Larry Park comes home
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This is the eighth part in a series about music in the Foothills.
Larry Park is back in town. He was just 4 years old when his father, west-coast bluegrass pioneer Ray Park, put a guitar in his hands. The boy was strumming chord changes to popular country songs the following year.
Fast forward 10 years to 1969, when the family arrived in Placerville. Larry accompanied Ray on guitar at fiddle contests and experienced the thunderous applause his father received.
A couple of years later Ray suggested that Larry might also enjoy competing on fiddle.
Larry didn’t play fiddle but that was a mere formality in the Park home. Ray provided a crash course and Larry won the junior division of the California Old Time Fiddler’s Contest in Coloma four weeks later. He won it again the following year, 1973, when Ray won the state championship.
Larry and his younger brother Cary went on to create a string of country hits in the early 1990s. Their band was named the best “non-touring” country act by the Country Music Academy and landed the Park brothers on Guitar World Magazine’s list of the 50 fastest guitar players.
The seeds of that success lie in the harmonic genetics of Placerville’s musical Park and Laam families, a chromosomal stew that was nurtured first by Ray’s attentions and later by a vibrant 1970s live-music scene in Placerville, a scene that Larry is now helping revive.
Larry attended Edwin Markham School and El Dorado High School, then played music around town for several years before leaving to seek brighter lights in 1980.
He found them. In 2011 he returned to Placerville.
His childhood chum, “pride of the divide” Keith Little, called Larry “the hottest guitar player on the planet” during a summer performance at Boeger Winery. Little remained dedicated to the memory of his mentor, Ray Park, who died in 2002.
Ray Park was one half of “Vern and Ray,” the first bluegrass band in northern California. Both of Ray’s parents played fiddle and banjo. Both also sang.
Marlene Park hails from the Laam family, which produced Babe Laam and his band in the late 1950s and before that, the multi-generational Happy Hayseeds, a Stockton-based country string band dating back into the turn of the last century.
All of that set the stage for Larry and Cary to play a part in the Southern California country-rock movement of the 1980s and 1990s.
Back in El Dorado County
Larry stopped by the Mountain Democrat in 2012, shortly after his return. During the interview, Little popped in for a surprise visit.
The two exchanged reunion hugs. Little held his old friend at arm’s length, looked him up and down, then proclaimed “You were my first guitar player … and you were born a great one.”
They’d crossed paths infrequently since the 1970s, when they spent countless evenings around the kitchen table watching Vern and Ray work out their arrangements, often accompanied by Dell Williams, Vern’s son and Cary Park.
The 2012 conversation gravitated to Ray Park, the man responsible for both their careers.
“He was one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever played with,” said a reflective Little, who made a successful musical career out of staying true to his mentors’ traditions. “He was like a second father to me.”
The boys often performed at Vern and Ray shows and formed a short-lived band called Rosebud Blue. Larry recalled an embarrassing performance salvaged by his father at a nearly forgotten Grizzly Flat roadhouse called “The Lodge.”
Rosebud Blue consisted of a rotating cast of friends and family, including Del Williams and Larry’s uncle Steve Laam, neither of which was on board when they were booked to play four sets in Grizzly Flat as part of a New Year’s Eve dinner, dancing and drinking package.
The owner made it very clear that he wanted dance music.
“We assured him we were a professional bluegrass band and could play all the dance music he wanted,” said Little.
When the first set failed to get the crowd out of their seats, the owner told them to clear out and refused to pay the boys. Larry did what every parent wants their children to do when they’re in trouble. He called home.
Ray Park picked up the phone on two rings and walked into the Lodge in what seemed like minutes later, toting a fiddle and guitar.
“How’d he get there so fast,” wondered Little.
“He must have suspected something like that might happen,” said Larry.
Ray confronted the club owner.
“He got right in the guy’s face,” said Little. “I couldn’t hear, but he did the talking and the guy did the listening.”
Rosebud Blue played three more sets that night with Ray on the stage and a whole lotta’ shakin’ on the dance floor.
A full 35 years later, Little recounted rousing versions of Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” Hank Thompson’s “Honkeytonk Angels” and “The Mexican Schottische.”
“By midnight the place was crazy,” added Larry. The club owner gushed his thanks.
“In my whole put-togethers, I’ve never seen anything like what he did that night,” said Little, who went on to some pretty good put-togethers in Nashville, playing with the likes of Dolly Parton and Ricky Skaggs.
As they packed to leave, Larry recalled his father pulling him aside and whispering, “Don’t you ever do that to me again.”
“I never did,” said Larry.
Inspiration and influence
Ray Park and Vern Williams inspired west coast traditionalists, none more than Little and Del Williams. They also influenced a generation of country rockers like Larry and Cary Park, who used those same traditions as a springboard to the more cosmopolitan country music of the 1980s and beyond, delivering the rock-tinged rifs that landed them in Guitar World Magazine.
