We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
On Bill Parsons’ second and newest CD, Special Delivery, the opening cut, “The Road Less Traveled,” really is about New Age things like self-awareness and enlightenment. It isn’t meant to describe the unlikely path that took him from Cambridge to coffeehouses, or from fighting the good fight in political Washington to strumming open chords for a living.
In fact, he’s not even the first Harvard guy named Parsons to ditch convention and take the singer-songwriter route.
“Gram Parsons went to Harvard? Well, I guess I should know that, but I didn’t,” chuckles the latter-day Parsons, who bears no relation to Gram other than alma mater and career.
Parsons, who grew up in New York, came to town after college fully intending to follow a career track that somebody with an Ivy League politics degree would follow: He hooked up with Ralph Nader. Although he never lost faith in the mission of consumer advocacy, he decided he no longer wanted to be a missionary after a 1992 trip to the Kerrville Folk Festival in south Texas—and all the campfire sing-alongs that went with it.
When he got back to D.C., he chucked the day job, picked up his guitar, and dove into learning about the craft of songwriting the way he had once absorbed Jeffersonian wisdom. The commercial and critical response to Parsons’ first CD, 1995’s Wammie-nominated Unskilled Labor, was more than enough to keep him going, and he’s convinced Special Delivery will keep the internal fires burning. The only obvious memorabilia from Parsons’ academic and professional past are the button-down Oxford shirts he favors as stage-wear and his ability to summon the words of our country’s forefathers at any applicable moment. Like when he’s asked to justify his choice of vocation.
“What I do now isn’t as strange as it would have been a generation ago,” Parsons says. “There’s a quote attributed to Jefferson along the lines of ‘We must be generals and soldiers so our sons can be lawyers and doctors so their sons can be musicians and poets.’ Well, my father is a lawyer, and with societal affluence, career choices like this are more likely. As we morph into the Information Age, a much bigger piece of the economy is organized around the arts and entertainment. And, just as there was with politics, there is a strong intellectual component here for me. I love lyrics, and I work hard on lyrics. I’m always looking to come up with an ‘A-ha!’ moment, and I think my schooling on some level gave me that interest.”—Dave McKenna