August 30, 2007

Interviewing Charlie Parr

Hard working. Authentic.

With fans ranging from Greg Brown (who compares Charlie to Dave Van Ronk) to R. Crumb, Charlie has played stages across America and the British Isles. His fan base is as varied as the landscape of his songs. In his audience you will find dyed-in-the-wool folkies, tie-dyed 'heads, and anyone else up for a good story. Charlie's music has roots, to be sure, but his songs aren't slavish attempts to relive history - rather, they are visions of a modern world framed by the sounds of tradition.

Raised in Austin, Minnesota, Charlie's house was filled with music. His father's passion for the field recordings of Alan Lomax and Harry Smith coupled with his own stories of the Depression, riding freight trains, and traveling in the Piedmont region gave Charlie a living connection to the past. Charlie moved to the Twin Cities, and began playing out in 1988. There he was able to listen and learn from folks like Dave Ray and John Koerner. In 2000, Charlie headed north to Duluth, a place that he still calls home today.

It seems that there has been a new resurgence in old time music. From people performing blues in the more rural and country styles to the rising crop of string bands, there seems to be a growing audience (and number of performers) for this music. Since you have been on this path for a while, is this a fair assessment? How has your audience changed / grown since your days living on the West Bank?

I think that’s right, but I also think that folk music (old folk music) has a core audience that’s always there, and always playing regardless of how popular it is. I’ve gotten a younger audience from this whole thing, which is very cool, and I still see the same folks who come out because they’ve supported folk music for a long time. Most of the time I think folks who are attracted because it’s popular also find something in the music that moves them, and then you’ll see them at shows when the buzz is gone.

Often your guitar style is identified as “Piedmont-style”. How would you describe that to someone who might be more familiar with Delta blues, or Texas players like Blind Lemon Jefferson?

Piedmont is tough to describe, really, because it refers to a region (south Appalachians down through Atlanta or so) and not so much a specific style. Blind Boy Fuller is considered Piedmont by most, and so’s Elizabeth Cotten, and the two aren’t really much alike. A lot of folks put Mississippi John Hurt in there, and he was from MS, so it’s a pretty broad category. I usually say it refers to the action of keeping the rhythm with your thumb while you play the melody with your fingers, to put it in a nutshell. But I don’t really know how to play that way, either. I watched a banjo player playing what he called “parlor style” banjo and picked up my right hand from that.

When people perform or write in classic styles, sometimes it seems that there is an emphasis placed on orthodoxy – the idiom over the song. Your approach to the music seems authentic – not in the sense of adherence to any orthodoxy, but rather as a participant in part of a tradition. How do you feel about your role in this music?

I don’t know what my role is. I like songs, and it happens that the music I’ve listened to all my life happens to be old folk & rural blues music, so the songs I make sound like that. I would never set out to write something “in the style of”, it just comes out how it comes out. The tradition that I think is more important is that of people expressing themselves through songs, and making music into their own voice.

I know that you are heading out to the UK for, I believe, your fifth tour. How is traditional American music (and music written in that style) received by UK audiences? Do you find the kind of audience you have in the UK is very different than in the US?

It’s been wonderful to be able to travel in the UK - the audiences are very receptive and like here, there’s a huge interest in old folk music. There are a lot of great players in the UK who are blending old American sounds with old British sounds and coming up with some amazing stuff (check out My Two Toms from Bristol for a taste). The crowds aren’t that much different - certain places folks want to listen, others they want to dance or party or drink or talk ... in either place. I try to be part of whatever is happening at the time, instead of struggling against it.

If you were to point someone who is interested in your music to some listening of traditional performers, the roots of Charlie Parr, what would you recommend?

There could be a huge list here – everything I’ve ever listened to has gone into the pot. Mostly folks like Charlie Patton, Bukka White, Blind Willie Johnson, Spider John Koerner, John Fahey - but also stuff like The Clash, Huun-Huur-Tu, Woody Guthrie, and a whole mess of field recordings that were around when I was growing up. I always point folks to Harry Smith’s Anthology pretty much right off the bat.

