Hunter Loken Parcel is a proud, unapologetic, singer-songwriter from the great state of North Dakota. The phrase, “salt of the earth,” comes to mind when thinking of a way to describe Parcel. As he recounted vignettes from his life, the scope of his storytelling detailed not only him as a person, but also the land and the people from which he emerged. His lyrical rhetoric paints vivid images of the snowy prairies of home, and the profound passion that has carried him away to Nashville, Tennessee. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Kerouac and Ginsberg, Parcel has molded his own identity as a storyteller that continues to find inspiration in the landscapes that reared him. Hunter Parcel mentioned that he wants to create music that connects to people on a human level. Through our conversation, Parcel displayed his knack for connecting through the stories of his simple, extraordinary life.
Americana Highways: For starters, tell me about where you grew up in North Dakota. Were you exposed to country music growing up there?
Hunter Loken Parcel: I grew up in a small farm town, about 40 minutes south of the Canadian border with around 2,500 people, called Rugby, North Dakota. Rugby is your stereotypical small town. We got a couple of churches, a courthouse, a couple of bars, and a little movie theater. The type of town you’d see in a show from the ‘80s where kids drive around drinking, smoking pot, and going to parties in a field on the weekends. Everyone goes to the football and basketball games, the churches have fundraiser potlucks, and there is a county fair and a parade for the Fourth of July every year.
My family is from the area originally and we still have our farm down in Brinsmade, southeast of where my hometown is. The town that’s on my belt buckle I wear every day is Brinsmade and was made for the town’s centennial. There isn’t much left there, but I take a lot of pride in Brinsmade and pride in being from Rugby.
As for my exposure to country music, yes and no. I was exposed to a lot of music growing up. From a lot of classic rock and blues from my parents, old traditional country and traditional northern music (polka, waltzes, foxtrots) from my grandpa; a lot of 2000s pop, rap, and rock from my sister; and, I had a music teacher who really got me deep into Bob Dylan. There was a period of a few years where damn near all I listened to was Bob Dylan. I became obsessed with his music and writing.
Country music has just always been around. It would come and go in my life. I’ve never tried to put myself into one genre of music. Around the time I was leaving Minneapolis for the second time in 2016, the traditional country rebirth was growing rapidly. I’d already been listening to Sturgill Simpson for a good while, but artists like Margo Price, Colter Wall, Charley Crockett, Tyler Childers, etc. started popping up and pushing the movement. I’d say this really brought me back to country music.
All the sudden you didn’t have to be a pop singer wearing skinny jeans, singing about a truck, and cheap beer with some fake accent and a banjo to be a country artist. Also, people started really liking the neo-traditional stuff and it showed that there was an audience for it. I started diving deep back into it from the modern musicians all the way back to the ‘70s outlaws to the ‘50s Opry stars.
AH: In what ways has the place you grew up impacted you as an artist?
HP: Growing up in North Dakota is very different from anywhere else I’ve been or seen. The closest comparison I can think of for small towns in North Dakota are small towns in Texas. The peoples’ values and how they act are very similar – the only difference is North Dakota is freezing cold damn near the whole year. There is something about the cold and the prairie that really gets into your bones. The wind and the snow really cut deep into your being and soul.
Something about the constant white, constant wind, and the type of cold where if you’ve never heard of it you’d think the local weather station made a typo on their teleprompter. It really affects people. The seasonal depression from lack of sun always got me and gets a lot of people. It really humbles people and makes people tough and resilient. The prairie goes on forever, only broken up by the occasional shelter belt planted generations ago. The sunrise and sunset are like nowhere else. The summer gets pretty hot and humid, and the mosquitos are the biggest I’ve ever seen. There’s a joke that the North Dakota state bird is the mosquito.
There’s a deep history and culture of the Indian tribes like the Sioux and Chippewa that originally settled the area. Then later Germans and Norwegians came and settled in the early 1800s to farm. My great-great grandfather and his brothers came over from Norway, built a sod house on the side of a hill not far from where my farm is, and helped build the railroad running through that part of the state. Most of the Germans are Catholics and most of the Norwegians are Lutheran. There is a lot of pride in peoples’ backgrounds and you see it from the food and music to how we live.
In general, people take a lot of pride in working hard and being neighborly. There are problems within the community, as there is anywhere. Though overall, it’s a very proud, culturally rich, humble, and safe place to grow up and live. People are good and honest to one another up there. You can trust what folks tell you. You can’t cheat or lie to people because those are the people you interact with in every aspect of your day to day life. I don’t know if I’ll ever live there again. Just not as much opportunity for me in music up there. But, I do miss it. I miss it often. Regardless of where I end up, I’ll always be a North Dakotan.
