-- Catching up with Parker Hastings --
The young guitar star talks about his music, Chet Atkins, Gretsch guitars,
and a special friendship with two CGP’s.
By Ron Denny
The CAAS (Chet Atkins Appreciation Society) Convention, a four-day celebration of the music of Chet Atkins, and a gathering of the best fingerpickers from around the world every July in Nashville, was an especially busy one for Parker Hastings this year. But, between performing on several stages, practicing, jamming, and catching up with dozens of Young Thumb pickers as well as his mentors like Tommy Emmanuel, John Knowles, Paul Moseley, and Eddie Pennington, the rising high school junior found time to sit down and talk about a few of his favorite things: music, Chet Atkins, and Gretsch guitars.
You can’t help but walk away impressed with this young man. Polite, modest, levelheaded, mature for his years (he was two days away from turning 16), and very focused on continuing to grow as a guitarist, singer, songwriter, and arranger. Micah Yandell shared that if his father were alive, he knows Paul would take Parker under his wing in a heartbeat. It’s reassuring to know the future of Chet’s music is in such good hands. Many of us can’t wait to see Parker again next year at CAAS to see how much he’s grown – both literally and as an artist.
(Fred Gretsch introducing Parker before videoing his performance in the Gretsch Room at CAAS.)
How would you describe your style of music?
I’ve never thought about how I describe it. I play a lot of old Chet and Merle songs, and Jerry Reed songs, but I’m trying to write my own stuff and be my own person, too. I’d almost describe it as modern young-age thumbpicking. I guess the motto I always go by is “music to make you smile.”
So, that’s my goal when I play for people; to make them smile at least and make them enjoy what they’re hearing.
Do you come from a musical family?
Not really. Neither of my parents play guitar, but they were always exposing me to music. They took me to my first concert when I was probably two years old. We went and saw Brad Paisley before he really made it big. My parents didn’t know how I’d do, so they bought two seats on the back row along the aisle in case they needed to leave. I stood on my Dad’s lap the whole time watching and listening, and they said my foot was tapping to the beat. So, I guess from that they knew I had some kind of music in me.
When did you start playing the guitar?
When I was four I started asking for a guitar. My hands were really small, so my parents waited until I was six before they got me a guitar. I started taking lessons and I kind of went through different musical stages. I mean, I was just trying to learn a lot of songs when I was starting off and I kind of got into the blues and some jazz, and some of that is still sticking with me.
Was there a pivotal guitar moment or event that influenced you?
There were two events that happened when I was eight years old that really inspired me. I saw Brian Setzer and I noticed he was kind of doing the “boom-chick” thing a little bit like Chet, and I thought that was interesting, and then later my parents took me to see Tommy Emmanuel, which kind of connected the dots for me and changed my life. I saw him using a thumbpick, so that sparked the big interest in me.
How did you discover Chet Atkins?
You know, a lot of the older guys have told me they first found Chet, Merle (Travis), and Jerry (Reed), and then found Tommy Emmanuel, but I kind of went up the steps instead of down them. I first found Brian Setzer, then Tommy, and Tommy led me to Chet, Merle, and Jerry. Tommy was the influencer and he still is a very big influence on me.
Why does Chet Atkins inspire you? I noticed you have a Chet quote on your website.
He just had this charisma to him that was, from what I’ve seen, not only his guitar playing, but his personality. He was the Country Gentleman, right? And, Mr. Guitar. I mean, he was the Ambassador of it all and he took the ideas from Merle Travis and made it his own and was really world renown. And still is. I would say he has a bigger influence on me now than if he was still alive. It would’ve been really neat to meet him, that’s for sure. Last Christmas, my parents got me a record player and I’ve started to collect old Chet records, and it’s pretty cool to put the record on and listen to the vinyl version of it. It’s a lot different sounding than a CD.
Why is Chet Atkins still relevant to you?
His music is coming out through Tommy, and Brian Setzer, and guys like John Knowles and Steve Wariner. The three CGP’s probably are the biggest of today’s influences on me. I steal, well, it’s more like petty theft, and learn so much from them.
(Parker with John Knowles.)
You seem to have special friendships with Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles.
I do. I met Tommy about four years ago in Elizabethtown, Kentucky and got to play a song with him in a guitar workshop. And, to make a long story short, after I played that song with him, he asked me if I wanted to play that song with him at his concert that night. And I think we kind of made an instant friendship. Since then, he’s given me so many opportunities to play with him at his concerts in Louisville, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Knoxville, and even Lexington, which is not too far from where I live. Probably the biggest thing I’ve done with him is playing together on the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour in Lexington. It’s a radio show that airs all over the world. He has been so good to me showing me things and giving me tips on how to be a better player.
And I can’t say enough good things about John Knowles. He is a huge supporter of young players everywhere. I got to do a show in April with John at The Country Music Hall of Fame in support of the Gretsch exhibit, and we had such a great time and worked out some stuff to play together. It’s really cool that those guys are so open and willing to help, and kind of taken me under their wing, so I’m really grateful for that.
So, how did you win your first Gretsch guitar?
It all started when I decided I was going to go down to Muhlenberg County in Kentucky in 2013 for the International Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Weekend. Muhlenberg County is really a cool place because that’s where thumbpicking originated with Merle Travis. I decided I’d enter it and see what would happen. I really didn’t know anybody there at the time, and I played my songs and ended up winning the Junior Division. I won a Gretsch guitar; a 5122 in Aspen Green which is a pretty guitar, and met a lot of people there including Joe Hudson, who I struck up a friendship with, and Paul Moseley and Eddie Pennington and they introduced me to a whole new group of people.
You also won a Gretsch Chet Atkins 6120 guitar?
Yes, the following year, I came back to Muhlenberg County and entered into the adult division and there are two categories: traditional and contemporary. You can enter in both categories and I thought, I may as well. They pick the top of the traditional and the top of the contemporary to face off in the finals, and the Grand Champion wins a Gretsch 6120 guitar. Well, that year was unique because I won both the traditional and contemporary categories, so there wasn’t a faceoff. My 6120 plays like butter, and it’s been an honor to play it here and on other stages. I am so thankful for the continuing support that Gretsch gives to this traditional style of music.
(Parker in Nashville alongside his hero, Chet Atkins.)
How can we get more young people to CAAS and interested in Chet’s music?
We’ve got to find more players. There are some younger players like Evan Twitty, and me, and a bunch of other young players here at CAAS this year need to be the ones to keep this style of guitar going. Recently we have started a Young Thumbs group that represents ages under 21 from all parts of the country. If the younger players get out there and get some exposure, maybe other young people that don’t play can see what we’re doing, and then maybe that’ll strike an interest. We’ve got to get more people interested because now I’m even getting older. In a few days I’ll be sixteen. I’m always encouraging other young people to work their thumbs in some other way besides video games.