Dust Bowl Jubilee

Charlie Parr plays down-to-dirt, Piedmont -style country blues

Charlie Parr plays down-to-dirt, Piedmont -style country blues

Charlie Parr

Charlie Parr is a regular guy. Raised in a blue-collar family in Austin, Minnesota, Parr is the kind of guy you'll find parked in folding chairs throughout the garages of America. He'd be the first to tell you that he's no progressive artist. Parr, who doesn't think of himself as an artist at all, is a traditionalist with the unlikely ability to pen a tune that rings with the authenticity of his source material. He's a gruff-voiced, nimble-fingered guitar player with a passion for the folk music of a mostly forgotten era. And if he's also a sort of revivalist, carrying a torch into the future, he sure doesn't seem to know it. (See CP cover story, "Charlie Parr's Weird America," 2/22/06.)

With the upcoming release of Jubilee, his fifth full-length album of down-to-dirt, Piedmont-style country blues, Charlie Parr is feeling pretty comfortable. He's roamed more roads over the past four years than a tumbleweed gypsy, rambling the asphalt mainline with the same gut-wrenching compulsion that brings an alcoholic back to his favorite bar night after night. He's toured the U.K. repeatedly, where his music, thanks largely to the Leeds-based label Misplaced Music, has cracked the top five on the independent charts. At 40 years of age, he's already fulfilled the only musical ambition he ever really had: playing the same stage as the legendary "Spider" John Koerner. Yet in a recent conversation over beers and fried onion rings, Parr makes self-deprecating statements like "I'm not a musician," and "I don't really know how to play guitar," with surprising frequency.

Parr grew up with a deep love for American roots music. His father, a man who he claims, "Never trusted anything you had to plug in," introduced him at a young age to the dust-ravaged folk sounds of men like Charley Patton, Furry Lewis, and Leadbelly.

"When I was a little kid my dad had this big Magnavox console stereo where the TV would probably have been in anyone else's house. We used to listen to old things like those Smithsonian/Folkways field recordings. I always loved that stuff," Parr recalls.

Inspired by the raw energy of those recordings, Parr seeks out a similarly primitive sound in his own music. "My evolution has really been more of a devolution," he explains. "When I change things I tend to go backwards, get a fretless banjo, find a stick and rock—instead of (using) electricity, I try to get further away from it."

Recorded live over two days spent in a friend's garage near Parr's Duluth home, Jubilee was made with nothing but a few acoustic instruments, a handful of ribbon mics, and an 8-track reel-to-reel.

"It sounds like a bunch of guys who'd been drunk for days, sitting in the garage playing music, because that's what it was," explains Parr. Joined by friends and family on makeshift noisemakers like the "board," "Jim Beam bottle," and "cello-like object," Jubilee is yet another document of downright musical sincerity from a man who wears authenticity like a dirty undershirt.

"(The new record) doesn't differ wildly from the last three things I did," Parr happily admits. "But you know what you're getting with me."

Like his previous records, Jubilee showcases Parr's own exceptional narratives of outcast and marginalized humanity, alongside a couple of traditional numbers. Here, he's chosen "99 Year Blues," a song he was introduced to via Julius Daniel's version on The American Anthology of Folk Music, and "Jesus on the Mainline," a rollicking number filled out with washboard, harmonica, and the loose swagger of a rickety locomotive charging down the line.

As a songwriter, Parr continues to draw inspiration from grim reality, often presenting themes at least tangentially related to his history as a homeless outreach worker. "Twenty-Nine," one of Jubilee's most dramatic tracks, is based on the real-life story of a schizophrenic youth whose mismedication after an arrest for a minor offense spiraled into a tragic death in prison.

His music may sound dejected (friends blame it on listening to too much Tom Waits and reading too much Raymond Carver), but he assures his audience not to worry about ol' Charlie.

"In my personal life, I've got a son and daughter, and my beautiful wife. It's hard to write lowdown, pessimistic songs when you feel so good all the time," he says. "But I don't write about myself, anyway." Instead, Parr translates the world he observes around him into the endangered language of an old sound that's been with him all his life.

Tony Glover once claimed, "I started with Chicago blues and went back towards Leadbelly. The reverse process is true for most blues musicians." And back in 1963, nary a generation removed from the genre's birth, that may have been true. But that was almost half a century ago. Today, great Depression-era figures like Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Willie Johnson, and Bukka White are too often lost in the cracks of a vast blues history. Sure, we have our elder statesmen like Glover, "Spider" John, and Willie Murphy to remind us of the blues' roots, but it's nice to have someone like Charlie Parr around too, stompin' up dust on a regular basis, passing the story along to the next kid in line.