It’s hard for both Brian Parton and me to believe that the last time I interviewed him for a story was more than a quarter of a century ago. That was in 1996, when I was on the back side of my 23-year stint as an entertainment writer for the Tulsa World, and he was on the rise as the front man for Brian Parton and the Nashville Rebels, a raucous rockabilly trio that included the crackerjack Tulsa musicians Bill Padgett on drums and David White on bass. The group was a regional favorite for several years before disbanding in 2002. Afterwards, the members all went on to other work, including Parton, who found himself performing regularly as a solo act around Denver.
“I started playing so much in Colorado that by 2005, I was going up there once a month for a week or ten days, sitting down up there for five or six gigs, and then coming on back,” he recalls. “I did that for three years.”
Ultimately, it made sense for him to relocate, so he did. And like any pro, Parton adapted to his new situation. While it may be a stretch (not to mention a cliché) to say he reinvented himself, there’s no doubt he had to alter his stage persona a little bit to synch up better with the jobs he was getting.
“I did kind of tone down the sideburns and the crazy-hair stuff and the eyeliner,” he explains, “because the shows that actually paid money, good money, where I didn’t have to have an [outside] job, were all breweries and farmers’ markets and resorts, stuff like that, where you were playing to people who liked every kind of music. So even my writing – instinctively, I think, or maybe intrinsically – started taking on a more poppier, even rom-com-soundtrack kind of sound. And I started adding covers that were a little more palatable to people outside the rockabilly thing.”
As Parton fans might imagine, the songs he chose to cover were frequently adventurous. They included Courtney Barnett’s 2013 release, “Avant Gardener,” which he first heard one morning as he was waking up in his apartment in Manitou, Colo.
an“She was saying, ‘Halfway down High Street, Andy looks ambivalent. He’s probably wondering what I’m doing getting in an ambulance,’” Parton remembers. “And when I heard her rhyme ‘ambivalent’ with ‘ambulance,’ I sprang up from the bed and said, ‘I have to meet this person!’”
That happened a few months later, when the Australian performer came through Denver on her first American tour. He saw the show, they talked, and then, about four months later, Barnett was announced as one of the featured acts in Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Festival.
“I’d never heard of it, but it was a big thing in Austin, and she was going to be on it with the New Pornographers, Modest Mouse – everybody was going to be there,” he says. “And you know how it is: If you’re in the business, you can’t go to Austin for somebody else’s show without trying to work at least one day yourself while you’re down there. So I started looking around for a gig – and ended up on that festival.
“My daughter, Kelsey, was a big fan [of Barnett] too, and they took a photo together,” he adds. “It was pretty great.”
The Colorado scene was also pretty great for Parton, whose following around the Denver area spread to audiences in surrounding cities like Colorado Springs, Breckenridge, and Boulder. But, of course, nothing lasts forever, and a downturn was inevitable. Parton traces it back to the year 2018, when, he remembers, “four of my best rooms dropped music, another one closed, and another cut the price they were paying. That last one was in Breckenridge, and it wasn’t worth driving through Vail Pass in four inches of snow at three o’clock in the morning – as good as I was at it – to make a hundred bucks, when I was getting three before.”
He blames the situation, at least partially, on rising rental costs in the area.
“Nobody there can afford to go out anymore,” he says. “We’re talking about people with computer-science backgrounds and doctorates in physical therapy, all making 80 or 90 thousand or more a year. But, you know, when your rent’s $1,500 to $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment that leaks, and you’re still paying on a student loan, eventually the ski slopes and restaurants and nightclubs are going to suffer. I think that’s what was happening.”
While living in Colorado, Parton had returned to Tulsa for an occasional show, often at the behest of local club owner Donnie Rich. The most high-profile of those jobs was his performance at the much-ballyhooed benefit for the Outsiders House Museum, when several members of The Outsiders movie cast returned to Tulsa.
“I was the musical entertainment for that,” notes Parton, “and it was really fun. [Outsiders star] Darren Dalton loved my act. I just wish I knew how to schmooze better; we might be writing something together right now.”
Ultimately, Parton made the decision to move back to his longtime hometown. One of the first local jobs he got on his return was playing at Tulsa’s Blackbird on Pearl. At that appearance, in addition to doing his songs, Parton performed George Carlin’s “I’m A Modern Man,” a monologue that gained fame after the late comedian opened his 2005 HBO special with it.
“Yeah, I’m covering comedy now,” says Parton with a chuckle. “I’m even getting laughs. I’d done ‘I’m A Modern Man’ at the Starlight in Tulsa one night, back in 2018, and there were some stories and stuff that just extemporaneously happened, too. Sarah Wagner [the well-known Tulsa singer-songwriter] was there, and she said, ‘Man, you might want to start working more of that into your shows. It really goes over.’
“So, for the first time in my life, I’m trying to be funny [on stage],” he says with another laugh. “And it’s working out.”
Parton adds that he might have tried adding comedy to his act much earlier in his career if he hadn’t talked to another Tulsan, the nationally known standup comic Barry Friedman, about the business.
“It was like 20 years ago, and I asked him, ‘How long is a set in comedy?’” recalls Parton. “I thought they were all around six minutes, like on the Tonight Show.
“And he said, ‘Oh, about 45 minutes.’
“I went, ‘No kidding? You actually have to sit down at the writing table and try to be funny?’ That just seemed like something I shouldn’t ever think about doing. But then Sarah said I should.”
It was Wagner’s observation, he says, that helped lead him into adding more original comedic material to his performances. And when it comes to the balance between comedy and songs in his shows these days, Parton gets very specific.
“It’s like 73% music and 27% stories and funny stuff,” he says. “I don’t want anyone to think I’m a comic, because I really like [producer, comedian and Seinfeld co-creator] Larry David. I move and work in those kinds of circles, you know, and if I ever do something for him, I want him to like me – and he’s credited with saying, ‘I hate guitar comics.’”
Parton laughs again, before letting me know that all of this doesn’t mean he’s not still writing new songs. In fact, he says, there’s one he wrote specifically to celebrate his return to T-town.
“It’s called ‘It’s Great to be Back in Tulsa,’ and it is. It’s great to be back in Oklahoma, because I can say ‘y’all’ again!”