An interview with Parker Hastings: Still young (and still an experienced–and outstanding–picker, singer, songwriter, and performer)
It’s been about eight years since we last sat down and had a conversation with the very likable Parker Hastings, one of the top fingerstyle guitar pickers, songwriters, and singers in the music business. When we first chatted back in July of 2016, the Kentucky native was busy performing on several stages at the four-day Chet Atkins Appreciation Society (CAAS) Convention in Nashville, playing with and learning from two of his “friends, heroes, and mentors” as he calls them, legendary guitarists Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles, and working on his next album entitled “Breezin’ Through Life.” And, oh yes, Parker was only 15 years old at the time, three days shy of his 16th birthday, and looking forward to his upcoming junior year in high school. Not your typical teenager for sure.
Eight years is a long time in the life of a growing musician. And now at 23 (even though he says he’s often mistaken for 18 or 19), Parker has graduated from Belmont University’s Mike Curb College of Entertainment & Music Business with a BBA in Music Business, has moved to Nashville, and has spent the past year launching his professional music career and establishing himself in Music City.
And what a busy past year it has been for Parker.
Some of the highlights include performing as a solo artist and with a trio, doing a lot of studio session work, spending more time and playing with his main mentor, Tommy Emmanuel, making his debut at the famous Bluebird Café Sunday Songwriters Series in Nashville, being named the 2023 Artist-in-Residence at the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, and working on his recently-released “Kentucky Sunshine” album (which recently won the “Recording of the Year” from the National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame–Parker’s third album to win this prestigious award).
Oh, and Parker also went on his first bus tour as the guitarist for the Dailey & Vincent Christmas Show, where he fulfilled a lifelong dream of playing The Grand Ole Opry not once–but twice–in the same week in December. Not a bad way to end the year.
We caught up with Parker on the phone to talk about his “December to remember,” what it’s like trying to make it as a musician in Nashville, how Chet Atkins continues to influence his life, his growing involvement with the next generation of young pickers (appropriately called the Young Thumbs), and his new “Kentucky Sunshine” album. Enjoy . . .
Congrats on getting your first taste of touring with Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent. How did you land the Dailey & Vincent Christmas Show gig?
Well, thank you. I have to give credit to some of the guys who have become my friends and mentors here in town who have been gracious enough to pass my name around. I’ve learned that being here in Nashville, you’ve got to be around great players, because if one of them can’t take a gig, more than likely if you’re friends with them and you’re good enough for the job, they’ll pass the gig along to you.
So, which of your Nashville guitar buddies recommended you for the tour?
The guy that helped me out and put my name in the hat for the tour was Pat Bergeson, a great friend, and one of my mentors and guys I look up to. I also steal a lot of licks from him. He gave Dailey & Vincent my name and said they should check me out for their upcoming Christmas Show tour and sure enough, they took his advice and gave me a ring. It worked out that my schedule was open enough that I would be able to make it work, and off we went on the road. I had to learn a lot of music in a short amount of time, but I kept my nose to the grindstone and got it learned and perfected and was ready for the road.
Was this your first time being a part of a band and doing a bus tour?
Yes, it was. Pat told me that if I did a good job with this that it could probably lead to a lot of other things. A lot of how you can get gigs is based on word of mouth, and that really was motivation for me to practice, practice, practice, and do my very best on the tour. Although I was nervous getting into it, once I got the first couple of shows under my belt, I was good to go for the rest of the tour. I think I did the best I could and exceeded their expectations, so I believe it will lead to more opportunities.
What’s one thing you learned from your first touring experience?
That having and making your own personal time is important so you can be locked in and focused. I learned that quick and made a pre-show routine for myself in order to play my best. I made sure I had a good meal to eat, my clothes were laid out and ready to wear, and that I had time to not be rushed. Because I found even before this tour that when I’m rushed before going onstage or in front of a group and playing, my mind is going a thousand different places. So, it’s important to me to have the adequate time to relax and get locked in and focused, so to speak.
And your dream of playing The Grand Ole Opry came true, not once but twice?
I know, I’m still pinching myself. When Dailey & Vincent asked me to play the on Grand Ole Opry with them, it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. And to say that I got to do it twice in the same week is, like, Whaaaat??
