Restoration blues: A revived Buddy Parker shouts a message of faith and inspiration in his new songs

Sam McDonald
Buddy Parker performs with his band at the Smithfield Little Theater, August 23, 2008 in Smithfield, Virginia. (Rob Ostermaier/Newport News Daily Press/MCT)
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) (MCT)

SMITHFIELD, Va. - Buddy Parker had been on stage blasting loud, funky, Southern-fried blues for the better part of an hour when he paused for a moment of quiet confession.

He strummed slow, deliberate chords on his black Stratocaster, then stepped solemnly to the microphone.

"I've done some drinkin'

"I've even done some drugs

"I've had some bad times

"Done some things I'm not proud of

"But I've been forgiven

"And Lord, it just ain't as bad as it was

"It's OK now

"I'm under the influence of love."

Having pulled himself through a period of debilitating mental illness, Parker's now reassembling parts of his life and his career in music.

It's a familiar road for Parker, who has endured lots of ups and downs since the 1980s and 1990s when he was one of Hampton Roads' most popular blues artists.

But something is different this time. That song - a new tune performed during his concert last month at Smithfield Little Theatre - represents a change for the 59-year-old musician.

While Parker hasn't abandoned down-and-dirty blues, he's now writing and singing songs such as "Under the Influence of Love," tunes that reflect his Christian faith.

"I don't want to get up there and be the blues preacher," he said in an interview. "That's not my job. I just want to tell my story, say these are some things I went through.

"I hope my blues entertains people, I hope people dance and they clap. I hope the new music uplifts them, gives them hope."

Pastor Jay Lawson, formerly of Hilton Baptist Church in Newport News, Va., has been Parker's friend for many years.

Lawson said he encouraged Parker to be brave.

"When we talked about it, my counsel to him was, 'Buddy, you've got to be Buddy.' I think he's done that. His new songs are absolutely brutally honest."

Parker knows he's lucky to be singing at all.

Diagnosed long ago with anxiety and depression, he spent the better part of the last 10 years in and out of Veterans Administration hospitals.

"There was quite a period of time where I was suicidal," said Parker, who now lives in his hometown of Culpeper, Va. "There were attempts. Nobody wants to die. You just feel like you don't want to live anymore. People go, 'You should just snap out of it.' It's not that easy. Some people can do that. Other people, like me, end up drinking and self-medicating."

During one of his deep depressions, Parker said he tried to kill himself by leaping off the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

"I thought I would just sink to the bottom, but that's brackish water, so I floated," Parker said. He said he was picked up and rescued by fishermen.

Pressure leading up to the release of his 2001 album "Qualified" sent him into a tailspin, he said. But after a long, difficult period, Parker reached a turning point. It came when he landed at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond.

"That was where a doctor said, 'This has got to stop.' You can't push yourself so that you lose your life and your soul, that's not a cool deal," Parker said. "At some point, the hammer is going to fall."

Even before his 2001 mental collapse, Parker had gone back to church. And that's where he found the strength to power his most recent recovery - both mentally and musically. His faith changed his perspective on his music. Instead of playing for personal glory, he says he's now trying to inspire and encourage those facing difficult times.

He introduced his new tunes by playing solo acoustic versions at Reformation Lutheran Church in Culpeper, where he was encouraged by Pastor Brad Hales.

"When Buddy performs here, people from all across the community come - they're drawn to it," Hales said. "They appreciate the story Buddy is telling. There's always a wonderful reaction to his music."

At his concert in Smithfield last month, he played the new songs with the full band at the end of his concert. He introduced the new material with a bit of testimony.

"If there's anybody out here in this crowd that's struggling, or if you know someone who is struggling, tell them to hold on and keep the faith," he told the audience. "If they believe, they will be restored."

A big question, Parker agrees, is whether blues audiences will go along with his new direction.

In Smithfield, at least, they ate it up. The Aug. 23 show was only Parker's second local performance in nearly eight years. Many of his long-time friends and fans turned out to cheer him on.

"It was inspirational," Jimmie Silvia, a local blues player and friend, said after the show. "Absolutely beautiful. There was a time when I didn't think he was coming back from the edge. I'm glad that through faith and medication, he's back in the real world."

Deb Malenda of Virginia Beach, Va., another fixture on the local blues scene, described Parker's set as powerful.

"I think a couple of people were very surprised," she said. "His older music sounds incredible, like he didn't skip those years. The new music has a lot of soul in it. It may not be as hard-edged, but there's a beautiful story there.

"This music is going to touch a lot of people."

The ultimate question, though, is whether Parker's mental health will survive the stresses and strains of another show business adventure.

Parker said he's not worried. For one thing, he's learned to share responsibility with his long-time band mates - bassist Jeff Covington and drummer Randy Short.

Also, his priorities have changed. "My job now, in addition to being the blues guy, my deal is to get up every day and make a conscious decision to help other people."

In the end, Parker knows what's at risk better than anyone.

"When you break a bone, it eventually heals," he said, backstage in Smithfield. "When you break a mind, can a mind come back? I believe God made a perfect thing. It can fix itself - if you let it."

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