Sunday, December 2, 2012

Charlie Parr "Barnswallow" interview

Barnswallow starts and finishes with folk songs made popular in part by Dave Ray and Spider John of Koerner, Ray & Glover. There's a strong folk, blues, and bluegrass tradition in Minnesota that's still thriving today. Do you know how these music forms typically associated with the South and Appalachia took root here? Did it begin with Koerner, Ray & Glover and the Minneapolis folk revivalists of the early 1960's or does it go back earlier than that? 
I'm guessing that it goes back to 1952 and Harry Smith's Anthology...but I'm only guessing on that. The folk scene in the Twin Cities and particularly the West Bank and Dinkytown seems to have been really strong for a really long time, but obviously I've only been involved for a very short period of time. I'm definitely grateful for being able to participate the little bit that I have in such an amazing scene.

Where do you see yourself fitting into this tradition? When you were starting out in Minneapolis in the 1990's was there the same level of enthusiasm for folk music as there is today?
I don't know where I really fit in, sometimes I don't feel like I do much at all. The scene in the '90's was real strong but folkie stuff wasn't as popular as it is now, so there were a strong tight-knit group of followers but not huge. All I wanted to do was play and when I wasn't playing I wanted to see Spider John and Dave Ray play...among others. When I started writing songs of my own I felt a little more disconnected from the folkie thing but couldn't play any other way so I hung in there. People have been very good to me, even though I'm not really too traditional.

You mentioned in an interview with Uprooted Music Revue that you would be writing your next album with a unifying theme in mind. Do you feel you accomplished that with Barnswallow?
No. Maybe. Yeah, Maybe. The unifying theme seems to be wrapping up a couple years' worth of depression and stress into ten songs. Not that all of the songs reflect that, just that they represent that to me. I feel like I'm clear of it now, and the songs have kind of captured that bad time and playing them is turning out to be cathartic. I'm not sure that folks will be able to hear what they represent to me, I think it's more of symbolic thing than that, but it's making me feel better to keep singing them so I guess they can't be all bad.

I was particularly struck by the song "Badger." In most of the album's songs there's a lot of movement with the narrators traveling around or trying to escape something. Then there's this wonderful contemplative song right in the middle of the record. Can you talk a little bit about that song?

"Badger" is a kind of true song, it started out as a short story that turned into a poem and then a song. I like the challenge of trying to write a song describing a moment rather than a story. The moment in "Badger" is really several moments that I have in my memory of seeing my Dad at times when he didn't know I was watching. And it's the one song that's really autobiographical, I don't usually go for that kind of song but I suppose I'm getting older and maybe I'm having a mid-life crisis or maybe too many people close to me are sick or dead or depressed and I'm reacting to that. Plus badgers can be pretty nasty.

Henry fits in with a lot of the other characters you've written over the years. The music though for "Henry Goes to the Bank" is a little different than your usual style. Did that arrangement come together in the studio or is that how you originally envisioned the song?

"Henry Goes to the Bank" was a blues song, with different lyrics, and different music. And then when I was about to get going on the record I realized how stupid the song was and decided to toss it. But the first line I thought was ok, and so the rest of the song grew out of that line. The music sounded better on the banjo...then Dave brought out his mandolin...and it changed the song entirely...then Mikkel started playing that weird drum that he has...and it changed the song again...we did 2 takes and the 2nd one was better but we went with the 1st was the one where we didn't know the song yet.

Talk a bit about the other performers that appear on the album and what the recording sessions were like.

Mikkel Beckmen's been one of my closest friends for 15 odd years and we've played music together for nearly that long. He's a great percussionist who's really sensitive about the songs and getting the feel right. Dave Hundreiser's my favorite harmonica player, and he's an outstanding guitarist and plays a mean fingerstyle / bottleneck resonator mandolin. Dave's been my spiritual brother since the day I met him.

How about the title of the album, Barnswallow, where does that come from? Also, tell us about the album artwork and the artists behind that.

There was a song, a banjo instrumental, called "Barnswallow" that ended up on a split for Thrill Jockey with the Black Twig Pickers and Glenn Jones. It wasn't a very good song, and I decided not to include a version of it here, but already had spent the last year thinking of this record as Barnswallow and liked the title too much to change it. Anyway, Jamie Harper from Winona had painted this amazing picture of a barnswallow for the cover and Joe Tadie had created some incredible liner notes about barnswallows already so the song seemed irrelevant. Jamie's art is fantastic - it's alive, moving around, re-animating pieces of doors into living things. And Joe Tadie is my spiritual leader.

Within the past year or so Criminals and Sinners and King Earl were both released on vinyl and 1922 got another cd remaster and release. Did you go back and relisten to those albums during the reissue process? If so, did anything stand out in those recordings that you'd forgotten about?

