Charlie Parr's triumphant return to his roots

Charlie Parr has hit a productive stride
Richard Narum

Charlie Parr is dressed in a well-worn Austin, Minnesota, sweatshirt and loose jeans, his long hair hanging around his shoulders, looking a little bedraggled. He hasn't really slept in the past 20 hours or so, having just driven all night from a slew of gigs, and he's feeling tired. But Parr is a seasoned road warrior, and he shrugs off the weariness with a cup of black coffee. When he begins to talk about his latest record, Barnswallow — the 11th in his extensive catalog of folk and roots music — Parr speaks slowly, shyly.

"Nothing's really different about Barnswallow. It's actually a lot like older stuff. The first few records I did, I was so scared of studios and the process of it all that we'd just go and treat it like a show," says Parr, referring to earlier albums recorded in a live taping format. "The last couple records, I tried doing this the 'right' way, you know, studios and producers ... but when I recorded the songs for Barnswallow, it didn't work, it just felt wrong. It felt like too much work, you know? Like I had assumed that I could be something more than I am."

The last two years of Parr's life have been steadily marked by his acceptance of himself in more ways than one, with Barnswallow as the all-encompassing example. Recorded in just a few hours at the Winona Arts Center, the record is very much a return to roots for Parr. It's a 10-track record built around themes that are dark and personal — even for folk music — and on it, Parr flexes songwriting muscles that few artists ever attain.

There are hidden gems tucked away in Barnswallow's 40-minute journey: Parr's longtime friend Mikkel Beckmen joins in on washboard and bangs away on pieces of an old refrigerator, while Dave Hundreiser takes to the harmonica and Jew's harp. These elements, enveloped seamlessly within Parr's masterful finger-picking pace, make for a record that defines a bluesman's craft.

Of course, Parr would never have such things said about him. Though he admits that Barnswallow is one of the few of his works that he in genuinely pleased with, Parr is decidedly uncomfortable discussing himself with anyone.

"I'm not a good person to talk about myself ... I feel like I have a lot of work to do, and as I get older, I feel like it's getting farther and farther away from me," says Parr, his shoulders hunched up around his neck.

"It's an odd time of life, because I'm gonna be 46, and I'm feeling that real acutely. Suddenly it's real apparent in my mind," says Parr, grasping his mug. "I love doing this, so I hope it doesn't fall apart. But doing this is real tenuous, especially for folk musicians."

Parr gazes down at his hands and explains the recent struggles he's encountered since 2010. Overcoming alcoholism was a hard one, but one that affected his music for the better: Parr has been more productive in the last year than ever before. The most recent challenge of tendonitis and arthritis in his right hand is a much harder pill to swallow.

"Since I was a kid, and I started playing, you know, seven, eight years old, I got so obsessed with it.... Fast-forward 35 years, and I've been playing for hours every day for the bulk of my life. And it's finally catching up with me." Parr splays out his right hand, flexing it and straightening it. "My hand works differently now. The really aggressive picking that I was able to do five years ago is going away now. That's not necessarily a bad thing, I can do everything I've always done, I just have to work more at it and think a little bit harder about it."

That's where the music comes in. Parr has always turned to old folk heroes for inspiration and comfort, and he bookends Barnswallow with two classic tunes: the opening "Jimmy Bell," a Cat Iron original, and the closing "Rattlesnake," a timeworn Appalachian song.

"When we were sequencing [the record], it kind of came to me to start and end the thing somewhere other than myself," explains Parr. Discussing other people's music is the first time Parr gets really excited. He regards "Rattlesnake" as a "real" folk song, one of the few, and readily explains: "It's completely timeless. It has no reference to anything in any kind of space and time. It's like a lot of animal songs, something in the ground, something completely separate from time," says Parr with certainty. Something to aspire to, he adds.

Parr may not know it, or he may not believe it, but when it comes to real folk music, he sweeps the category. Barnswallow might be Parr's strongest record yet, and it's certainly his most triumphant — but let's not tell him. We'll give him something to aspire to.

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