All of these aspects have shaped me and what I have to say as an artist. I strive to tell the stories of people in the area I grew up in. An area that is heavily overlooked by the rest of the country. I’ve always wanted to be that writer who wrote about the working man; the single mom with two kids, working and getting by to give them what they need; the regular everyday interactions of the people. I want people to hear my songs and be able to relate, because it’s also the life they live. I find songs about everyday normal people, just living their life, to be some of my favorites and the most impressive songs written.
AH: How old were you when you first started playing music?
HP: I was pretty young when I first started learning to play the guitar. I was probably in the fifth grade when my friend Eric showed me the song, “Sweet Child O Mine,” and I just became obsessed with music. I wanted that life and to be that. I remember I went to my grandparents back in the dial up internet days and stayed up all night just diving down the rabbit hole of ‘80s rock. My tastes have changed, but my dreams have not. Guns N Roses’ Appetite for Destruction is still one of the greatest albums. I don’t care what anyone says. I did learn the piano and took lessons even younger than that, but didn’t really have any real desire to be a musician until probably around middle school. When I was really little, I remember I wanted to be a pilot. Little did I know I’d grow up to hate flying.
My first memory of music was in this little house in Rugby that my mom rented from my grandparents. She had this little karaoke machine that had the “Stgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” as a track you could sing. I vividly remember sitting in the living room on a warm sunny spring day and holding the mic singing nonsense words to the music playing. I just wanted to give my couch and chairs the best damn show they’d ever had. I remember my mom always sang gospel tunes and lullabies to me when I was little.
I also remember my grandpa and grandma playing classic country and bluegrass music, as well as polkas and waltzes. My grandpa played the accordion and my grandma would sing and yodel. My grandpa played accordion in a band for years and my grandma was known for her singing as well as my mom and sister. They all have exceptional voices and really influenced me to lean towards being a singer. Also, I already could sing half way decent, but couldn’t play guitar to save my soul.
I didn’t really start wanting to be a writer until high school when a teacher who became a mentor to me started exposing me to different writers. His wife and him still are huge influences on me and I make sure I see them every time I make it back home. He exposed me to a lot of the beat poets like Ginsberg and Kerouac and then Hunter S. Thompson’s work. For a few years, I used the name Jack Parcel, paying homage to Jack Kerouac. My 10th grade English teacher also exposed me to a lot of great writers and lyricists. Around the time I had a music teacher give me a few Bob Dylan albums. From that point on, truly, I became obsessed with the art of writing and telling a story in a four-minute period.
AH: When did you make the decision to move to Nashville?
HP: I was 21, I believe. I had got out of jail in Arizona and left to go back to Minneapolis. I lived there for two years and had a band called Minihaha. We did pretty good, but it eventually fell apart. There are probably still videos of us on Facebook somewhere. I had moved back to Arizona and worked at a sawmill and then about four months later decided to move to Nashville.
I actually never wanted to be a part of what Nashville was. Most of my idols have little or nothing at all to do with Nashville. That or they left Nashville early in their careers. But, as a lot of good stories go, there was a girl whom I’d dated on and off. I decided I was going to move down there to be with her, and I was going to actually give this music dream another try. My best friend had moved there as well, and told me how different Nashville was that it wasn’t just Broadway cover bands and pop country music. I’d gone down and visited before moving and it was completely different from what I imagined. There was still this thing in the East Nashville music scene that was truly special.
I moved down there and the girl dumped me. I lived in my car for a week until I found a room to rent. I got a job washing dishes at the Ryman Auditorium, and just started hustling and doing everything I could to make it. Six years later, here we are having this conversation, which I want to add that I am very honored to get do this with you.
AH: Which artists inspire you the most?
HP: This is a hard question for me. I take influence from so many genres. From country, folk, and blues to punk, rock, and funk, and everything in between. I used to tell people, it’s like if Bob Dylan and Waylon Jennings made a baby while Otis Redding sat in the corner and watched. Write like Dylan and live like Jennings.
If I had to sum it up to a few, it would probably be Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, and John Prine. Whenever I catch myself struggling to write, I always find myself getting back to the basics with those three artists. They all, for me, are the epitome of being a great writer and performer. They are able to tell a story of their life or the world around them in a four-minute segment, and do it in a way that holds the listener’s attention. You believe what they’re telling you. That’s the goal, plain and simple.
Soul and funk are big for me with Etta James, Otis Redding, Sly Stone, Parliament, and Sam Cooke being main influences on me. Rock and blues also heavily influenced my approach to music. There are rappers I take great influence from, in my writing, as well. Every time I’ve thrown myself into “I’m just a country artist,” or “I’m just a folk singer,” I just don’t enjoy it as much. At that point, you’re just trying to fit a mold and trying to play a character, and not just being yourself.
