Finger-picking maestro Charlie Parr will be bringing his own brand of mid-western acoustic blues from the shores of Lake Superior to Bennigan’s Bar in Londonderry at the end of next month.
Charlie recently joined the roster of Grammy-winning Red House Records for his latest studio album, ‘Stumpjumper,’ which is out on August 5, and which he’ll be touring to Londonderry on August 25.
Long a part of the vibrant Duluth, Minnesota music scene (Low, Trampled by Turtles), Charlie travelled to North Carolina to record this album with fellow musician Phil Cook (Megafaun, Hiss Golden Messenger).
As well as being the first album Charlie has recorded outside of his native Minnesota - he joined Cook and a cast of local players, setting up in an old outbuilding on the ‘Down Yonder Farm’ in rural North Carolina - it’s also the first to feature a full band.
Percussive and raw, the 11 songs on ‘Stumpjumper,’ 10 originals and his version of the venerable murder ballad, ‘Delia,’ could be lost field recordings from another era.
His blistering picking - he switches between acoustic guitar, dobro and banjo - and keening, cut-through-the-crowd vocals resonate with a conviction that runs deep and true.
It’s the music of a self-taught guitarist and banjo player who grew up listening to his dad’s recordings of America’s musical founding fathers, including Charley Patton and Lightnin’ Hopkins, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. His heartfelt and plaintive original folk blues and traditional spirituals don’t strive for authenticity, they are authentic.
Parr’s inspiration is drawn from the alternately fertile and frozen soil of Minnesota; his songs exude a Midwestern sensibility and humility. Parr grew up in the Hormel meatpacking city of Austin, MN (population 25,000) where most of the world’s favourite tinned meat, Spam, is still manufactured. The combination of growing up with both of his parents working proud union jobs in an industrial meat factory and his largely rural environment had a broad impact on Parr.
“Every morning you’d hear the [factory] whistles blow, when I was a kid they had the stockyards and animals there, so you were surrounded by this atmosphere,” Parr says. Out the back door were soybean fields, as far as the eye could see. “As a kid I thought it was kind of boring, but now I go and visit my mom and I think it’s the most beautiful landscape there is.”
Most of his recordings to date have eschewed typical studio settings; he’s recorded in warehouses, garages, basements and storefronts, usually on vintage equipment, which gives his work the historic feel of field recordings.
It’s not because he wants to sound like he was discovered 75 years ago by Alan Lomax, it’s because most modern recording studios make the reticent and self-effacing Parr feel uncomfortable. After a health scare a few years back, he lives very simply, no alcohol and a vegan diet, often cooking up his rice and beans on his engine manifold on the lonely, cross-country drives. He doesn’t go in much for fashion and frills and lives simply on the road, usually sleeping in his car.
The songs are inspired by family members, the Bible, overheard conversations and places in his life. A native Minnesotan, he draws sustenance from the surprisingly large, thriving and mutually supportive music scene of Duluth: Parr’s 2011 album of traditional songs, Keep Your Hands on the Plow, features locals including Charlie’s wife, Emily Parr, old-timey banjo/fiddle band Four Mile Portage and Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low.
The title track finds Charlie tapping into his childhood.
“Songs aren’t normally very autobiographical for me, they’re more like stories, but this one is different,” he says. “I can see a 1966 International Harvester pickup truck with no hood and four snow tires, breaking field road land-speed records on my way to my job in a filling station.”
“She was a tough customer ... also wise, sensitive, and hilariously funny. She stomped the terra, as they say.”
‘Empty Out Your Pockets’ is a song Parr describes as “another angry hymn from me.”
“All of the ones I’ve written so far seem to rely on God being a kind of big brother who shows up one day after you’ve been getting your ass kicked all over town by bullies and he takes care of business. I know, it’s juvenile, but take a close look at a lot of legitimate hymns - ‘when I die I’m gonna tell God what you did to me’ comes to mind.”
Quiet and thoughtful, Parr always includes a few traditional songs of the hard life and the hereafter in his live sets. Such music isn’t necessarily rooted in the Methodist church in which he grew up. “It was more like, let’s get the service over quick so we can get downstairs and drink coffee and have pie!”
But faith, though undefined, underlines all of Charlie’s music, both in the listening, the covering, the writing and performing. For more information on Charlie, go to http://www.charlieparr.com