At 30 years old, some say Stefan Szabo is an old soul going on 60. He is the singer/songwriter and acoustic guitarist for his band, National Park Radio. Their’s is a fresh but familiar sound reminiscent of Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers, National Park Radio delivers a unique blend of folk, country, bluegrass, and rock. Their music embodies themes about life, love, and difficult choices, all while echoing the enduring beauty of the band’s deep-seated roots in the Ozark Mountains.
“As long as I can remember I was drawn to music, and singing in particular,” Stefan recalled recently. I remember as a young child, I would belt out random tunes around the house with no shame or embarrassment. I remember thinking to myself that someday I wanted to sing for people and be a rock star or something like that.”
Getting a Late Start
Stefan never truly embraced those feelings though. As a young teenager, he did regular kid things, never really getting involved in any sort of music scene. He was also extremely timid and withdrawn from most any social interaction, especially if it meant addressing a group of people in any way. “I was about 13 when my brother began playing the drums,” Stefan remembered. “We were all kind of involved with our local church’s youth group, and it was there where I began to learn the guitar.” He eventually joined the youth worship band playing electric guitar, but he never sang. “I was still just too timid.”
After a few years of playing in that setting,, he moved on (left the church) and at playing music was put on the back burner for about 10 years. Stefan went on with life, went to school, and started a family. Time passed, and playing music was mostly just a hobby that he messed with every so often.
In his late 20’s something clicked. “I just decided to give music a serious try. It was one of those things I knew I’d regret later in life if I never actually tried to do it for real,” he said. “I began writing, and jamming with a couple of my friends, and eventually came up with some songs that I recorded in my garage. Once people heard the music, we got such an amazing response. It made me feel like this might actually be a possibility. So from there, I started playing shows, and 4 years later, Here I am.”
National Park Radio was officially formed in Harrison, Arkansas in 2012, and their unique brand of indie folk music has been turning heads all over the region there. “I never had anyone in my life who was really into music, so I had nothing to influence me,” Stefan said, “except what was on one of the two radio stations in my area (one was country, and i never really enjoyed that), the other was a rock station, that played hits from the “70’s, 80’s, and current. Finally, in my late teens I discovered some other genres, and it was indie music that really started to open up a whole new world for me. I remember watching a music video channel that we had called “IMF”, and “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” by The Postal Service came on. I was so intrigued because I’d never heard a voice like Ben Gibbard’s, and the melodies drew me in.”
Enter The Banjo
“I had never listened to banjo music,” Stefan recalled. “I never listened to bluegrass. Don’t ask me to play any traditional tunes because I’ve never heard them. I happened upon the banjo one day, when I was trying to sell an old Fender Strat. A guy was interested, but he wanted to trade for something instead of buying it outright. I asked what he had, and one of the things he offered was an old 6-string banjo, which I later found out was made in the early 1900’s. I thought it was cool, but didn’t really think I would have a use for it. I went ahead and traded for it, thinking I might be able to sell it and make some money. It was that banjo that started me into this type of music. Since it was a 6-string, I could pick it up and play it like a guitar, and eventually I really liked some of the sounds I was getting from it. This all was happening at the exact time when I decided I wanted to try and make some music, and so it worked itself into the songs I was writing. And that’s why I play the type of music I play today.”
Stefan says he’s not exactly sure what led him to want to play music. “I think it might have been just one of those dreams that everyone has when they’re a kid, like being and astronaut or a rock star. I had that dream of being a rock star as a child, but never had the encouragement from anyone around me to pursue it. So, yeah, it was a struggle later in life, when I decided that I actually wanted to pursue this. Some of the songs I’ve written do relate it to climbing a mountain. It’s been a strenuous, uphill climb. And now that I’ve already begun, my choice is to either keep on pushing through the pain until I reach the peak, or climb back down and give up. I don’t want to give up, so I’m choosing to keep on climbing, and eventually I might reach the top.”