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Interview with Charlie Parr

Charlie Parr

Image & Video by Jan-Willem Dikkers

“That’s the beauty of guitar. Each one has
a voice of its own, and you have to
find where your style fits in with its voice.”

Charlie Parr

Charlie Parr
Charlie Parr is an American country blues musician based in Duluth, Minnesota. Parr’s influences include Charlie Patton, Bukka White, Reverend Gary Davis, Dave Van Ronk and Mississippi John Hurt, among others. His most recent album, Dog, is out now via Red House Records.

Influenced by his father’s record collection of old blues, folk and country legends, Charlie Parr began playing guitar at age eight. In his early 20s, Parr began to write his own music and lyrics and eventually released his debut album, Criminals and Sinners, in 2002. His newest album, Dog, is out now via Red House Records. Parr discusses his musical influences, his writing methods and his experience recording for the first time ever using a full band.

Where are you from?
Duluth, Minnesota.


When did you start making music?
I started playing guitar when I was about eight, but I didn’t start performing until the mid to late 80s. I haven’t had a job in 14 years, which is how long I’ve been able to do this without having to do much of anything else.

Anthology of American Folk Music
Released in 1952 by Folkways Records, The Anthology of American Folk Music is a six-album compilation of 84 American folk, blues and country music recordings from 1927-1932. Arranged by experimental filmmaker Harry Smith using his personal collection of 78 rpm records, the album is hailed by critics as being a touchstone for the American folk revival of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Mance Lipscomb
Born in 1895 as Beau De Glen Lipscomb, Mance Lipscomb was an American blues singer, guitarist and songster from Navasota, Texas. Lipscomb lived most of his life as a Texas farmer before being discovered and recorded in 1960. He went on to be an important figure in the American folk music revival, performing regularly at folk festivals and folk-blues clubs around the US.

Mississippi John Hurt
Born in 1892, John Smith Hurt, better known as Mississippi John Hurt, was an American country blues singer and guitarist from Avalon, Mississippi. Hurt taught himself guitar at age nine and worked as a sharecropper, while playing his guitar and singing at dances and parties. In 1963, Hurt was persuaded to move to Washington D.C. where he was recorded a year later by the Library of Congress. His work helped further the American folk music revival, which led him and other Delta blues musicians to recognition in the annals of folk history.


Who did you listen to growing up?
My dad’s record collection was weird and eclectic. The thing that started me playing guitar was three records he had that I listened to over and over: Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Blues In My Bottle, Mance Lipscomb’s Texas Sharecropper and Songster by Arhoolie and a live record from Albert King called Live Wire/Blues Power. The rest of his collection is great. There’s a lot of real old country western, old folk music, some Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly stuff. And that led me on trips to the library to dig for other things. He had a couple of volumes of the Harry Smith anthology which had me digging for blues guitar players, like Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb. Their style was really the style I tried to figure out how to play, and it’s still what I’m trying to figure out how to play.


“I had a lot of road time last year and some dealings with depression and other things that have come up in my life. Songs for me always come from personal spaces, but these songs have more of a personal edge to them.”
— Charlie Parr


How and when did you decide that this is what you wanted to do?
I don’t know that I did decide, and I’m still not really sure that I have. When I first started to play, I just played all the time—I didn’t want to do anything else. And it made such a feeling within me that I became addicted to having a guitar around and making sounds, much less songs. Opportunities came along that I was really lucky to have, and I haven’t had to do other work in a while. But even if nobody wanted to hear me do this, I would be doing it anyway.


What life event has impacted you the most, and what role has that played in your music?
So far, the death of my father has impacted me most. I’ve had two children since, and that’s been a massive impact. But losing my dad in 1995 when I was 25-26—I didn’t get enough time with him. I hadn’t written an original song up to that point. I was concerned with learning how to play songs that that had been recorded by these old guys, and when my dad died, the way I dealt with grief was that it started coming out in songs. To this day, that remains the musical thing that happened to me that changed everything. I don’t know what would have happened otherwise. He would have passed sooner or later—he was 72. He died of cancer. He didn’t have a good death. He was kind of taken apart by doctors and not really put back together again and then died. So it was hard.


“When a song is actually done, I honestly stop playing it. I’ve written songs that felt really done that I can’t do anything more with, and I never played them again.”
— Charlie Parr


Tell me a little bit about your upcoming album.
The new record is called Dog, and it’s a set of songs I wrote kind of thinking about the last year. I had a lot of road time last year and some dealings with depression and other things that have come up in my life. Songs for me always come from personal spaces, but these songs have more of a personal edge to them. It was a fun record. Some friends of mine and I sat down and recorded it. We played the whole record live, basically, in a studio in Minneapolis, and I was pretty thrilled with the way it turned out. It has a real live and spontaneous feel to it. There’s more improvisational moments on this record than I’ve never had on any other record before, and I’m happy with that.


What instruments are you most into these days?
The resonator guitar and the twelve-string have been the things I’ve been most interested in for a long, long time. I get around a little bit on the banjo, not as much as I want to be. In the last year, I’ve been really interested in the electric guitar, but I haven’t found a space where we communicate very well yet. When I came to the guitar, I came to acoustic guitar, and I didn’t bother with an electric guitar for a long time. But recently I’ve gotten ahold of one, and so far I’ve liked what I found. That’s the beauty of guitar. Each one has a voice of its own, and you have to find where your style fits in with its voice.


