Charlie Parr has traveled the world with his four instruments; his guitar, his banjo, his voice and his foot. Many reviewers have referred to Charlie as one of the last few traditional bluesmen. From the grit in his voice to the stop of his feet, Charlie makes music true to his heart and the origins of blues.
It must be a crazy world when “authentic” is a term used to separate an artist from the pack. Charlie Parr is a folk and country blues musician who is routinely labeled “authentic” and “the real deal” by fans and critics alike. Charlie shows up with a lived-in rasp of a voice, National resonator and 12-string acoustic guitars, a banjo and a batch of his own songs and well-traveled numbers by Mississippi John Hurt, Charley Patton and other cohorts from another time. He lays it on you, and you sense that the gamblers, the union workers, the criminals and the sinners that wander around his songs are peering right over your shoulder. Parr has sung about these folks at steady gigs in his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, showcase performances like “A Prairie Home Companion,” roadhouses in Texas and Montana, punk clubs in Ireland and pubs in London – let's just say that he's turned a lot of heads. His self-taught mix of slide, finger-picking and quasi-frailing technique, together with a voice that's low on drama and high on impact, can also be heard on four CDs (including the acclaimed 2005 release Rooster). The stories he tells get into some dark spots; that place where regret and remorse part company. A bit of a modern take on timeless conditions. Check him out and you'll probably agree – Charlie Parr is coming from a very real place, and this has, in fact, always been a crazy world.
Charlie Parr grew up in Austin, Minnesota, in a house filled with the music that would inform his style. His late father loved the music found on collections like the field recordings by Alan Lomax released on the Folkways / Smithsonian label and Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. The elder Parr's first-hand accounts of growing up during the Depression, riding the freight trains and traveling to places like the Piedmont region (a North Carolina country blues mecca), made the music all the more visceral to Charlie. While his peers were immersed in what is now called “classic rock,” Charlie was soaking up the music of Furry Lewis, Rev. Gary Davis and Mance Lipscomb. As both his parents were union workers at Austin's Hormel plant – picket line fixtures during bitter labor strikes in the mid-1980s – Charlie himself got a first-hand view of what those old songs were talking about.
Parr picked up the guitar around age eight, however, music lessons never held his interest. He's one of those self-taught guys who inevitably brings his own twists to music. He dropped out of high school as a freshman, eventually earning his GED after moving to Minneapolis. Parr's performing career began in 1988, playing in Twin Cities coffeehouses and clubs where he also spent a lot of time listening to (and learning from) resident greats like Dave Ray and “Spider” John Koerner.
Over the next decade-plus, Parr continued to hone his style and took up songwriting in earnest. Parr also earned a degree in philosophy and became an outreach worker for the homeless, working for the Salvation Army in Minneapolis. His experiences in social services can be heard in his songs, the way any songwriter is impacted by their life experiences. Don't, however, look for any one person's story in Parr's songs. Like his music, Charlie's work helping people in tough spots has been nothing short of a calling (and it ain't no research project). Dignity, and the struggle to keep it, are central themes in Parr's songs, and he's not the kind of guy to trade it on the cheap.
Parr moved from the Twin Cities to Duluth, Minnesota in 2000. In 2001 he released his debut CD, Criminals & Sinners, named “Best Local Folk Record” by Duluth's Ripsaw News. His three additional releases include 1922 (in 2002), King Earl (2004) and Rooster (2005). Glowing reviews for each release have cited the obvious influence of pioneers like Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson, as well as more modern artists like John Fahey and Nick Drake. But what also gets people's attention is Parr's willingness to be himself – unbound by the constrictions of traditionalists and undeterred by present-day themes. (You wouldn't hear Robert Johnson refer to television or raising funds by recycling cans. Charlie does, but not for the sake of irony – it's simply part of his landscape.) Perhaps being steeped in pre-WWII acoustic blues while having his eyes wide open to current conditions explains how Charlie Parr has been embraced at punk clubs, jam band festivals and trendy bistros, in addition to traditional “Americana/roots” venues.
On top of his workman-like gig schedule (that often includes a show in the day in Duluth followed by a bar-closing performance in the Twin Cities at night), Charlie Parr has played his share of high-profile and far flung stages. He appeared on NPR's “A Prairie Home Companion,” handpicked from the vibrant Duluth music scene when the show visited in 2004. In 2001, Parr performed with folk music icon Greg Brown at a fundraiser to restore a family farm barn roof, resulting in the live album Down in the Valley. Brown has become a fan and supporter (comparing Parr to Dave Van Ronk), and has invited him on stage at the Big Top Chautauqua and dropped in to play at a Parr performance at a Duluth tavern. Charlie has made four trips to the British Isles, performing in England and Ireland to enthusiastic crowds. From photocopied fanzines to The Sunday Times in London, Parr has been embraced as an Americana ambassador.
Charlie Parr's fan base says a lot about how his music connects with people. From folk-blues purists to Goth-rock fans to 21st Century Deadheads, Parr has been welcomed into their worlds. With famous fans like Brown, noted eccentric and illustrator R. Crumb and fellow Duluthian Alan Sparhawk of Low, Parr has received some well-credentialed endorsements. When you hear all of these people from all of these outlooks describe Charlie Parr, one thing is evident. Their admiration for his music is, indeed, authentic.
Charlie Parr, performing at Tuesday Night Blues on July 14, 2015