When Parmalee keyboardist Josh McSwain added his low background-vocal parts to “Mimosas,” producer Tommy Cecil got sidetracked by a bottle of champagne. Opening the bubbly stuff, he figured, would provide a cool sound effect to launch a song about an alcoholic celebration, although with just one bottle in Pegram Palace, they would have to record the “pop” on the first take.
“We let it rip right there in front of the microphone,” says McSwain. “It made the album.”
Parmalee actually has plenty of reason to be popping champagne these days, as Stoney Creek released its sophomore album, 27861, on July 21. It ends a three-and-a-half-year wait since the band’s first release for the label, and represents a take-charge approach for the group, which has been something of a poster child for the sluggish development that plagues nonsuperstar acts at country radio.
The band accrued three top 10 singles on Country Airplay with previous album Feels Like Carolina, but each of those hits took nearly 12 months to reach the upper realms, illustrated by the yearlong intervals between release dates: “Carolina” shipped to radio through PlayMPE on Jan. 14, 2013; “Close Your Eyes” went out Jan. 13, 2014; and “Already Callin’ You Mine” was sent Jan. 12, 2015.
Slowing the process even more, “Roots” — the first single from 27861, released April 11, 2016 — didn’t perform as expected, stalling at No. 35 on Country Airplay. But that proved beneficial, because lead singer and chief songwriter Matt Thomas used the time wisely. After signing a new songwriting deal with Universal Music Publishing Group, he racked up a bundle of co-writing sessions with Craig Wiseman (“Live Like You Were Dying”), Jim Beavers (“Drink a Beer”), Josh Osborne (“Merry Go ’Round”), busbee (“H.O.L.Y.”) and Tom Douglas (“The House That Built Me”).
Thomas got Parmalee to demo the songs, and they invariably fit the band. So Parmalee started secretly co-producing new tracks on its own dime with other producers, primarily Cecil and Florida transplant Brock Berryhill. They waited to tell the label until they had a batch of songs that were, according to the bandmembers, a better representation of them as an act. They finally unveiled the material during a conference with executives, who heard a whole series of potential singles that were better than what they already had.
“They’re all shaking their head, like, ‘Wow,’ ” recalls drummer Scott Thomas. “We’re like, ‘Well, there’s one.’ Matt got two or three high fives.”
The hooky current single, “Sunday Morning” (No. 52 on Country Airplay), is the first public evidence of the new songs, but there are plenty of other possible hits, including the driving “Heartbreaker,” the playful “Mimosas,” the burning “Hot Damalama” and the hauntingly tender “A Guy Meets a Girl.”
In essence, Parmalee has found a new home base for its sound — appropriate for an album that takes its name from the ZIP code of the group’s former home: Parmele, N.C., a town of roughly 300 people. The band built its musical identity in a converted garage the members called Studio B, a reference not to its quality, but to the last name of its owner, Bryant.
It was there that the band took its first rudimentary steps toward recording (“Our first manager said, ‘Y’all send me the most crappy-sounding demos,’ ” recalls McSwain with a laugh), but also where the group developed the chemistry that has unified the members both musically and personally.
“We’ve been playing together since we were kids,” says bassist Barry Knox. “I know what Scott is going to do. I know that drum feel, and it’s easy for me to follow him. It’s the same thing with Matt and Josh in the guitar world.”
The band held together through years of rugged touring (“We were scuffling,” says Matt Thomas) and even through a highly publicized incident in which Scott Thomas received three bullet wounds while defending the Parmalee van from thieves after a show in 2010. He was unconscious for two weeks and unable to play for three months.
Seven years later, the same foursome remains tight and still holds to the vision of musical brotherhood that inspired them back in Parmele. The township’s 27861 ZIP code has been incorporated periodically into the group’s merchandise, and each of the four bandmembers has a tattoo of those digits.
In the meantime, 27861 was made with the same small-town attitude, and fortitude, embedded in the band’s genes. The five recording locations listed in the album credits — including Pegram Palace, a former Parmalee band house where the Thomas brothers still reside — are all cozy home studios, rather than prominent Music Row recording complexes. They were cheap options, but convenient, too.
“Brock’s studio was set up where his drums were mic’d all the time,” says Scott Thomas. “They were sitting there ready to go. When we wanted to track drums, I could go in, we were ready, the drums were ready, same sound, let’s do it. That saved a lot of time.”
And the DIY approach to making the album on the sly reflects an underdog quality, a do-whatever-it-takes mentality that is often the difference between success and failure. It allowed the band to make the music without conforming to outside expectations. To simply be itself.
“It’s what we call the Parmalee groove,” says Knox. “You only get it with us four. You can take the same song and get the best players in Nashville to go and cut it, but it’s not going to have that groove like we have.”
They can’t put a finger on exactly what that means. But as long as they turn in songs that have a legitimate shot at becoming hits, it’s doubtful they’ll ever need to fully explain how their music got where it is.
“We needed to play it,” says Scott Thomas, “the Parmalee way.”
They hope that method gives them more reasons to pop champagne bottles in the future.