I did listen again...I shouldn't have, but folks' still seem to like them and so I don't think that my opinion about them counts really. The songs are different now of course - songs are never done and I kind of continue writing them or else I lose what they were and leave them behind altogether. My favorite re-release is King Earl - that session was more like a show, and my favorite time as a musician is playing - the performance, the kind of moment of it, is the art. It goes away as soon as it's made but that's part of the beauty of it. On King Earl though I think we captured the performance.

In 2012 you worked on a variety of collaborative and solo projects. Reflecting on this past year, what have you learned? What would you like to do more of or maybe try a different way?

I'd really like to try some stuff with an accordion player. Also I want to do some more instrumentals. Playing with Jack Klatt's band was wonderful, he's a great player and really good fellow all around. I've been really lucky to have met such great folks and have some really incredible friends. It's been a good year, I had some personal demons needed slaying and they're nearly dead so hopefully I can collect the best of the last year or so and leave the rest behind.

What's ahead for you in 2013?

After Barnswallow's released, it'll be a lot of touring in the US and in Europe and the UK. I've got more than half the next record written, and Chaperone's been talking about releasing a vinyl version of Rooster and a 78 rpm single. Also working on the lyrics page of the new website and keeping on practicing. Plus there's a lot going on at home and such that needs some attention so it'll be a busy year for sure. I'm thinking about building a treehouse, but not sure where yet. Going into the woods up this way means you might get shot unless yr wearing blaze orange, I might head more south near Austin and build it down there. Michael Hall has a shack down near Austin, maybe I'll build my treehouse above his shack...I've already got some pretty good lumber, plywood, a few pallets, a bucket of nails that have been pulled out of other stuff and hammered straight, 2 lawn chairs and a painting of some cows for the wall.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Daily Circuit (11/30/12)

Check out the full interview and performance from Charlie's appearance yesterday on MPR's The Daily Circuit.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Barnswallow early release

Barnswallow on vinyl and cd for sale now at  Official release will be Feb. 1st with a pair of release party shows at the Cedar Cultural Center.  Get tickets here for the Feb. 1st show w/Jack Klatt and the Cat Swingers and here for the Feb 2nd show w/Murder of Crows.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Live from Studio A (11/2/12)

Interview and live performances of the King Earl tunes 1917, Reverend's Eviction Blues, Union Tramp, and closes with Motorcycle Blues from the forthcoming Barnswallow.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Walt Dizzo Show (11/1/12)

Union Tramp

Reverend Eviction's Blues

Ode to a New Dealer

Witches (Low cover)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

King Earl's Return

Album (re)release show for King Earl on vinyl at Clyde Iron Works in Duluth on Saturday, Nov. 3 at 9:30. Charlie will be joined by the two other musicians that originally recorded with him on King Earl: Mikkel Beckman on percussion, and Christian McShane on theremin. Admission is free. Local bands Southwire and Lion or Gazelle open. 

Charlie will be performing tonight (11/1) on KUWS' The Deans List hosted by Walt Dizzo from 10pm - 1am. Charlie will be performing live on the air and talking about the re-release of King Earl on vinyl courtesy of Chaperone Records.

He will also be performing on the KUMD program Live From Studio A on Nov. 2 at 2pm.

The Duluth News Tribune did a nice article on the King Earl re-release.  Read that here with some additional interview material here

Monday, October 15, 2012

Meeting Charlie Parr Documentary

Last week a film crew from France filmed Charlie around Duluth and at some shows for an upcoming documentary.  Right now details are few (and mostly in French) but check out their Facebook page and website for updates.  

The filmmakers also put up a journal of their trip with some photos.  Enjoy some of the strange poetry of Google translate until a translation is posted by the filmmakers.

"We join Charlie for a walk on a small peninsula, narrow strip of forest flanked by beaches. Two or three miles from Downtown, another world, a small Normandy dunes resting on the Lake Superior, an infinite horizon.  Nice place to discuss theology, philosophy and the darkness that marks each of his albums. The story of his parents and the Great Depression seem to haunt each of these pieces and then it is because he prefers songs are full of this darkness, quite naturally he turned to her.

On the porch of his house, Charlie plays Hogkill Blues, which recounts a major strike that divided once the city of his childhood, Austin. The song takes on a new dimension and gives the quiet street unprecedented intensity, Charlie Parr to witness the peaceful neighborhood."

Friday, August 24, 2012

Mikey's Kitchen interview

"A nice melt-sandwich can be had in 30 miles depending on the weather. This is all freeway, by the way, traveling in traffic changes everything and is harder since if you cook in hot weather and your commute is 30 minutes in traffic, you’ll end up burning your breakfast burrito."

