Charlie Parr is a folk and blues singer-songwriter. He’s from Minnesota. He plays National resonator and acoustic guitars, but he doesn’t do electric. He doesn’t do modern recording studios either.

Call him an old soul, rootsy, or traditional– it doesn’t matter, because these labels don’t do Charlie Parr any justice. While influenced by musical-forefathers as esoteric to the 21st century layman as John Fahey or Charlie Patton, what Charlie Parr’s folk music ultimately captures is the essence of a man who knows exactly who he is and what he wants to be doing. I had the opportunity to speak with Parr, where I was taken down an avenue of this country’s musical history that I hadn’t investigated before. But what I learned from Parr was not musical as much as it was philosophical. In a world that gives itself up to the transient deity of consumer culture, Parr knows he can find the answers in his guitar, Minnesota heritage and  family.

 

JH (Jeff Howard): Why don’t we start off talking about your new album? It’s an all-instrumental album, five tunes, and it’s called “Hollandale”. What makes that album unique, and what’s your take on it in general?

CP (Charlie Parr): Well, it’s the first time I’ve really done an instrumental record. I’ve recorded instrumentals before for different projects, but I’ve never done it intending for it to be released. It was a situation where I was telling (musician and friend) Alan Sparhawk how much I wanted to do an instrumental record, because a lot of the music I love the most is instrumental guitar music. You know, John Fahey all the way to Jack Rose and stuff like that. I listen to a lot of stuff like that at home but I’ve never felt like I’ve had the guts to do it all myself. Alan was really supportive and he talked me into trying some stuff. I went over to his house and what I did was I just tuned the guitar to some of the tunings.

The title track is from the part of Minnesota where my uncle had a vegetable farm. I spent a lot of time out there. I thought about that landscape when I was playing the song, and that’s where it came from. But that’s a totally different way to do this stuff for me.

JH: You say the titles depicted what you were going for with the song. So with a title like “I Dreamed I Saw Paul Bunyon Last Night”, is that exactly as it sounds? Is it a song about Paul Bunyon in a dream?

CP: Well, it’s more of a nightmare. Every morning, for the last few years, I wake up at 1:30 in the morning. I don’t know if it’s an age thing or what, I’m not that old. One morning I woke up and I had had this… you know you get those dreams where you can see a little bit of it, but I did remember a lot of this one. I was camping in the woods in Minnesota and I knew Paul Bunyon was out in the woods somewhere. It was not nice – it wasn’t like the friendly, happy Paul Bunyon. It was really a bad thing.  It was scaring the crap out of me, and I was running through the woods trying to find a place that I could hide from this menacing lumberjack. I had told Alan about that dream, and it was on my mind when I was working out that particular tune. It’s in this banjo-inspired tuning from double C, you know, “C G C G C C”. It’s very drone-y. It’s more or less thinking about that bad dream.

JH: When I was reading about you the word “rooted” came up a lot. Your sound is rooted in spirituals and the blues, your Minnesota heritage, your “National” guitars, etc. Throughout the course of your discography and your musical career, how have you moved forward while still keeping those roots?

CP: I think the stuff I listen to, especially the contemporary stuff, is more keeping with experimental or American primitive kind of guitar playing. You know, that always has a lot of room to grow, I feel like. Especially if you listen to the guys like Bill Orcutt, who’s just so far out there it’s really, really interesting. I listen to a lot of that stuff too, although the stuff I was raised on, the stuff my dad liked, his record collection was all old folk music and old blues music. That was pretty much all there was. I feel like, instrumentally, I listen to some of the more experimental, ambient music and that inspires me quite a bit.  Songwriting wise that comes from another kind of place altogether. I feel so far like I’ve not gotten to the bottom of that well yet, as far as feeling like I’ve got stuff to write about. If I can continue to sit the two things together and move in a different musical direction, with having more stuff to write about I think I can go a little while longer without wearing everybody out.

JH: I was reading on your website that your album “King Earl” is your favorite record. What is it about “King Earl” in particular that you like so much?

CP: I felt like I got to a place with that particular record where the songwriting got to be a little coherent finally. The songs have a beginning, middle and an end. It made more sense. I got more comfortable, I guess, with how I write songs, for that record. To me, that made it the most memorable thing I’ve done. 95% of my show is going to be original material, probably 40% of that is going to be from “King Earl”, just because it’s still the point where I finally feel comfortable with the songs that I’ve written. The new songs that I’ve written and the songs I’m going to record this summer are really coherent, and I’m happy with them. That’s good for me, because it’s hard to be really satisfied with anything you do, I think, if you’re doing this kind of stuff. It’s easy to be really, really hard on yourself. You almost feel like you want to quit some days. If you can’t make yourself happy, how can you make anyone else happy?

JH: I know your music has been in advertisements before. “1922” was in a Vodafone ad and “Hello Trouble” was in a Gerber Gear ad. Since a big part of your sound is about its authenticity to the style of music that inspires you – and I know a lot of artists have different views on giving their music up to commercials – do you feel like you are sacrificing any of your authenticity by giving your music to these commercials? What was your stance on that?

CP: Well, I got into that stuff kind of in a backwards way, because I’ve never paid any attention to the licensing end of the stuff. I’ve just played guitar. But there was a company that used my music in an advertisement, and when I had found out about it, I got in touch with a very nice woman from Los Angeles to sort out how I could be in more control of it. At the same time, I’m trying to be educated – this is always a tough one for me – as far as just trying to be sustainable and keep on doing this. As long as I don’t have to write anything specifically for anybody, I’m happy about that. I would never be able to write music for an advertisement. That doesn’t make sense to me. I like doing music for films, that’s been really fun. When people have wanted to grab my music for ads, this day in age it’s really hard because three times now, the music’s been taken and used before I knew about it. And then, you’d have to go back and catch them up. I’m pretty adamant about wanting to hold people a little bit more accountable for stuff like that. So I’ve gotten this company to help me out with that. That’s helped me out a lot. And she’s also done other things, and my music’s ended up in some other ads here and there. Obviously, I’m not super comfortable with that, but it’s kind of the world now. As uncomfortable as this whole thing makes me, I understand that it’s part of the world now. I don’t like it. I don’t much like it. I think that, my reaction to it has been to try to grab as much control over it as I can, and make sure that the people who are making those ads aren’t feeling like they’re in a situation where they can just do whatever they want. I worry that, a lot of musicians, they shy away from it like I always did. The people who are making these ads, doing the money stuff, they’re going to do it anyway. And then they get to keep the money.

JH: So finally, you’re making an appearance at “Bop Shop” records in Rochester, and they specialize in roots music. Are you looking forward to showing up there?

CP: I am. I love record stores. I have a horrible, horrible problem with record stores. I don’t smoke drugs, or do much drinking or womanizing. I have a problem with records, I always have. Ever since I was a kid, I’d come home with stacks and stacks of records.

JH: I understand that for sure. Here in Rochester there’s some cool record stores to find, and there’s a lot of gems.

 

Charlie Parr will make his appearance at Rochester NY’s “Bop Shop Records” on February 20th.  For more information about Charlie Parr, visit www.charlieparr.com.

Howard is a member of the class of 2017.

 

 



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