CLEWISTON — Bringing the feel of “Carolina and looking like California,” country group Parmalee takes the stage at this year’s Clewiston Sugar Festival, which is hosted by U.S. Sugar to celebrate the end of their sugarcane harvest.
Hailing from the tiny town of Parmele, North Carolina, the five man group — consisting of brothers Matt and Scott Thomas, cousin Barry Knox and longtime friend Josh McSwain — has had an incredible sojourn to get where they are today. Their smash hit ‘Carolina,’ which pays tribute to the band’s home state, charted as a multi-week #1 hit on country radio and certified platinum (one million copies) in sales. Parmalee also has the distinction of being one of only three groups since 2001 to earn three Top 10 singles from their debut album, Feels Like Carolina.
“We grew up around a lot of water and swamp lands, doing shows in Carolina, and to get to hear our songs on the radio for the first time was one of the best experiences in life,” Matt, the frontman of the band, said.
The band comes from a rock and soul background with roots in bluegrass, traditional country, southern rock and blues. Matt and Scott grew up watching their father Jerry front a southern rock blues band, and the boys soon picked up their own instruments and began jamming with the band. Barry, seeing his cousins integrating their own styles into the songs they were playing and loving it, joined them on the drums.
The Thomases, then teenagers, snuck into a club to see their father perform and, in a moment that could be described as kismet, the band’s guitar player did not show. Because Matt knew all of the songs his father played, he was called onstage. Scott replaced the drummer, and Barry learned bass so he could secure his spot in the band. They became The Thomas Brothers Band.
From there, the newly minted band cut their teeth on the local club circuit, where their friend Josh also performed in a cover band. Josh, like the Thomases, had learned music from his father, and Matt invited him to play with them. In 2001, their first gig, held at a local watering hole called Corrigans near East Carolina University where they went to school, birthed Parmalee, and the band was off on their journey. They set up camp twice a week in a Parmele barn they named Studio B, after its original builder, Mark Bryant. The residents of Parmele — 262 in all — could hear them practicing in the barn so they had to stop at 11 p.m. to be considerate of the neighborhood. Because of the passion and vigor of their live shows, the band developed a devout regional following, and after a cross-country quest to find their musical direction, they parked their RV, which doubled as a studio, in a hotel parking lot near Music Row in Nashville. The parking lot served as home and office for the next month while they began writing new material and networking. After recording a demo of songs and playing them for a record label executive, the band was asked to give a showcase.
Just when it seemed like they were on the path to make their dreams into reality, their plans came to an abrupt halt.
In September 2010, after playing a show at a South Carolina nightclub, the band began packing up their gear in preparation for the drive to Nashville for their showcase. Two armed men forced their way onto the band’s RV and demanded money. During the ensuing conflict of shots fired, Scott, who held a concealed weapons permit, returned fire. As a result of the gunfire, one of the gunmen died and Scott was shot three times. One bullet struck Scott’s femoral artery, causing him to nearly bleed to death. The doctors gave him a 5 percent chance of survival, but in a miraculous series of events that saw him spending ten days in a coma and 25 more recovering, Scott survived. Five months later, even though he wasn’t fully recovered, Scott and the rest of Parmalee performed their promised label showcase, and from then on, it has only been upward and onward.
Country fans voted the band’s debut single “Musta Had A Good Time” to the #1 spot for four consecutive weeks on SiriusXM’s The Highway “Hot 30 LIVE” countdown, and the song became a Top 40 hit on mainstream country radio. They performed back-to-back runs on Brad Paisley’s 2015 Country Nation World Tour and Jake Owen’s 2014 Days of Gold Tour. They’ve been lauded in national publications such as People, The New York Times, USA Today and more.
“You get starstruck, yeah. You grow up listening to your idols and then to see them in person, it’s crazy,” Matt said. “But if you ever lose that, you lose out on the experience.”
Now they’re coming to the Sugar Festival. “I’ve heard of the Strawberry Festival, but never the Sugar,” Matt laughed. Nevertheless, he has plenty of enthusiasm for performing at the festival.
Okeechobee resident Angie Bridges had the opportunity to see the band perform live at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville and is excited to see them perform again. “They had a very upbeat country music sound with those songs that get stuck in your head.”
When asked what advice he would give to young musicians dreaming of making the big time, Matt said “Our main motto has been keep on playing. Don’t expect it to happen overnight.” Indeed, Parmalee is a great example that hard work and dedication pay off in the end.
The Sugar Festival, a daylong event, will be held Saturday, March 18, at Civic Park, on U.S. Hwy 27 in Clewiston. Admission to the event and musical performances is free, and Parmalee’s set begins at 2:00 p.m.