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When Parmalee first began playing as a band 22 years ago, the four-piece would practise in a barn in Parmele, a small town in North Carolina with a population of less than 300 people.
Brothers Matt and Scott Thomas began playing in their teens with their musician father but eventually decided to break out on their own. In a town so small, the pickings were probably a bit slim when it came to fellow musicians. So the Thomas brothers filled out the ranks with their cousin, Barry Knox, who picked up the bass, and childhood friend Josh McSwain on guitar. Needless to say, the notion that the band would move to Nashville and become country-music hitmakers seemed a bit far-fetched at the time.
“We didn’t know what the hell we were doing,” says Matt Thomas, the singer, frontman and primary songwriter of Parmalee. “We were coming from cover bands, blues bands, hippie-jam bands and southern-rock bands. That’s where we were at. We didn’t know what we were making. A four-piece band in country is rare, especially back then. People kept saying ‘You guys need to be in Nashville!’ But it was hard to get out there. We were broke. Josh was married. Me, Barry and Scott owned our house and we were barely making our mortgage payments on it.”
It’s all part of the band’s intriguing and at times dramatic rags-to-riches backstory. As fans know, Parmalee would eventually decamp to Music City. In the past 12 years, they have found success, but seem to have hit an apex these past few years. That includes scoring No. 1 songs Just The Way – a duet with friend Blanco Brown, and Take My Name. Both came from the band’s 2021 album, For You. They will perform at Fort Calgary on Friday, Aug. 18 as part of the main stage lineup of Country Thunder.
Not only are they still a four-piece band, but they have maintained the same four pieces from the beginning. This is a rarity for any act, much less one that spent so long in the trenches of the country music world.
But that long, early struggle may be why the act is still together after all these years. There have been the usual music industry ups and downs. Parmalee spent nearly 10 years on the road before getting any real traction. They would come close to getting signed to a major label but the deal fell through. They all took on outside jobs to make ends meet.
The band caught their first major break in 2010 when their song Carolina became an indie online hit. They were set to open for then-up-and-coming singer-songwriter Brantley Gilbert and play a showcase for industry-label brass. Before any of that could happen, they played a poorly attended warm-up gig in South Carolina. After the show, armed robbers broke into their RV and a gunfight ensued between them and drummer Scott Thomas. He was shot three times and doctors gave him a five per cent chance of survival. He remained in a coma for 10 days before slowly recovering.
“All that stuff was before we made any money and had any success and had any people working for us,” Matt Thomas says. “It was always us four doing merch, running the social media, booking the shows. It was us four and one other booking agent, that was it. When you do all that stuff together, you figure out how to take the path of no drama and learn how to get along.”
So it was no surprise that these strong bonds withstood another major test in 2020 when the world shut down due to COVID and touring bands such as Parmalee had to stay off the road for a few years. The break actually ended up being a blessing in disguise. While Matt Thomas did enlist some friends to help craft the material, he remains the band’s primary songwriter and the downtime proved productive.
“That’s just my other job,” says Thomas about songwriting. “I treat it like a job. It’s great when you find a group of guys who understand what you’re doing. I’ve been lost trying to figure out what the next song is and trying to figure out what needs to happen. I think now we’ve definitely found our lane and work well in that lane. I always equate it to mining for gold. You’re mining for gold and you could find the best nugget on the first day and you might mine for the rest of your life and never find another nugget.”
Not all the songs on For You were penned during the pandemic. One of the album’s more notable nuggets, Just the Way, was written in 2018 and first released as a single in 2019. Nevertheless, the melodic, upbeat song and accompanying video about self-acceptance seemed to resonate with fans during the lockdowns. In September, the band will release an extended version of For You featuring four new tracks, including the band’s current hit single Girl In Mine.
“That was the catalyst for us,” says Thomas, about the extra time to write the pandemic and lockdowns provided. “We just dug deep and really wrote a ton of songs over the pandemic. That’s how the album pretty much got done. Most of the songs were written during the pandemic. We needed the break and it was great to just focus on that and not worry about doing the touring. We’ve been a band most of our lives together, so it didn’t hurt to have a little break and everybody go off and do their own thing. Just the Way started taking off because of the pandemic. That song is really like a beacon of light and we saw people connect to it.”
Parmalee plays Country Thunder at Fort Calgary on Aug. 18 at 5:30 p.m.