I discovered the music of Charlie Parr by starting with a pair of his albums that were recorded with two of my favorite artists: Glory In The Meeting House (featuring Black Twig Pickers) and Backslider (featuring Trampled By Turtles). After absorbing these two, I moved onto Roustabout, Jubilee (featuring Dave Simonett of TBT), and When The Devil Goes Blind.
Born in Austin Minnesota, and now based out of Duluth, Charlie is an artist that I quickly became fond of, both artistically and philosophically. He is a storyteller, guitarist, banjo player, and songwriter who has not just collaborated with an impressive roster of artists and friends throughout his career, but is also an artist who prefers capturing his work as field recordings over professional studio spaces. He has recorded his albums in empty storefronts, a brewhouse, warehouse spaces, and living rooms.
Last month, after receiving a copy of When The Devil Goes Blind for my birthday, I decided to reach out to Charlie Parr directly to ask him if he would be up for an interview. As a fan of his work, I was thrilled to receive a seemingly immediate response, inviting me to send my questions over to him when I had them ready.
I have to say that this feature has been a lot of fun for me to put together. I have enjoyed learning more about his work through collecting his recordings, and conducting this interview with him has been a real treat. I find that it is always such a reward to speak with an artist you respect, who also turns out to be even more genuine, friendly, and generous than you imagined. I mean, when I asked him if he had a photo of the hand-painted rooster on the back of his guitar for the feature, he snapped one off on his phone and sent it right over. So with that, here's our discussion:
Where did you grow up an how did your local geography influence your beginnings in music?
Charlie Parr: I grew up in Austin, MN which is a smallish town and home to Hormel's first packing house. Music for me meant folk music, which is what my Dad listened to pretty much all the time. We had a big old record player and plenty of records: early country, folk, and blues. Plus, there was a polka band down the block that had yard parties all summer. Music was always important to me.
Can you discuss how when you were inspired to pick up the guitar and banjo?
Charlie: I started on the guitar at 7. My Dad got me a Gibson 12-string and I fought with it trying to learn Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb songs from the Arhoolie records. I'm self-taught, and I just really wanted to play the country blues. You could say that I'm still am trying that. Later, I picked up a banjo and begin fighting with that. I am still fighting with that one too.
My first love is the 12-string, since I started there, and nothing else seems to come close to that sound. I got a hold of a resonator guitar in my late teens and was immediately hooked on that, too. The banjo, in it's way, is both an entirely different thing and somehow kind of a middle ground between the 12-string and resonator guitars. Now those 3 are it for me, and all I have.
Which artists and recordings were most influential to you starting out?
Charlie: Mance Lipscomb's record Texas Songster, Lightnin' Hopkins record Blues in my Bottle, and Albert King's Live Wire/Blues Power were the most influential on my guitar playing, even though I've long since given up trying to achieve anything close to those levels on the guitar.
My social life when I was young did not influence me much. I didn't go in for sports or do any hunting so the other kids and I didn't see eye to eye right off the reel. I had a few friends and it was all about music and riding our bikes. So I had time to practice. Girls hated me. One likes me now.
When did you start writing your own material? Can you discuss how you began discovering your own artistic voice and style and your experiences developing your own voice?
Charlie: My Dad died in 1995, and I started writing songs then, trying to grieve, I think. The only thing I could play was folk/blues (still is) and so the songs I wrote had to fit that style. When I started working as a homeless outreach worker, my work touched the same nerve as my Dad's passing and I started writing in a more socially conscience kind of a way.
Now the songs come as stories and I try and let them develop that way, even though I guess it's not really songwriting, but when it works I feel good about it.
I'd like to ask you a little about your songwriting processes and albums. First, can you discuss your songwriting process both when composing and lyrically?
Charlie: First, the story comes to me and I try and develop it like I was going to write a short story. Then I cut it up into verses that may or may not rhyme and then I kind of hear the music and try and learn that. By the time I have a song that I'm happy with, it's probably really different than the original story and makes much less sense, but usually I don't notice since it makes as much sense to me as it ever did.
Do you work on songs individually and bring them together for the albums, or work from a preconceived theme?
Charlie: Since I've always kind of had one direction in songwriting, putting albums together has been pretty easy. I do want to start thinking more in terms of unifying the theme of a record, and this next one's going to be a guinea pig on that idea, but I really haven't tried to force myself to write for a specific theme.
Could you briefly take new listeners through your discography?
Charlie: Criminals & Sinners (2001) was kind of a template for most of the releases that followed it: I recorded it live, and not necessarily in a studio, with minimal accompaniment. 1922 (2002) was next, then King Earl (2003), Jubilee (2005), Rooster (2007), and Roustabout (2008) were all recorded in places like garages, store fronts, bars, living rooms, and places like that. When the Devil Goes Blind (2009) was the first time I recorded in a studio, and ironically, it was the first time I recorded a record with no one else around.
One thing I really admire and enjoy about your recordings is that you have recorded some of your records as field recordings: in store fronts, living rooms, garages, and in other intimate and simple settings. Can you discuss why you choose these kinds of spaces and settings to record in, over, say, "the studio" kind of setting?
Charlie: I think the simplest way to put it that I've never felt comfortable in a studio and now it's a thing that just really works for me. I think if I'm uncomfortable or distracted by a studio, then that's going to show in the record, and if I'm at ease, that will show too. I usually pick a place based on how I feel first, then I'll sit down and play there to see if the sound is good. If it sounds like my kitchen, it's a keeper.
What is most rewarding to you about working in this way, and what connects this process for you to blues and roots artists that have influenced you?
