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Late To Music, National Park Radio Founder Finds His Passion

National Park Radio plays the Hallowed Hall in downtown Bloomington Sunday night
National Park Radio
National Park Radio plays the Hallowed Hall in downtown Bloomington Sunday night.

Stefan Szabo came to professional music at the relative late age of his later 30s.

The founder of the folk/Americana band National Park Radio says working full-time in IT after college, then getting married and having two kids at 19 and 21 kept him from pursuing his love of music, at least full time.

Ahead of National Park Radio's appearance Sunday night at the Hallowed Hall in Bloomington, Szabo via Skype said he has a different perspective now than he would have at 18 years old.

“For one I’m kind of tied down to other things, so I have to be a lot smarter with my decision making,” said Szabo. “Also, I’m not super desperate to put food on the table because I’ve maintained a normal job off-and-on the past six years.

“And I have a degree. I can always go back to getting a normal job, so I’m not too worried about anything, and I’m having fun with it,” he chuckled.

He said he’s not pushing the music as he once did, as the music now is pulling at him. He mentioned the solid fan base that will show up when they play.

“I’ve never been to the East Coast or anywhere past Nashville,” said Szabo. “But we were in South Carolina a couple nights ago and they were singing back our songs to us, even though it was the first time we had been in that area. Those people and in places we’ve already played are wanting and expecting us to play music for them. So that demand is pulling me away from my normal job.”

Having fans singing your songs back to you has to be a special kind of validation for any band.

“It’s an insane feeling,” said Szabo recalling the South Carolina gig. “Yeah, it’s definitely a validation."

Those songs come primarily from two full-length albums, 2016's “The Great Divide” and 2017's “Old Forests.” Though both are what Szabo would probably call mountain music, “Old Forests” is more subdued musically than its predecessor, which Szabo said was the result of hiring a producer who was focusing on radio airplay.

“It ('The Great Divide') wasn’t 100% the style I wanted, and we parted ways after that,” said Szabo. “I felt it was a little over-produced and I was a little resistant to everything. And that’s why I came out with the more simplified 'Old Forests' shortly after 'The Great Divide' was released."

The title track was one of Szabo’s first stabs at songwriting six years ago. The lengthy and detailed lyrics of this and many other National Park Radio songs show Szabo’s songwriting attention isn’t just focused on the music.

Driving home I feel as though Should have been there with you long ago But more than anything I see The great divide is calling me High upon the mountaintop The miles of freedom never stop But more than anything I see That this is where I want to be That this is where I want to be “The Great Divide” by National Park Radio

He said lyrics might be even more important to him than the music.

“The songwriting … the melodies … the vocals …. that’s where the meat is for me,” said Szabo.

“There is a Fire” from the same album is another up-tempo romp and one emblematic of the celebratory sound of what he calls mountain music.

Come on let's go now, go for a ride Let's bring our kids, bring our wives. Down that road, they they call life, Let's do something that makes us feel that we're alive. Look out that window, look past your nose. Can you recall the path you chose? Those roads you passed by, you'll never know That one you missed you'll never see just where it goes. There is a fire, there is a fire There is a fire and it's burning in my heart. There is a fire, there is a fire, There is a fire and it's burning in my heart. “There is a Fire” by National Park Radio

“It’s about not letting the fears and frustrations in life get to you and keep the passion to do what you want to do,” said Szabo.

Szabo and National Park Radio play The Hallowed Hall in downtown Bloomington Sunday night.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.