Larry and Cary Park make their mark
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This is the ninth part in a series about music in the foothills.
The prior episode of Hangtown’s Musical Roots described Larry Park’s upbringing in Placerville’s vibrant 1970s music scene. Larry and his brother Cary clawed their way up the Southern California country music ladder in the 1980s and ultimately hit the big time with Boy Howdy, a country-rock band Larry assembled in 1990.
Larry was coming off a stint with the Desert Rose Band, which charted several hits in the 1980s.
For Boy Howdy, he assembled a group of seasoned studio musicians with country music résumés, including his brother Cary. Importantly, “they could all rock,” said Larry.
He dubbed the band Boy Howdy evoking an all-purpose down-home southern euphemism which loosely translates to “oh boy.”
The name worked great in the south, especially Texas, but left a lot of northerners scratching their heads.
The name and the fiery guitar riffs which accompanied it raised eyebrows in the Nashville music establishment, but the snappy, radio-friendly, new-country sound quickly won over most critics.
Their handlers at Curb Records had concerns about the band’s name and forced them to adopt the more pedestrian New Frontier in the early going.
Their self-produced single “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” resonated with patriotic country music fans and got airplay at the end of the first Gulf War, earning New Frontier an invitation to “Nashville Now,” a nightly country TV music/talk show that was a rite of passage for young country bands.
They appeared with “King of the Road” Roger Miller, a notorious prankster. Before the show, Larry inadvertently bumped into a girl at the drinking fountain in the cramped backstage hallway.
“I split her lip wide open,” he recalled.
She disappeared down the hall seeking first aid. He returned to the dressing room, where the Howdys were huddled in the nervous moments before the band’s live TV premier.
A couple minutes later an agitated Miller burst into the dressing room and demanded, “Who busted my little girl in the chops?”
Miller interrupted Larry’s contrite confession, launching into an expletive-laced tirade, terrifying the already anxious Howdys, who were unaware of Miller’s penchant for japery.
When he could no longer maintain the ruse, Miller broke out in a wide grin and told the boys to relax, draining the tension from the room.
On the set, host Ralph Emory heard about the band’s forbidden moniker and made an unabashed plea to reclaim their lost Howdy. When Emory spoke, everyone listened.
“It (the band’s name) was immediately changed back,” said Cary. “Ralph was the Johnny Carson of Nashville.”
On the road
They developed their material and their sound in local clubs, with summer forays on the “corndog circuit,” a grinding regimen of county fairs and out-of-town club dates.
That was about to change.
Boy Howdy’s first album, “Welcome to Howdywood,” was released in 1992 and expanded the group’s audience. Three months later Boy Howdy leased its first tour bus. Nashville TV station TNN covered the departure.
“It happened really fast,” said Cary. “After being in a van and worn out for a couple of years, we moved to a tour bus with a crew and staff.”
In 1993 and 1994, “We were on the road for six months at a time,” said Larry. “When you have a hit record everyone wants you.”
Faith Hill opened for Boy Howdy at one point. They graced the cover of USA Today, PollStar and numerous magazines, with multiple appearances on Nashville Now.
“It was an amazing time,” said Cary, “playing arenas and fairs with the biggest acts.”
Front man Jeffrey Steele’s lead vocals and Park brothers’ guitar rifs came to define their sound.
Accounts of Boy Howdy’s history often read like a Jeffrey Steele project. Not so, said Larry, who insists that the songs, most of which were ultimately credited to Steele, were largely collaborative efforts.
“Larry hired all of us … It was his band,” said Cary, who had a ringside seat. “He did the bookings that paid the bills … and dealt with the slime-ball booking agents and club owners.”
Success makes for happy
Those same agents and owners were far more pleasant a few years later when the band was filling stadiums, he added.
Boy Howdy succeeded despite catastrophic misfortune during its brief, five-year run. Shortly after its first album was released, drummer Hugh Wright was struck on a Dallas freeway while helping an accident victim. He survived, barely, but couldn’t perform for a year.
When Wright healed enough to get back to the studio, distribution changes at the record label pushed the release of the second album into 1994, costing the band precious popular momentum.
They earned an invitation to the Grand Ole Opry that year. Father Ray Park, recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, flew to Nashville for the show. Larry’s memories of the day include his father enjoying royal treatment backstage and Porter Wagoner asking for the band’s autographs, “for his daughter,” said Larry.
It would be Ray’s last trip to the Opry. He often told the story of his first, a 1949 whirlwind buddy-trip launched from Camp Pendleton. An upstart named Hank Williams was called back for six encores, an Opry debut that’s never been equaled.
Boy Howdy’s workload took a toll.
“It’s not like we were out there partying it up,” said Larry. “There was no booze on the bus. We rode bikes and had a fancy juicer.”
But no amount of fresh juice could assuage the boredom and rigors of touring.
“We lost our edge,” said Larry.
Steele was tired of being tied to the band, added Cary.
“He wanted to break away and go solo,” Cary said.
Performances that earned them $30,000 the year before became $12,000 nights.
“We had a lot of overhead … a bus and people working for us,” said Larry.
When the nightly earnings dropped to $7,500, “We pulled the plug,” said Larry.
Despite having a number two country single and the No. 1 video in 1994, it was all over by late 1995.
Front man Steele went on to pen dozens of hits for top country artists, including No. 1s for Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts. He was recently inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
Cary stayed in Los Angeles and became a successful songwriter, producer, studio musician and performer. His album, “Lone” is available on iTunes.
Larry reunited with his wife Tracy in 1995 and joined her in Montana. He continued to fill in with touring bands, including a stint with Bluegrass Etc, but eventually tired of the travel and applied for a job with the local Federal Express operation.
As fate would have it, the interviewer was a Boy Howdy fan.
The glint of recognition kindled half way through the interview.
“His eyes got real wide,” said Larry, who recalls the supervisor blurting, “What happened to the band?’”
He got the job.
Larry taught guitar at the local music store, and eventually parlayed that into a full-time business, with periodic timeouts for projects with Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen and Cary.
Seventeen Montana winters and two frightening falls on the ice prompted Larry and Tracy Park’s return to Placerville.
Larry currently plays in the high-energy jazz-rock band Aftershock, and recently introduced his new band, the Random Strangers, which includes Suzi Todd, Rick Lawton, Ripley Howe and Chris Martinez. He’s also played with Hickory Wind, the Tri Tones and the Parrotheads.
Larry and members of the Random Strangers host an “open mic” on Wednesday night at Powell’s Steamer Co. and Pub in downtown Placerville. Everyone is welcome.
Cary is producing an album of songs written and performed by Placerville native son Val Pease, co-produced by Larry with an all-star cast of backing musicians.