Charlie: For me, it feels like a very honest way of recording, even though I know that's very subjective. The artists I listen to the most (Charlie Patton, Bukka White, Blind Willie Johnson) were mostly recorded in studio settings, even though the studios of the day were pretty rudimentary compared with the ones now. Others, like Robert Pete Williams, were recorded at least initially in prison, but I'm not interested in following those footsteps.
What has been most rewarding for you being based out of Duluth, MN? Can you discuss the rewards and benefits of your local music community?
Charlie: Duluth has a very vibrant music community, and I've found it to be very supportive. I don't get out much, especially nowadays when I've been busier and have kids and suddenly feel like I'm getting older (2 years ago I didn't feel like that at all, but now it's come up on me). If I could go out, I could see original live music in this town nearly any night of the week, though.
I love hearing how artists came across their instruments and their experiences with them. Can you tell us about your instruments?
Charlie: The only guitar I've had over the entire span of doing this is a National steel-bodied resonator guitar. My son and I painted a rooster on the back of it in 2003, and it's got photos of my family pasted all over the top where I can see them while I play.
National Guitars has been very kind to me and they've fixed it through 2 broken necks and a multitude of other abuses that I've heaped on the poor thing. But it sounds better than ever and I'd never part with it. My very first guitar was acquired when my Dad traded a Johnson 9.9 boat motor for a Gibson 12-string. It was a great trolling motor, and I still worry that he got took, but I'm glad he did, I suppose.
You have recorded with some of my favorite artists, including the Black Twig Pickers and Trampled By Turtles. (In fact, for me, Glory In The Meeting House was the first record I bought of yours, which led me to Backslider, Roustabout, and on down the line of your recordings). Can you discuss some of your collaborations?
Charlie: I've been lucky to have good friends who've shared my musical interests. It's always been fun playing with other folks, although I really think of myself as being a solo guitar player first. Glory in the Meeting House was a really fun night, and the last time I recorded anything when I was drinking. The last collaboration, Keep Your Hands On The Plow, was recorded with my wife Emily, Alan and Mimi from the band Low, and Four Mile Portage. It was very rewarding.
I usually come away from collaborations learning a lot even though it's kind of challenging for me to get started since I always think of myself as a solo artist. I'm pretty introverted and I take music very personally. But this last record I got to work pretty closely with Alan Sparhawk (of Low) and I found that to be very inspiring. His approach to music and his intuitions about it are amazing, and I took away some new ideas about all the sounds that are available to someone recording, as opposed to performing.
How have these collaborative experiences added to your own approach in writing your own music?
Charlie: I think it's giving me a little more patience towards letting songs evolve and cook a little more before I record them, and definitely while I'm writing them. I've always suspected that songs are never done, now I feel confident that they're never done.
Reflecting on your work over the years, what would you say is the common thread(s) that connects your work?
Charlie: My common thread is the folk/blues guitar style. I still like it the best, and I still find plenty of challenges to keep me interested in it. Also, the subject matter for my songwriting (grief, poverty, death, social justice and hopefully a little humor once in a while) hasn't changed much.
What has changed the most for you?
Charlie: The thing that has changed is I feel older now. It feels like the days are going by too fast and I want to make the most of everything, but it seems like I try too hard at times. My guitar playing is bound to get worse, my memory for songs will fade, my ideas will dry up, but I've been fighting against these voices lately and working towards living in the moment instead.
We discussed your earliest music influences earlier. Looking back on your own discography and music experiences, which artists would you say have most influenced you development as a songwriter, performer, and artist over the years, and how so?
Charlie: My guitar playing is a work in progress and is constantly influenced by who I'm listening to, anybody from Mance Lipscomb to Charlie Patton and Bukka White to John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Jack Rose, Peter Lang, Spider John Koerner, Gary Davis, Most recently I've been listening to Alan Sparhawk and players from Africa (that I've found on compilation records).
What kinds of non-musical experiences do you enjoy outside of playing, performing, and writing music? How would you say these experiences influence and/ or inspire your musical work?
Charlie: I like spending time with my kids: biking and skating, hikes, and camping. I like to read and I find a lot of inspiration in authors like Raymond Carver and Flannery O'Connor.
When I'm on the road I listen to a lot of music and cook my meals on the exhaust manifold of the van, which has gotten me interested lately in my own health and trying to feed myself a little better. It's made me a more self-sufficient musician, I think, being alone and figuring out interesting meals, fixing my own guitar, wrenching on the van ... I feel like I bring that attitude to my songs sometimes, wrenching on them all the time now, tinkering with them and writing them over and over.
What's new for you? What do you have coming up in the new year? Will you be recording and/ or touring in 2012?
Charlie: I've been very lucky to have been as busy as I am, and this year is going to be even busier, I think. I've got a recording project with the Black Eyed Snakes coming up (Alan Sparhawk's side project), and another one of my own for early summer. Then I have some shows and will be recording with my own band called Devil's Flying Machine.
For tours, I'm doing two on the west coast in the next few months, and two to the east later this summer and fall. I also will be heading to Ireland in May, Australia after Christmas, and possibly Europe and the UK this fall when the new record is out.
On a final note, what have you been listening to lately?
Charlie: Mississippi Records can't miss. I've been listening to Takamba a lot, the Alan Lomax Southern Journey Georgia Sea Island record (Volume 12: Biblical Songs and Spirituals), some Honest Jon's records that compile African 78's from the 1930's-50's. Those have all made me look at some new tunings that I need to get better at and will probably show up later this year if I can master them.