Your albums have a great feel to them. Can you talk a little about the recording process, particularly the most recent album Jubilee?

Thanks - I can’t get a good recording unless I’m comfortable, so I’ve tried to do each one as though it were a performance - I prefer performing to recording. Jubilee was done out in a garage that my good friend and neighbor, Dave Hundrieser, has. He also played harmonica on it. We just sat down with some beer in front of microphones (ribbon-style) and recorded whatever we did live-to-tape. Then I went back and listened to it and picked out the record. I like the feel of a single place in time, an event, for the recording - which is what I think we got.

Often you perform on your own, or occasionally with others sharing the evening’s stage. Your albums though seem to have at least a few extra players, and Jubilee is no exception. Do you prefer to perform on your own? What do you like / dislike about either approach?

I like playing alone best, because then I can do whatever I want, but it gets stale after a bit, even for me, and I know for folks trying to listen. It’s great to play with washboard - the beat is erratic, unlike a drummer, and it seems to flow with the music (I have little or no rhythm of my own, so playing with a fixed beat is hard & kind of kills the music for me). I also enjoy playing with Dave H. (harmonica), he has a great approach to the tunes and really knows the old stuff. Playing guitar is always good, no matter who’s there, or if no one’s there - I just really enjoy doing it.

We can’t get through an interview for a guitar-centric blog without getting into some talk about the tools of the trade. I’ve seen you playing two different NRP Delphis, the Dell’Arte 12-String, and an open-backed banjo. In our last conversation, you alluded to a vintage National living at the Parr house. Tell us a bit about your guitars. When did you (and how did you) decide on using resophonic guitars? For the insufferably curious, what are your preferences regarding strings / picks / capos? What tunings do you prefer?

I have a 1933 Duolian that I play a lot at home and sometimes at shows that are quieter. My favorite is a National Delphi with a rooster painted on the back - it’s been my constant guitar for many years - when I got it, I sold my wood 6-string and I’ve never looked back. The sound just seems to fit what I do. My banjo is a fretless Mike Ramsey, and the 12-string is the Leadbelly model, which is a copy of his 1937 Stella. The only thing on my wish list is a 12-string from Todd Cambio’s shop. I use medium nickel sets on the Nationals, the heavy custom 12-string sets (14gauge) for the Dell Arte, a metal thumbpick (tears up the finish, but sounds so good - stops folks from loaning me their guitars though) & 2 fingerpicks. I play mostly in open D, G, & C major with some minor variations of those - the banjo stays in either gCGCE, gDGBD, g#BEBE most of the time.

Your stomp box looks fresh and new…and while there might be a bungee, there is no apparent duct tape. What is inside the new box? While on the topic of electronics, I see that you have one of the Lace / NRP pickups on the Delphi. How do you like that, and what are you using on the Dell’Arte?

The box is a new one that a friend from Eau Claire built for me (thanks Dan), and it’s more compact and sounds better than the old one - plus has less of a duct tape habit. There’s some foam and a Shure 57 inside - no underwear, stocking caps, bags, or other garbage inside this time. I like the Lace, and the 12 has a Rare Earth from Fishman - but I prefer to use a mic as well (I use a Beta 57) or just the mic if I can.

For a man making music that recalls a different era, you have decidedly embraced technology to a degree. You have a well thought out website, online sales, media content, a MySpace page, and videos on YouTube. How has this technology helped you as a working musician? What advice would you give to other musicians about using technology to the same end?

My wife Emily and I decided that if we’re going to do this, then we’d might as well make an effort to go the distance. I don’t really like computers and whatnot, but it has helped me to keep on going - more folks know about the shows, and have better access to buying music from me - I’m independent, so it’s been good to be able to get my own word out.

Thanks a lot Charlie!

For more information about Charlie, when he is playing, and to buy any of his albums, visit his website.

Or, add Charlie as a friend on MySpace...

You can also hear Charlie here and here.

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