Many people play roots music, but few modern musicians live those roots like Minnesota's Charlie Parr. Recording since the earliest days of the 21st century, Parr's heartfelt and plaintive original folk blues and traditional spirituals don't strive for authenticity: They are authentic.
It's the music of a self-taught guitarist and banjo player who grew up without a TV but with his dad's recordings of America's musical founding fathers, including Charley Patton and Lightnin' Hopkins, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. With his long scraggly hair, father-time beard, thrift-store workingman's flannel and jeans, and emphatic, throaty voice, Parr looks and sounds like he would have fit right into Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music."
Most of his recordings, including Roustabout (2008), Jubilee (2007), Rooster (2005), King Earl (2004), 1922 (2002) and Criminals and Sinners (2001) eschew typical studio settings. He has recorded in warehouses, garages, basements and storefronts, usually on vintage equipment, which gives his work the historic feel of field recordings. It's not because he wants to sound like he was discovered 75 years ago by Alan Lomax; it's because most modern recording studios make the reticent and self-effacing Parr feel uncomfortable. He often works with engineer and mastering master Tom Herbers of Third Ear Studios in Minneapolis to give his recordings true fidelity no matter what the format, from mp3 to 180 gram vinyl to whatever is in between. Yet his music sounds so timeless that you half wonder if there's not a scratchy Paramount 78 of Charlie Parr singing and strumming somewhere.
To many, Parr is considered a regional artist, which is another way of saying he doesn't like to travel far from his family's Depression era roots. "From Cleveland to Seattle and down to San Francisco and back is my area," he says, though the focus is unquestionably Minnesota and the Northern Plains. Yet he's built a big enough audience in both Ireland and Australia to tour both regularly. He's had especially good fortune Down Under, where his "1922 Blues" was used as the counterintuitive music behind a Vodafone mobile commercial and became a viral and radio success. Three of his songs added atmospheric resonance to the 2010 Australian western "Red Hill." On his last tour, his fourth of that continent, he was a guest DJ for three hours on a Melbourne roots music radio station, on which he played songs from his own mix CD. "The newest thing on it was some Bukka White recordings from the 1940s," Parr says with some incredulity. "People were calling all morning to say how much they like the music."
Quiet, thoughtful and humble, Parr has made two albums of spirituals, and a few traditional songs of the hard life and the hereafter are always in his live sets. Such music isn't necessarily rooted in the Methodist church in which he grew up: "It was more like, let's get the service over quick so we can get downstairs and drink coffee and have pie!" But faith, though undefined, underlines all of Charlie's music, both in the listening, the covering, the writing and performing.