Parr eventually earned his G.E.D. and then a degree in philosophy from Augsburg College. In the early '90s he got married and found steady work as a homeless outreach worker for the Salvation Army. "What kind of world is this that I have a job helping people who should have housing?" Parr wonders. "Housing isn't some kind of crazy thing. There shouldn't be homeless outreach workers out there helping people. It doesn't make any sense."
That experience clearly informs Parr's songwriting. His lyrics are populated with characters from the margins of society--drunks, criminals, gamblers, destitute old men.
In 2000, he and his wife relocated to Duluth. Parr again found work assisting homeless people, but quit a couple of years after his son was born. Since then he's been a musician and stay-at-home dad. "When you're hanging out with a four-year-old all the time, you start to get weird," Parr reasons. "I show up at venues and I'm going up to the promoter saying, 'I need to use the potty.'"
On the flip side, Parr says that the shake-up has resulted in the most fertile songwriting period of his career. He's grappled with major changes in his life--the death of his dad, the birth of his son--through writing music. "It's almost like throwing up in a way," Parr says of songwriting. "You feel this idea coming. You feel like it's a good one. You've got to get a pen. You've got to write it down. Because it's going to go away and it's not going to come back."
Parr's gig this evening is at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul. He's slated to play on "Stage Sessions," a new variety show being produced by Minnesota Public Radio. Along with Parr, the show features local soprano Maria Jette, as well as writers Kevin Kling and Colleen Kruse. It's to be broadcast the following night on every MPR station in the state.
The evening gets off to an inauspicious start. Shortly after arriving, Parr decides to deposit his jacket in his car. But while doing so he slips on the ice, spilling coffee on the front of his shirt in the process. Then while taking a leak, he manages to add a splash of urine to the garment. During sound check, host Heather McElhatton determines that the first song that Parr is slated to perform, "Gone," is too upbeat. Instead it's determined that he'll play another original, "Cheap Wine," a bleak tale describing the misery witnessed by the owner of a liquor store. But there's a twist: McElhatton wants him to cut the song in half.
Parr readily agrees to the request, but is uncertain how to pare down the tune without losing its cohesion. "I can't do it," he initially concludes. "I'm not built that way. I'm not a professional musician. I'm a loser that cannot change my songs very easily."
Regardless of the complications, Parr's performance turns out just fine. He sings three songs, including the truncated "Cheap Wine" (which he manages to chop by about a quarter), to enthusiastic crowd response. The highlight is a duet with cellist Anna Vazquez on the traditional song "Gambler's Blues." Vazquez deftly weaves her way around Parr's dense guitar strumming.
As soon as the variety show concludes, Parr is out the door. He's got barely enough time to make his late-night gig at the Nomad World Pub. When he arrives, Pert' Near Sandstone is in the midst of a raucous, alcohol-enhanced set of classics and more contemporary covers, and the club is packed. It's so hot in the crowded space that the owner turns on the air conditioning--likely the first time this winter that that's been necessary.
Parr takes the stage around 11:30. Initially it's just him, a guitar, and his "stomp box"--a wedge-shaped wooden block that's covered with duct tape, which he hammers with the sole of his shoe. "It's the 17th version of it," Parr noted earlier in the day. "It's stuffed with a stocking cap, an old T-shirt, a couple pairs of socks, some foam padding, a paper bag, and a scarf. And then inside all of that crap is a bass drum microphone. I just plug that right into the board and it gets this really dead sound--boom boom."
Starting with "Samson and Delilah"--a particularly appropriate tune for Parr this week--the musician barrels through a set mixing country blues standards with originals, trading off between a 12-string guitar and the resonator. His left foot beats out an insistent rhythm on the stomp box. Between-song banter is minimal. There's little nuance to Parr's gruff vocals. He sings like he plays guitar, with a crude, deliberate intensity. Although the crowd thins considerably as the dead hour of the night starts closing in, those who remain scream and dance in response to Parr's frenetic strumming.
For a finale he's joined by Pert' Near Sandstone. They rumble through "Casey Jones" and a trio of other songs practiced earlier that day, with plenty of room to indulge in jam-band-style soloing.
Following the show Parr crashes on the couch of a friend's house in Minneapolis. The next night he'll perform in Lawrence, Kansas, at the Replay Lounge, the start of seven weeks of near nonstop touring.