Minnesota folk-singer Charlie Parr revives jaded modern audiences with American traditional music

The most surprising thing about Charlie Parr is that he makes people dance. He does it sitting down. He rarely raises his eyes above the floor.

The 42-year-old Minnesotan’s face is shadowed by a woolly beard, oval glasses and a brimmed hat. The self-described “confused and shy individual” hunches over three instruments, which he alternates throughout the night: a National resonator guitar, a 12-string acoustic guitar and a banjo. His set mines very old American country blues, as well as a mass of high-quality originals that update rather than regurgitate the spirit of pre-World War II folk music — down-and-out saints with booze on their breath, murderers missing their mothers, collect calls to Jesus. His right thumb pounds the bass string while he speedily fingerpicks the melody. He sings in a husky, wounded voice. His foot thumps time on a makeshift microphone-in-a-box. The crowd starts moving. They leave sweaty-faced and smiling.

There is a sense of discovery at Parr’s concerts. The diverse audience members, full of often-divided social uniforms (folkies and rock-and-rollers, punks and hippies, hillbillies and urbanites), share a rare look in their eyes. Possibly, they are beholding a lost strand of their American DNA. Friends laugh at one another, dancing sarcastically at first — How do you dance to this? Is this a barn dance, a gospel tent, a bluegrass breakdown? — then unself-consciously.

It could be the no-bullshit presentation. Our irony-steeped culture tells us to vet Parr like a campy museum piece. His father raised him on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and Alan Lomax’s field recordings. His stage banter can seem like an introverted book report on folklore heroes like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patton.

Parr dislikes studios and has recorded a half-dozen CDs in warehouses, garages, friends’ basements, and the back rooms of friendly bars. He tries to keep his ticket prices below $5. Really.

Who does he think he is? Is he proposing immunity from our info-sick reality?

“Everybody, they try to find out what your thing is — biting the heads off bats or whatever,” Parr says. “I think the kind of music that I love best, whether it is old or new, is sincere. Honest music. Music that I don’t feel is done for some other purpose — to get fans or to have money or whatever. You know, you can hear that in the music.”

Sincerity and honesty do not a music industry make. But Parr has done well for himself. He has toured Britain several times (his label is there, too). He played A Prairie Home Companion when Garrison Keillor visited Parr’s hometown of Duluth. He has shared bills with avant-garde guitarists such as Wilco’s Nels Cline and solo-acoustic phenom Jack Rose, as well as Duluth’s up-and-coming, alt-bluegrass act Trampled By Turtles.

Parr’s music is democratic. He’s no snob. American folk scholars can be a persnickety lot, verbally accosting all things modern. And while Parr can talk up the most curmudgeonly purist, he doesn’t picket for a Robert Johnson Day on the calendar. Like any good intellectual, he knows the real fight is for an open mind.

“I love the historical context of the traditional songs that I play, and I love digging into it and finding out exactly what is going on,” he says. “But I also think that if you don’t keep pushing and prodding at it, it dies. A lot of music is going that way because [people] believe that there is some kind of phony line in there where the music stopped. That’s not true.”

And don’t think the self-taught Parr hasn’t caught shit from traditionalists.

“There’s a track on my new CD where I use a violin bow on a National guitar. I didn’t make that up. A lot of people play guitars with bows, you know? I don’t know why I even did it. I had this instrumental in my head. It wasn’t working, but it worked with a bow.

“I got so much shit for that. People saying, ‘You can’t do that!’ I can do whatever I want! It’s like the banjo thing. Guys come up to me all the time and say, ‘You can’t play banjo that way. You’re not playing clawhammer, you’re not playing Scruggs style, you’re not playing two-finger. What are you playing?’

“I’m like, ‘What, are you going to arrest me?’ I do what I want to do. The first guy that built a banjo, for example, didn’t say, ‘This needs to be played like this.’ He probably built the banjo and said, ‘God this is cool.’ Someone else came along later and applied rules to it.”

Parr does play by his own rules. And in a strange, exception-proves-the-rule way, it seems radical. We’ve become so used to aesthetics as costume, to artists trading in looks and sounds for each tour schedule, that we question someone like Parr. We are trained to see his integrity as a selling tool.

But listen to his music. See his show. And all that ugly distrust rots right off.

“What I am doing right now always feels like kind of a happy accident,” he says. “I couldn’t play anything else. If someone said, ‘You can continue to do this kind of lifestyle, you can change what you are doing and play rock-and-roll music or something else,’ I wouldn’t be able to do it, so I’d have to stop. So I’m happy that people just happen to like the stuff.”

“Jubilee,” by Charlie Parr, from Jubilee (Eclectone):

Categories: Music