That had to be a surreal moment for you?
It was. The feeling of walking out onstage and plugging in my guitar and looking out on the crowd and knowing how many times I’ve sat in those seats watching and thinking HOW am I going to get up there and WHEN am I going to get up there? I’m still looking forward to the day when I make my artist debut on The Grand Ole Opry. That’s my next goal.
What about that first night will stay with you forever?
Two things. One was when Jamie Dailey announced from the stage after the first song that I was making my first ever appearance on the Grand Ole Opry and the crowd went wild. That was a pretty cool moment. And two, not only was I playing in the band with Dailey & Vincent, but I also accompanied and played with Lee Greenwood on his most iconic song, “God Bless the USA.” It was, like, holy moly, can this really be happening? I’m so grateful to Jamie and Darrin for taking a chance on a young guy like me. It was a super great time being on the road with them and memories that I won’t forget for sure.
So many big things have happened to you since your last interview as a 15-year-old. Tell us about graduating from Belmont University. Didn’t you major in Music Business instead of the guitar?
Yes, and you’re not the first person who’s asked me that question. I guess I wanted to learn more about the music industry and the business itself so I can learn how to turn what I’m already doing into a business. Things like music publishing and copyright law, which changes every year, or how to launch a label or publishing company, are important to know. I really wanted to learn and understand the business that I’ve chosen to get into.
What was your first day like at a university known for their music and music business programs?
The first day I stepped onto campus at Belmont, I knew I was in the right spot. I realized I was surrounded by people that were my age, that had similar aspirations to be an artist, or a songwriter, or a manager, or a music publisher, or whatever. We were all in the same boat. We all knew we wanted to do this, we’re all kind of driven, so how do we get there?
Like your friend and mentor, Tommy Emmanuel, you’re known mainly as an acoustic guitar player, but you also play Gretsch electrics as well.
Yes, they’re great guitars and I love playing them. I have an Aspen Green Electromatic and a Chet Atkins Gretsch 6120 that I played alongside Steve Wariner recently for Paul Yandell’s induction into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. I won both of my Gretsches for competing and winning at the Legends Thumbpicking Weekend Competition in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. It’s a cool event held every year at the Merle Travis Music Center, which is appropriate, since Merle was from Kentucky and made thumbpicking and fingerstyle playing so famous.
I liked the video of you and Tommy in the studio playing the song, “Saltwater.” How did that come about?
Tommy has been a friend and mentor of mine for more than 10 years. Last fall, he invited me to come to the studio with him to record a couple of tracks as a tribute to Chet (Atkins). We recorded two songs, one was an instrumental, “Saltwater,” which Tommy and Chet had recorded together on their “The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World” album. Even cooler was that Tommy had his video team at our session. I’ll never forget it because Tommy and I were sitting across from each other with one microphone in the middle picking up our guitars. Before we started, he looked at me and said, “Let’s do this for Chet.” We played that song in one take. It was the thrill of a lifetime to sit in the studio and record with Tommy.
Speaking of Chet, you’ve been a regular performer and teacher at the annual Chet Atkins Convention in Nashville for years. Why is this event important to you?
I tell people that it’s my favorite week of the year. I think it’s the best way for us to celebrate Chet Atkins and all that he did and achieved. It’s been a tradition for nearly 40 years, it was here when Chet was still around and is still here decades after he’s passed away. I admire Chet a lot. Not only his accomplishments as a guitarist, but also his accomplishments as a record executive and recording engineer, and especially as a businessman. There’s only ever been one Chet and there’ll only ever be one Chet. I don’t think anybody that I’ve seen has come close to achieving what he achieved and all that he did, especially here in Nashville.
The Chet Atkins Convention also showcases young fingerpickers. Tell us about your growing involvement with the Young Thumbs.
The Young Thumbs group was started by John Knowles and Tommy Emmanuel a few years ago because a lot more younger folks like me were coming out of the woodwork and attending the Convention. The Young Thumbs not only gave me a chance to put myself out there and perform, but to also rub shoulders and elbows with guys like John and Tommy who are true living legends.
