said, “as much as I hate to admit it, Dave Matthews is probably in there.”
Other influences are harder to trace. Brown grew up immersed in music, thanks mostly to his father, Bobby Brown, a guitar player and prodigious collector of records. Parker’s middle name, Burnett, was a nod to T Bone Burnett, the musician and legendary producer.
Brown thinks he might have been as young as 5 or 6 when his father took him to hear Burnett in concert in Missoula. Brown sent Burnett a note, telling him of his middle name and how much he liked his music. Burnett sent back a short message, scrawled on a napkin: “Fight truth decay” was all it said.
Brown was born in Billings, moved to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in second grade and moved back to Billings when he was 20. One of his early projects was the popular Tyler Burnett Band, based on his middle name and that of band mate Steve Brown, whose father is also named Bob Brown, who was a good friend and band mate of Parker’s father.
Blakeslee said that what sets Parker Brown apart is his “masterful ability to be in the moment as a musician.” He’s always listening to and interacting with what the other musicians are playing, Blakeslee said, “always bringing fresh and unique beauty to what’s happening in the room.”
He has also worked hard to make his living solely as a musician, performing live, playing in the studio, giving bass and guitar lessons and even accompanying Billings poet Dave Caserio, who has toured the state with Brown through the Montana Humanities program.
Brown and guitarist Alex Nauman founded Allied Music eight years ago, to teach music, and they were joined last year by Erik Olson, the organist featured on Brown’s new album. Nauman and Brown also started the Thursday night jazz jam at Yellowstone Valley Brewing five years ago and it’s still going strong.
Besides teaching at Allied Music, Brown is an adjunct teacher at Rocky Mountain College and Sheridan College in Wyoming, teaching bass at Rocky and guitar and bass at Sheridan. And for the past couple of years, Brown said, he has averaged 170 gigs a year.
“The blessing of my job is, I’ve always got an instrument in my hands when I go into work,” Brown said. “I’m really lucky.”
More than anything, he said, he likes music because of the way it creates connections with other people, and the new album, musically and lyrically, is creating some of the strongest connections he’s ever felt.
“I’m really happy with it,” he said. “I’m excited to share it.”