Asked to list the local bands he played in, Larry shook his head, the weight of so much experience packed into so few years so long ago too great for the third hour of an already memory-intensive interview.
Photographic evidence suggests the following:
The Slab Creek Boys consisted of Larry Park, Dan Partain, Jim Klotz and Steve Townsend. They played regularly at the Vineyard House and also hosted a memorable benefit concert with Ray Park at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds that drew more than 2,000 people.
The Country Edition included Larry Park, John Bosch, Ron Gunning and Blake Finstead. They were regulars at the Shingle Springs Community Center and the Lions Club, and also played select venues in Sacramento and Auburn.
Larry’s longest running local band was The Lenzmen, which played for about three years in the late 1970s. Band members included John McDonald, Mark Pantel, Dennis Parrish, Val Pease and Larry Park.
They enjoyed a loyal following at Wagon Train Dances, the Shingle Springs Community Center and local bars. One former owner of the Blue Bell on Main Street recalls the Lenzmen as his biggest draw.
Larry recalled a bluegrass show at the Ghost Mountain Ranch in Pollock Pines where John McDonald (Bone McDonald’s father) played bluegrass saxophone and shocked the bluegrass traditionalists in the audience.
Some of the Lenzmen’s best shows were street parties in the old parking lot, north of Main Street, where the parking garage now stands, he said.
“I was making $50 a night, $100 on a weekend,” said Park. “I thought I had it made.”
Life intervened, however. An early marriage became an early divorce. Tracy Park left for Montana to become a nurse, leaving Larry making sandwiches at the Placer Station deli, realizing he didn’t have it quite so made after all.
Larry had no way of knowing that he and Tracy would reconnect 14 years later. In 1980, he only knew it was time for a change, he said. Despite being short on money and confidence, he said farewell to his family and pointed his ‘69 Buick LeSabre south.
His timing was ideal. He arrived in Southern California as a talented multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, steeped in bluegrass and country music with recent experience blending both with folk and rock music, which he also loved.
Best of all, trend-conscious Southern California was under the influence of “Urban Cowboy.”
“Hat bars” suddenly popped up in strip malls. Old roadhouses updated their format to resemble the film’s sanitized honky-tonk “Gilley’s.”
One of the hottest country acts in Orange County was Tom Keil’s Cowboy Maynard Band, which enjoyed standing weekly gigs at “The Cowboy” in Anaheim, “The Crazy Horse Saloon” in Irvine and the Palomino in North Hollywood, a celebrity hangout.
Park auditioned with Keil for a job playing bass in the band. He was competent on the instrument and knew Keil’s set list, but realized that his competition for the job had far more experience.
Needing an income, Larry took the mechanized bull by the horns.
“I saw a Telie (Fender Telecaster guitar) sitting there … and mentioned that I also played guitar,” he said.
A scorching rendition of “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” followed. Larry Park became Cowboy Maynard’s lead guitar player shortly thereafter and worked constantly for the following year.
The exposure landed him a job touring with aspiring country star Zella Lear on the casino circuit for the next four years.
“It was a lot of travel, a lot of casinos but I loved it,” he said. “I learned a lot.”
He brought the band to the Smith Flat House on at least one occasion he said. “We brought the house down.”
A 1983 Mountain Democrat interview found an animated Park, his brother Cary and a contingent of Hangtown friends partying backstage at the Sahara Tahoe Casino, where the band had just opened for Glen Campbell.
The brothers Park had jammed with Campbell until the wee hours the night before, which didn’t dampen their enthusiasm the following night.
Cary spent the week playing rhythm guitar with the band.
Ten years, a half-dozen bands and millions of freeway miles later, Larry and Cary would find themselves living on a bus, riding the popularity of the number two and four slots on the Billboard country charts.
The all-night parties would be a thing of the past but the relentless touring would remain.
On the road
The road to that success began in Los Angeles during the musically fertile mid-1980s, when bands cross-pollinated between related genres and often mutated into new forms. The Desert Rose Band was one example.
Founded by hippie-outlaw-country music pioneer Chris Hillman, who’d played with the Byrds; John Jorgenson, the three-time Country Music Guitarist of the Year; and Herb Pedersen, the Vern and Ray collaborator, the Desert Rose Band charted hit after hit in the late 1980s.
Late in the band’s life, Larry took over for Jorgenson, touring with the band and appearing on its final album.
From that precipice, Larry set his sights on higher ground, a band of his own that might achieve similar success. That vision became a boundary-pushing country rock outfit with the big, crisp sound popularized by Garth Brooks, The Judds and Brooks and Dunn in the late 1980s.
Next in the Hangtown’s Musical Roots series: Larry and Cary hit the big time with Boy Howdy.