I use the Star Wars analogy a lot. For the Young Thumbs, I see John and Tommy as being the Jedi Masters, the Obi-Wan Kenobi’s, and we’re the Luke Skywalkers, there to learn from their wisdom and experience. I’ve seen how they interact with the Young Thumbs; they’re very gracious, willing, and open to share their advice and stories. I think it’s sort of their way of honoring Chet and “paying It forward” for the next generation. I see that, admire that, and am glad to be helping out more with the Young Thumbs. This year, I was the co-host with John of the Young Thumb’s Showcase at the Convention, so I think in that regard it’s kind of passing the torch along to me and hopefully I can continue carrying that torch.
In the eight years since your first Gretsch interview, in what ways do you feel you’ve grown the most as a musician?
As a songwriter, for sure. I’ve been co-writing with folks around town, and I’ve really been trying to hone my craft of songwriting and to think more like a songwriter.
You picked the right town to live in to hone your songwriting skills. What’s it like living in Nashville?
I love living in Nashville because there’s always so much stuff going on around town. There are songwriter rounds where I can hear some of the best songwriters in town play their songs, and there are some great venues to hear music at too. I mean, every night of the week there’s something going on. I personally enjoy going out to those things because that’s where I find a lot of my inspiration; listening to other songwriters and listening to their stories and their songs and how they write them.
Did you write all the songs on your new album, “Kentucky Sunshine?”
Of the 13 tracks, I’m proud to say they’re all original songs that I wrote except for one song, which was passed along to me by my friend, Steve Clark, who was one of the writers on it.
Your new album is a pleasing mix of original songs and instrumentals. Tell us more about it.
Well, thanks. I started working on it last fall and recorded all of the band tracks in two days. It’s not just me on guitar, I have a full band backing me on the album. It was produced here in town by my friend, Pat Burgeson, who played and recorded with Chet Atkins. I was super grateful to have had his help and his ears and his eyes and even his musical abilities, as he laid down some of the rhythm tracks and played harmonica on it too.
What are you looking to say or prove musically with your new album?
That’s a good question, I haven’t been asked that before now. I think this album kind of reflects the music that I’m making and I’m playing right now. I framed it as my next step, a more mature snapshot of me, if you will, to where I want to go and where I want to be with my music. A lot of the songs center around the theme of the transition of growing up in Kentucky and now being in Nashville. There are songs that talk about Nashville, the city as a whole, and trying to make it here on my own.
What are you proudest about on this new album?
Well, several things, to be honest. One is all of the original songs that I wrote and how the album came out sounding. Another is how much of a DIY project it is. I did all of the video promotional work for the album’s singles myself, as well as creating the album’s artwork, including the photos, and even handling the CD printing. I won’t minimize the fact that it was a lot of work, but when I got the CDs in the mail, I was overwhelmed with excitement and just proud that I can look at this and say, “I did this.” Plus, I fully funded it myself, which is no little feat either.
What is the Parker Hastings approach to performing and entertaining an audience?
To me, the entertainment value of music is just as much, if not more, than the music itself. For hundreds of years, people have paid to be entertained. And a guy like Tommy Emmanuel does that incredibly well; that’s who I look up to. People don’t always remember what song was played, but they do remember how they felt at that moment. And that’s what I want people to experience whenever they see me play somewhere; not remembering exactly what I did or what I said, but how they felt when they were watching me. Most of the time, it has been smiles and happiness, I’ve not had too many people throw tomatoes at me yet. Maybe one of these days I’ll learn how to juggle and play the guitar at the same time.
What’s up next on your crowded calendar and growing career?
Even though this new music is out, I’m already thinking about the next album and writing new music for myself. Because when I’m playing out, I’m always trying to play new things, because I want people to keep coming back to see me. I’ll also keep working on expanding my audience. The over-arching theme of my music sort of matches my personality: it’s happy, upbeat, uplifting, and music that makes you smile. Because it’s truly who I am and part of my brand and what people know me for, and I’m happy and proud about that.
And enjoy these videos:
Parker and Tommy Emmanuel performing the instrumental “Saltwater” together in the studio.
Official video of Parker’s “Kentucky Sunshine” album’s title track. Parker shot most of the video himself.