At home in song
On the road and on record, Levi Parham takes Oklahoma with him
Levi Parham played TTV’s courtyard on June 7
“When everyone said yes it started getting exciting. It was then that I thought, ‘Oh shit, I really have to do this.’”
For his new album, It’s All Good, Levi Parham took a motley crew of Tulsans on a pilgrimage to one of recorded music’s most hallowed places, Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Credited to Levi Parham & Them Tulsa Boys and Girls—a group that includes guitarists Paul Benjaman, Dustin Pittsley, and Jesse Aycock, John Fullbright on keys, bassist Aaron Boehler, drummer Dylan Aycock, saxophonist Michael Staub, and singer Lauren Barth, as well as Nashville singer Lauren Farrah—if you have even a passing familiarity with Tulsa’s roots-rock scene, the album’s lineup sells itself. To those unfamiliar with the scene, It’s All Good may be the introduction you need.
Parham recently made a return visit to our courtyard to play a solo set of his bluesy soul tunes. With or without the band, he conjures a magic potion of relaxed, good time.
John Langdon: What’s the first song you learned to play?
Levi Parham: “Save Tonight” by Eagle Eye Cherry. Of all weird things, mid-90s radio rock. I think it was the whole suspended G thing. It has very frequently used pop pattern, that four-chord thing. I remember catching on to that. “Hey these are all the same.”
I also learned to sing in church. For what it was, it was pretty hip. We had pretty hot bands, especially at church camp. They would bring this college group from Southern Nazarene University to camp when I was a kid, and they were all really good. They probably all wanted to be a rock band but this was the next best thing, you know? When I was 17 and could play a little lead, they invited me up. Then for two summers I got to go with them and play at a couple other church camps. That was my first, like, road dog experience. I was addicted pretty fast.
Langdon: Desert island disks: You’re deserted on an island for the rest of your life. What three albums do you have?
Parham: I had this awesome experience a couple months back in Amsterdam when I had the day off and decided just to go walk with my headphones in, and I put on Sweet Baby James by James Taylor. I forgot just how much I love that album. It’s a tone-setter for your day.
Then, my favorite album of all time—it just does something for me—is Van Morrison’s Saint Dominic’s Preview. It’s beautiful and uplifting. There’s a song on there that I kind of imitated on [It’s All Good]. At the end of “All the Ways I Feel for You,” I’m talking about being a lion and turning into a housecat, and I give a little roar. That’s a tip-of-the-hat to Van Morrison. In his song “Listen to the Lion,” he’s trying to make you recognize the power within him but also trying to recognize it himself. And he just starts roaring. It makes my hair stand on end. He’s so worked up. He’s not in the studio thinking about recording an album, he’s just riffing and the whole band is in it with him. You can feel it. That’s everything music is supposed to be to me. Pure feeling, raw emotion.
Then for the third, Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes or Taj Mahal’s The Natch’l Blues. Whichever one I’ve got on hand, I’m okay with it. Van will make me nostalgic, James will make me happy and feel good, and either of these will make me want to dance.
Langdon: What’s the best show you’ve seen in Tulsa?
Parham: Any time I get to see Jared Tyler is the best show I could see. He makes me feel like I did when I was a little kid, not knowing what it is that stirs up inside you when you hear music that you really like. In fact, my favorite Courtyard Concert is the one with Jared, Travis Fite, and Arthur Thompson.
Langdon: That’s the very first one we did.
Parham: That’s the first one? You’ve had some good ones, but it’s the best one.
Langdon: What drew you to Muscle Shoals to record?
Parham: That was kind of a fluke thing. I had toured through there and a friend told me to check this studio out. There was history there. It was the second home of Muscle Shoals Sound. Bob Dylan did a record at this place, in the same room we recorded in. Tons of artists over the years.
So I was taking the tour and just dreaming, and I made friends with the engineer and he said, “You oughta make a record here.” That planted the seed, and then I couldn’t sleep at night, going, “Should I? I should.”
I’m turning that over in my head over and over and I picked up on Muscle Shoals Sound/Tulsa Sound, and I thought, What if I brought that? Specifically took all these Tulsa guys to Muscle Shoals and created something.
I realized pretty quickly I was creating a grassroots project. Even though the talent in Tulsa is world-renowned and the players we have on this record are at the top of their class and have accolades a mile long, the community is still discovering them. So this is an album for us in this community. These are the people I want to speak to and if the rest of the world catches on, then great.
Langdon: Besides other music, what or who influences how you write or play?
Parham: Aaron Lee Tasjan’s ability to sort of break apart from the bullshit. I can see him go up onstage knowing what he’s left backstage, and he just breaks it off. He’s like, “I’m not going to deal with that right now. I’m going to perform.” I’m really inspired by it and I try to imitate or emulate that.
I also take Todd Snider as an example of how to perform, especially solo, and not take it so seriously. I’m not as cunning and funny as Todd, but I definitely try to include humor in the banter and make people laugh. It relaxes them, it disarms everybody, and then they’re listening.
Langdon: Finish this sentence: Music is _______ .
Parham: Music is life. It’s all around us. This rhythmic thing we’re all trying to jump on.
I was just reading Tom Robbins, and he was talking about how all biological life is tied to rhythm. We don’t even know it’s time to come out of our mom’s body until a rhythmic thing—having convulsions—starts happening. Everything is born out of that. So when you get back to it and get centered in it, you just feel all warm and great. I wish I could live in song forever, for my whole life. I think that’s what we’re really trying to do with mantras and meditation. It’s connected to the same thing.
Langdon: There’s a Tom Waits interview that’s always stuck with me. He says, “There’s no such thing as not playing. Music has rests in it, so you’re on a rest right now. And the music will begin shortly.”
Parham: Totally. The minute you want to step back into it it’s there. You don’t have to perform it or write it. It’s for all of us. It’s the most natural thing we can be a part of.