Parmalee may be new to the country charts with “Carolina,” but they are by no means new to the music business. They’re literally a family band consisting of brothers Matt and Scott Thomas (lead vocals and drums, respectively), cousin Barry Knox on bass and “adopted” brother Josh McSwain on the guitar.
Formed in 2001, the band held their first rehearsals in a tiny barn in Parmale, N.C. (pop. 264). The locale inspired their name — with an extra “e” to make the pronunciation less confusing.
Since hitting the road, they’ve burned through five vans, three trailers and an RV. Their first full-length album, Inside, leaned toward alternative hard rock and was released independently in 2004. The band has recorded in New York and California, even working with Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx.
The song “Carolina” first appeared on their 2008 EP Complicated and would end up leading to their breakthrough. It just took five years for the song to top Billboard‘s country airplay chart.
“‘Carolina’ is a song that we wrote years ago and is actually the song that kind of got us out here to Nashville,” Matt Thomas says. “We had written it and released it as an independent band, and it got us some regional success — enough so that an artist out here in Nashville cut it and went to radio with it on this new label. Right as he was going to radio with it … we came out to Nashville to live for a month. We kind of raised our flag and said, ‘Hey, we’re the songwriters on this single that’s going to radio. Come write a song with us. Please, anybody!’”
With the possibility of a record deal in sight, the band kept on hitting the road and playing clubs, building their audience until a night in Rock Hill, S.C., nearly dealt a fatal blow.
In October 2010, two men (one with a gun) attempted to rob the band and their RV after a show at a bar called the Money. The attempted robbery became a shootout when Scott Thomas, armed with his own gun, told them to leave. This led to a fight that killed the armed assailant and critically injured the musician.
After being airlifted to Charlotte, N.C., Scott Thomas was given only a five percent chance of survival and spent 10 days in a coma. However, he made a full recovery and got behind the drum kit in February 2011 for the first time since the shooting. That performance marked Parmalee’s showcase for the label Stoney Creek, a subsidiary of Broken Bow Records, whose roster includes artists such as Thompson Square and Randy Houser.
“We did a showcase in February for [label head] Benny Brown and the whole team. He said, ‘You guys passed the test. We want you guys on the label.’ It took from February to July to actually sign that deal,” says Matt Thomas. “You wanna talk about pins and needles.”
“The most anxious time of our life — sitting there, every day, waiting for the phone to ring,” says Knox. “Finally, we got the call in July, and they were like, ‘Well, boys, the paperwork’s done.’”
“We’ll be there tomorrow!” the band members exclaim together, remembering the moment.
After a decade of being an independent act, the band finally had a label. But success or even an album didn’t come right away.
“We just kind of hustled whatever we could. We moved out here, and the first six months, we were writing music and we were struggling,” says Matt Thomas. “Luckily, we had a fan base back home in North Carolina, so we could take a weekend and go back and make some money then come back and write.”
“We were all living together, splitting meals together, cheap as possible,” McSwain adds.
Parmalee released “Musta Had a Good Time,” their first single for Stoney Creek, in July 2012. The song performed exceptionally well on Sirius XM station the Highway, topping its Hot 30 Live Countdown for four weeks in a row and eventually cracking the country airplay Top 40.
Building off that success, the group released “Carolina” in early 2013. Bolstered by a slick video, the single slowly climbed to No. 1 on the Billboard country airplay chart in its 44th week. The career-making song holds a special place for the band.
“We’re very proud of that song because it keeps doing good things for us,” says McSwain.
The band’s brand new album, Feels Like Carolina, plays host to party songs in the vein of “Musta Had a Good Time” (such as “Day Drinkin’” and “Dance”) and more love songs with geographical descriptions (“My Montgomery”). The album also features a track by Nashville hit songwriters Keith Anderson and Craig Wiseman called “I’ll Bring the Music.”
After years of shows in bars and clubs, the band is excited about the possibility of a big tour.
“Yeah, we’re really ready to step it up and play in front of more people,” Matt Thomas says. “I love clubs, but you know, there’ll be another sacrifice to get out there on a tour and pay your dues and start that process. We’re ready for that.”