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Duluth, Minn. — It all started with those old recordings.
Charlie Parr grew up in Austin, in southern Minnesota. His dad loved to listen to Smithsonian field recordings of ballads and blues tunes - music from Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta - and Charlie Parr caught the bug.
He listens to lots of other stuff. He likes classical music, and he loves jazz. He has records by the Sex Pistols and the Clash. But it's that old folk and blues music that really grabs him.
And that's what his songs sound like. Some people say he reminds them of Dave Van Ronk. The comparison thrills Charlie Parr.
He moved to Duluth a couple years ago, and he's become a fixture on the local scene. These days, he plays out two or three times a week. He plays a mix of old songs and his own tunes.
"I like to think that during the course of a performance I can touch on a few different areas," he says. "I don't play a lot of blues tunes."
Still, people tend to call him a blues musician. Partly it's a semantic disagreement. Parr plays some Big Bill Broonzy tunes, and most people call that music "blues." Charlie Parr calls it "folk music."
He says his guitar also makes it hard to shake the "blues" label. "People just assume you're going to play Delta blues on that," he says, waving his hand at the steel-bodied, National guitar in the corner.
"It's the way that guitar looks. It's accepted that this is the guitar that those kind of itinerant '30s bluesmen wanted. It's loud. You can play it on the street."
He picks a bluesy lick. The notes have a metallic "pank" that sounds like, well, the blues.
"That's what you should play on it," he says. "You play the blues."
But Parr uses this guitar in some less-expected ways.
"I actually write a lot of songs on the banjo, and then play them on this," he says.
The title song from the new CD is one of those songs. It's a story song with an old-time ballad feel.
Well I worked all summer couldn't save a cent
I gave all my money to the government
I don't know quite how it got spent
But the banks a comin' for my deed boys
Man at the mill can't see, boys
To let me get my feed for free, boys
Ain't that the way it is
Well I met me a woman down in St. PaulParr says that song came out of stories his dad told him.
I even met her mother and I met her pa
Brother told me he'd bust my jaw
If I talked to his sister again, boys
Told me I couldn't win, boys
Now there's blood running down my chin, boys
Ain't that the way it is
"He grew up during the Depression," Parr says about his father. "They were tenant farmers in Iowa. And he left for quite a time and rode the freight trains down in Texas and in the southern part of the country looking for work."
Charlie Parr says his songs often start out with a true life tale. But they don't hew strictly to the facts.
"You end up getting it mixed up with the sticky pieces of other stories that people tell you, or places that you end up," he says. "And there's a lot of wonderful places like that in Duluth. There's weird old crooked buildings downtown, and strange locations that kind of spark ideas."
There's someone out there
But I can't make her out
Salvation Army shoes on
The soles all walked out
I know that I knew her
And we were in love
Long time gone
Anyhow, here comes the bus
It must be the bus stop
There through the snow
And the wind whips right through her
Thin winter coat
Charlie Parr's tunes tend to be dark. He says he doesn't write songs about happy people who are doing okay.
"It depends on what you mean," he says. "I've got a couple of songs about happy people, but they're really not doing okay, in the kind of terms that we like to think about people doing okay. I've got, really, no songs about people who are doing okay."
Parr says that stands to reason.
"We're more apt to tell stories about things that are wrong," he says. "It's not a really good story to say, 'I'm so happy, I'm doing great, and everything's wonderful.' And I'm certainly not going to sing about it." The new CD is a spare production - many of the songs were recorded at Dakota Dave Hull's studio in Minneapolis. It's mostly Charlie Parr and his guitar. He plays banjo on Mississippi John Hurt's song, "Louis Collins," his wife sings on three tunes, and he has a friend provide some washboard and a little thumping on a washtub and pieces of scrap metal.
Charlie Parr says he wanted the recording to sound rough around the edges.
"When people buy it," he says, "I want them to take it home, and say, 'Yeah, that's the guy I just saw. It's about half-way there. That's him. He's about half-way finished.'"
He wants the CD to "take you along to these different spots, and you hear about these different people," he says.
"Some of it is pretty serious," Parr says. But some tunes are "really silly things, like the Jesus song, where Jesus hangs out in a bar and threatens everybody with hell because they won't buy him drinks."
The waitress hollered 'last call'
We all bought him a round
I met Jesus at the Kenmore
And he almost took us down
Charlie Parr plays at Sir Benedict's Tavern in Duluth every Friday night. He'll be there this Friday, November 15th, and he says he'll have a box of his new CDs with him.