My biggest dream is to be known as a great writer. I want to make a normal living, have a normal house, a regular car, and family and do it all from just playing music. I want to be remembered as a great writer from regular people and from other musicians.
AH: Tell me about your original song, “Davidson County.” What was the inspiration behind writing that?
HP: Jail is the inspiration for that song. I was hanging out at this joint listening to a friend’s band, and really decided to tie one on. It was one of those spots you’re not sure are even a business, and was like someone buying beer from Kroger to resell out of their house. By the time I chose to leave, I was 10 sheets to the wind.
I decided it was a good decision to drive myself home a case deep, and got popped by the cops. Found myself being shoved into the back of a patrol car on Dickerson Pike around two in the morning, and being transported down to the Davidson County Downtown Detention Center. I was processed and booked, and sat in jail for a few days until I was able to get bailed out. After my conviction, I got sent down to Davidson County Male Correctional Center down south on Harding Place. We called it the Harding Hilton.
Of all the bad that came from that night and the stupid decision I made, there was a sort of silver lining. I drank heavily for years, and it was the final kick in the head that made me get sober. I’ve been sober ever since, and have been working my ass off to rebuild my reputation. If I hadn’t there is no doubt in my mind that I’d have either ended up in prison for hitting someone while driving drunk or dying of liver failure at 45. I wasn’t working hard at music, couldn’t perform well, I was being a shitty person to those around me, and got to the point where all I cared about was drinking. I’m thankful to God every day for helping me get sober and stay sober. Hands down the best decision I’ve made in my life. If I don’t succeed, or do anything else in my life, I will at least have that to be proud of.
But, in a short and sweet answer, the song is about that night and events related to that conviction and jail sentence. It gets me a lot of compliments, and I wonder if people understand what I am saying. I mumble a lot when I sing, so I’m not sure if folks understand each line or not, and maybe that’s for the best.
AH: Back in September you made your debut appearance at Honky Tonk Tuesday at The American Legion Post 82 in Nashville. Honky Tonk Tuesday and The Legion have been featured in Rolling Stone and has hosted an array of artists including Emmylou Harris, Jack White, and Kacey Musgraves among others. What stands out to you about the night that you debuted there? What are some of your favorite venues that you have played?
HP: That was a huge moment for me. Not only to get to open Honky Tonk Tuesday, but to get to do it during AmericanaFest week. I’m extremely thankful to Brendon Malone and The Cowpokes for putting me on the bill. Those guys worked for years to be the caliber of house band they are, and for years to build Honky Tonk Tuesday to what it is today. I remember when it was maybe 30 musicians a night showing up, and now you are sometimes shoulder to shoulder in that dance hall. I’ve had some wild times at Honky Tonk Tuesday, and other than Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge, it is where I got my foot in the door of the Nashville scene.
I have been going to Honky Tonk Tuesday for many years, pretty much every single Tuesday. I’ve had some wild times there from meeting and seeing some of the biggest names in the industry to some of the best memories I have with other local musicians. Especially years ago, it was pretty much a weekly hang for musicians and industry folk. Because of the friendships and connections I have made there I have been asked to play local clubs and that is now how I have my band. It has changed a lot, as most of Nashville has. I’m not always thrilled about it, but that’s the way of the world. Things move on whether you’re coming with or not. I do hope it will be able to make it through the drastic change Nashville is currently experiencing.
There’s a lot of great spots around Nashville. My favorite spot of all time to play and to hang is Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge. Amy Dee Daniels, the owner, is a true gem of Nashville. She started and built one of the best bars and venues out there. I cut my teeth at the writer round they used to have each Wednesday. It was the first spot I got to play in Nashville. I’d say Dee’s can go toe to toe with any bar and venue out there. The sound guy, Chris Mitchell, always makes the band and room sound amazing, which is rare to have someone running sound be that attentive and knowledgeable. It still represents to me, the Nashville I moved to. None of the tourist bachelorette bullshit. Just super solid drinks, solid food, and great local music. I’m glad to call Amy and her staff my friends.
A few other spots I look highly upon are the American Legion Post 82, The Underdog, The Bowery Vault, and The Cobra. There are a few more great spots around town that I have not played yet, but I hope to in the future. Acme Feed and Seed, Star Rover Sound, Robert’s Western World, and Jane’s Hideaway are a few that come to mind. The desire for original music has gone down a lot in Nashville, but these spots are a place a songwriter and their band can still go and show the world what they can do.
Check out Hunter Parcel at: https://www.facebook.com/HunterLokenParcel.
Hunter Parcel featured image by Joseph Wyman.