Few bands have had a longer, rockier road to success than Parmalee. Shortly before signing with Stoney Creek Records after 10 years on the road, the band's drummer, Scott Thomas, nearly died when he was shot during a robbery. After he recovered, the group's debut single languished, and the foursome's second single "Carolina," a song first released five years ago, spent 38 weeks creeping up Billboard's Country Airplay chart before finally hitting the top 10 on Nov. 9 -- the longest such climb by a duo or group in the chart's 24-year history. Its success prompted Stony Creek to fast-track Parmalee's major-label debut, "Feels Like Carolina," from a planned mid-January release to Dec. 10.
"After all we've been through, we're ecstatic," lead vocalist Matt Thomas says. "We appreciate what we're doing right now, probably more than anybody ever has."
The Thomas brothers began pursuing music early, playing in their father's band as teens. When he retired, they formed Parmalee with cousin Barry Knox and friend Josh McSwain and started touring in 2001. "We borrowed money from our mamas and lived on peanuts," Matt says. "We spent nine or 10 years playing all over the country and taking any opportunities we could find to get us to the next level."
In 2010, Parmalee almost reached it, receiving word that Broken Bow Records was interested in the group. But before the band could work out a deal, tragedy struck. In September, after a show in Rock Hill, S.C., Scott was nearly killed during an attempted robbery of the band's RV. "Scott is a [gun] carrier, so he protected me and himself when those guys fired on us," Matt recalls. "We had a gunfight in the RV and Scott was shot three times. He had a 5% chance of living through the night. He spent 10 days in a coma, 45 days in the hospital, and somehow pulled through."
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Scott was still recovering when the band performed at a showcase for Broken Bow founder Benny Brown five months later. "Scott's cousin and brother actually each took one of his arms and sat him in front of that drum kit, and he played for six songs just as hard as he could," BBR Music Group executive VP Jon Loba says.
Afterward, Matt says, "Benny told us, 'You boys passed the test.'"
But first single "Musta Had a Good Time" didn't, peaking at No. 38 on Country Airplay last year. "To this day, I think it was a hit," Loba says. "The biggest mistake I've made was letting the promo team jump off that single."
The label turned its focus to "Carolina," a song the band originally released independently on an EP in 2008. KRTY San Jose, Calif., GM Nate Deaton was among the early adopters. "We started playing the song back in January," he says. "Within six weeks we had top 10 testing. We moved to heavy rotation way ahead of the chart. The stations that were leading all had great response, but other stations weren't paying attention. It shouldn't take 12 months for a hit from a newer artist to break through, but it seems these days it does." KRTY is now up to 900 plays for the song, according to Nielsen BDS.
To help convince reluctant programmers, the label produced a 20-minute video telling the band's unique history and serviced it to radio. "I didn't think they would get the poignancy of the story by just going on a radio tour and sitting in a conference room," Loba says. "It was important that the story was told because it says so much about them and their perseverance."
As does the slow, steady climb of "Carolina": This week it moves to No. 4 on Country Airplay. It has sold 452,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The band will keep pushing through street week, when it's set to perform on "Fox & Friends," SiriusXM and KRTY in honor of Deaton's birthday. The group has also landed the coveted headlining slot at the American Country Music Awards after-party at the House of Blues in Las Vegas the day the album arrives. (Florida Georgia Line had the gig last year, and Blake Shelton the year before.) "We'll be treating it as an album release party," Loba says.
"We're thankful that the label and radio hung in there with us," Matt says. "It was a matter of getting our music to the people, and they did that for us. We're just glad to be here."