Charlie Parr's New Weird America

Duluth's Charlie Parr plays music for gamblers, bar-fighters, and ordinary eccentrics

Charlie Parr is going to shave off his beard. Upon returning from a two-week tour of the United Kingdom next month, the 39-year-old country blues singer will be taking a pair of scissors and a razor to his facial hair.

For anyone who knows the Duluth-based musician, or has merely seen him perform, this is a fairly startling announcement. Parr is not someone with a few days' stubble on his chin, or a carefully trimmed goatee. He's got the full-on Grizzly Adams. The kind of beard that hasn't been trimmed since the first Clinton administration. The kind of beard that inevitably has some type of foodstuff floating in it.

"My wife threatened to find me when I was drunk in bed one night and do it for me," Parr explains. "I figured at least this way I could have a little bit of control over how it happens."

Michael Dvorak

Parr is seated in the basement of a house on Long Street in St. Paul on a recent Saturday afternoon, his steel-bodied National resonator guitar--the kind that looks like it has a perforated pie-plate in the front--cradled in his lap. He's wearing faded jeans, a half-buttoned plaid shirt over a white T-shirt, and a ratty brown cardigan sweater that he's worn for more than a decade, much to his wife's dismay.

Parr has just finished playing "Casey Jones" ("Furry Lewis's version," he notes) with four members of Pert' Near Sandstone, a local string band that shares his enthusiasm for ancient murder ballads, early-20th-century field recordings, and other weird old American music. They're working through a handful of songs in anticipation of sharing the stage during a gig that night at the Nomad World Pub.

It's suggested by one of the band members that Parr's beard, once shorn, be donated to a museum. Or perhaps collected as a charitable contribution for Pert' Near Sandstone's baby-faced bass player Jeff Swanner. "I'll be careful about getting it off," Parr promises him. "You can have it."

While Parr may not yet have achieved sufficient notoriety to merit having his facial hairs exhibited in a museum, it's been a good year for the songwriter. Rooster, his fourth album--featuring ten original tunes, bookended by two covers--has earned critical plaudits. The 12 tracks showcase Parr's madcap guitar picking--on both a 12-string and the resonator--as well as his gravelly, full-throated vocals. On songs like "Public Record Rag" and "One Eyed Jack," his voice conveys a wicked delight in describing the seamier activities of mankind. Recently, Parr's reputation has been swelling, both locally and beyond. After tonight's gig he's slated for a five-stop Midwest tour, and then he's off for two weeks to the U.K., his third such overseas venture. In March he'll be joining his Eclectone Records labelmates Martin Devaney and Big Ditch Road on a weeklong jaunt down to Texas.

Greg Brown has compared Parr to Dave Van Ronk, the late folk-blues performer who held court in Greenwich Village from before Dylan's day until his death in 2002, and it seems like an apt point of reference. Each plays music steeped in old American sounds, from the Piedmont blues of the Rev. Gary Davis to the country blues of Jimmie Rodgers. "I'm probably not playing good music," Parr says, "but I know I'm playing music that's raw."

Parr was born and raised in Austin, Minnesota, where both his parents worked for the Hormel plant processing dry sausage. "They were always covered with gore," Parr recalls. His dad was a big fan of Smithsonian recordings and other old folk, country, and blues records. "It was on whether I liked it or not," he says. "It moved me in ways that other music never actually did, even when I was a teenager." Parr began playing guitar at age eight but never took formal lessons. He dropped out of high school at 16 and moved to the Twin Cities not long after.

As Parr recalls those young-adult years, he drank too much and worked a series of menial jobs: courier, landscaper, janitor, gas-station attendant. "If I didn't like the job, I'd say to the foreman, 'I've got to go to the bathroom,' and leave," he laughs.

Parr is now drinking a pint of Shiner Bock at the Dubliner. Fittingly, it's where he played his first gig, back in the '80s when it was still known as the Ace Box Bar. "It was just crazy," he recalls. "About halfway through my gig I heard this really loud crack and some guy's drunken voice saying, 'You've pissed me off for the last time.' This guy had broken a pool cue over this other guy's back--while he was taking a shot."

After the initial fracas had settled down, another patron revealed to the bartender that he was packing a gun. "The bartender goes back and calls the police and describes what the guy's wearing: plaid shirt, a pair of jeans," Parr continues. "The police come walking in. The other guy wearing a plaid shirt and jeans is me. They came up to the stage, took me outside, and frisked me." As the cops queried the fledgling musician, the man with the gun exited the bar.

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