Tell us a little about your writing process and your other writings aside from lyrics.
I don’t know that there’s a process. Songs kind of show up in a way, and it’s hard to decipher what they’re doing. I usually start by writing down the idea behind the lyrics and what I want—the story that the song might tell. It’s written down as a little short story and then distilled into a song. Musically, I play the guitar a lot and end up with these little shards and fragments of things that are interesting and get fleshed out or borrowed. Like a lot of folk music, it’s a complex structure of stolen bits and made-up fragments. The music kind of grows out of those pieces and either conforms or doesn’t conform to fit the lyrics. And then you start to mash and juggle and fight and edit and squirrel things around until it feels like it’s kind of a song, and even then, it’s still not really done. It gets performed or recorded or whatever happens next, and every single night that you play it it gets rewritten because you’re not quite done with it. It’s always something you’re tinkering with, which is what I love about songwriting and music. You never have to be done with it. You create it again every single time you play it, and some weird, little sense of it gets changed or rewritten. When a song is actually done, I honestly stop playing it. I’ve written songs that felt really done that I can’t do anything more with, and I never played them again. There’s like four songs that I’ve written that I think are really good, but I’ve never played them since I finished them.


“I like to do the things I did when I was 14. I ride my bicycle and listen to records and play the guitar and read books and try to stay out of trouble.”
— Charlie Parr


How about your books?
That’s different. I’m not much of a writer. The short story author I’m most taken with is Raymond Carver. Carver stories are mostly terrifying, but they’re just weird snapshots of things that happened or didn’t happen. When I sit down and write an essay of some event that happened—walking the dog or something dumb that all of us do—I don’t understand why anybody would want to read it, but it’s a fascinating exercise to write about something that’s so mundane because those are the things that make a life. You may go see the Grand Canyon once, and it’s great and beautiful. But it’s the everyday weird little thing that you do, like walking your dog down this one street where you know you’ll see some other dogs. It happens every day, and there’s a weird, meaningful piece in that that I don’t find when I visit a monument or do something gigantic. It’s the same with music and shows. The shows that mean the most to me are the little weekly things I love going to and seeing the same people who come every week. The big shows come and go, but there’s this small piece you get to have all the time. Writing for me has come back again and again to these odd little pieces.


Explain the idea behind your album title.
I was going to call it Dog for a long time because the title track “Dog” sounded like a good cornerstone for the rest of the album. Then other songs came along that were apparently also about dogs. Then an artist from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, J. White, made this beautiful painting of a dog, and that kind of cinched it. There was beautiful cover art of a dog, so it had to be Dog.

Chuck Johnson
Chuck Johnson is a composer and musician based in Oakland, California. Johnson released his first record, What A Friend We Have In Jesus in 1999 and has gone on to release a plethora of other albums, including his most recent Balsams (2017). His work as a film composer includes scores for HBO’s Private Violence (2014) and PBS’s A Chef’s Life (2013-16).

Marissa Anderson
Marissa Anderson is a musician, composer and multi-instrumentalist from Portland, Oregon. Her music includes elements of country, blues, folk and gospel. Anderson has released six studio albums, including one with musician Tashi Dorji as well as her most recent album Into The Light (2016).


Who would you most like to collaborate with and why?
Of the people that I’m contemporary with, names that jump out are Chuck Johnson from up near San Francisco and Marissa Anderson. Both brilliant guitarist. I don’t know how I would fit in with them, and collaboration’s hard because I mostly just play by myself, but I feel really close to the kind of music that they make. If I could go back in history, I would collaborate with any number of old blues guitar players, or most likely sit quietly and watch them play.


“The shows that mean the most to me are the little weekly things I love going to and seeing the same people who come every week. The big shows come and go, but there’s this small piece you get to have all the time.”
— Charlie Parr


What are your interests and passions outside of music?
I read a lot. I like art. I like to do the things I did when I was 14. I ride my bicycle and listen to records and play the guitar and read books and try to stay out of trouble. Sit quietly. That’s a pastime.


What are your favorite books, film and music right now?
Lately, I’ve been reading through Paul Bowles novels which are terrifying and amazing. I’m on the third one right now. I haven’t seen a lot of film. Today we went to Watts Towers, and that was amazing. I was really happy being to visit that piece of art. I travel so much now. Last year I did 272 shows. I’m lucky to find myself in parts of the country that have things I want to go and look at. Up north are the amazing monuments that Dominic Gospodor built. I do a lot of that kind of stuff when I have the time, and like I said, I’m in a pretty lucky position to drive around in a van, play guitar and look at stuff.


What or where is next?
After Los Angeles, I head back up to coast to Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Then a few days in Eugene and Bend, Oregon. Then up to Bellingham and Seattle, British Columbia a little bit and then start weaving my way back to home. I’ll be back in Duluth for a few weeks before I go east. I have a little break over the winter, and then in February I head to Europe for a bit and come back. By that time, we’ll have started thinking about recording again if anybody wants to do that.

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