Charlie Parr's New Weird America

Michael Dvorak

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."

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.  

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.

Once this extended stretch of roadwork is finished, Parr intends to gather some musician friends in Duluth and record a live album. He hopes to revisit some songs from his first two albums (1922 and Criminals and Sinners), which are largely unavailable.

"I still want to keep it simple," he says. "I don't want some crazy, overproduced Broadway extravaganza. Although that might be down the road--after I shave off the beard and cut my hair."

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