Charlie and his publicist, Mike Farley, talk manifold cooking at Mikey's Kitchen blog

Saturday, August 4, 2012

1922 (2012 reissue)

1. Westbound Rattler
2. True Religion
3. Migrant Boxcar Train
4. Yo-Yo Blues
5. 1922 Blues
6. Country Blues
7. Louis Collins
8. Mahtowa Stomp
9. I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground
10. To a Scrapyard Bus Stop
11. Wreck of the Bernard K
12. Funeral Road Blues
13. Roses While I'm Leaving
14. Hogkill Blues
15. Jesus at the Kenmore
16. Old Jim Canan's
17. Farther Along

Now available at Charlie's website, 1922 is back again with an amazing cover by artist Wynn Davis.  Be sure to grab a copy before it sells out again.  There will be two release party shows coming up Aug. 14: The Electric Fetus at 7pm and the Turf Club later in the evening.

Also check out the first 1922 release party recorded back in 2003 by Jon Oelke at the Gingko Coffee House in St. Paul.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Friday, June 29, 2012

Big Highway

Features performances of "I Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down" and "Where You Gonna Be."  Check out the Big Highway Facebook page for more information and updates.

Behind the scenes photos:

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Playlist

The Playlist recently posted video from Charlie Parr's set at the benefit concert for the Light House from last October

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Charlie Parr interview (Apr. 2012)

After a recent show, Charlie sat down with us and discussed a variety of topics including the projects he's been working on lately, starting out in Austin and Minneapolis, the perils of having a friend critique your work, Tall Timber Tales apocrypha, and, of course, manifold cooking.

  photo credits: pixelpete

You’ve got a show coming up in a few weeks with B.B. King.

Yeah, can you believe that?

Did his people contact you?

Yeah, they got a hold of me. And I’ve had a show booked for a long time in Madison, Indiana for a festival there called the Ohio River Valley Folk Festival scheduled for the night after that. Out of nowhere I get this call from B.B. King’s people and so I’m going to play the show -- then watch B.B. King play -- then drive all night and sleep for a few hours and get to Madison, Indiana in time for my festival set. I’m really excited about it. I have no idea how it happened. They got a hold of me, and I redirected them to my booking agent, who has been a godsend and spoils me rotten, and he said, “How did this happen?” I have no idea. I can’t even believe it.

It’s looking to be a big year for you. First of all, tell us about the Jack Klatt album Mississippi Roll you appear on that will be out soon.

It’s amazing. I got a copy in the mail and I haven’t been able to stop listening to it. Jack’s great and Dakota Dave Hull produced it. Spider John and Cornbread Harris are on it.  I did two songs -- a version of the Blind Blake tune “Rope Stretchin' Blues” and a Furry Lewis song called “I Will Turn Your Money Green.” They’re the most filled out performances of anything I’ve ever done. There’s a trombone solo in “Rope Stretchin’ Blues!” I’m really happy with it. It’s a great record.  

You’ve been doing some shows with Devil’s Flying Machine recently in Duluth.  How have those been going?

Well, we’re trying. It’s a work in progress and there’s enough people involved that it varies quite a bit. It’s been me, Brad Nelson (drummer for the Black-Eyed Snakes), Christian McShane (if thousands), Galen White who plays fiddle, Lane Prekker who is a washboard player, and Matt Mobley, the bass player for Two Many Banjos. That’s kind of a lot of people for me but it’s been really fun. We do a few of my tunes but mostly old blues and gospel songs, traditionals.

There’s a great recording on of one of those shows. What’s the instrument that Christian is playing on “The Cuckoo?" That sounds pretty wild.

He’s playing a stick fiddle. It’s a Japanese instrument related to the koto. It’s a stick, and it’s got one string strung over it with a bow that’s kind of weaved in and out of the string. The bow doesn’t come off and you just pull it back and forth and it makes this scary sound. And you fret it by just touching the string with your fingertip.

Are you going to be recording with Devil’s Flying Machine?

We’re going to see how it goes. We’re planning on recording together but it wouldn’t be until at least the later part of this summer. It will probably be an EP. I’d like to do a 10" vinyl release instead of doing a regular record.

You’re also doing something with the Black-Eyed Snakes this year as well, right?

I am...maybe. Alan and I have talked about it a lot. For a very brief period of time I even had an electric guitar. I hated it so much. I might as well have had an oboe, it didn’t make any sense to me. I got rid of it; I had some other junk that didn’t make any sense either so I took it all down to Willie’s (American Guitars), and Molly Maher helped me trade all this stuff that was foreign to me for a new National. But Alan and I are still talking about trying to record some traditional songs for a third volume of the gospel records that I did, with a little more of an electric sound to it.

And then you have your own album coming later this year.

Yeah, the artwork is done. The liner notes are done. All the songs are written, and I’m actually really happy with the songs. I’ve got to get myself in shape to record it. I’m scheduled to record in Cannon Falls at a friend’s place in June, and I’ll have it done by July and start working on release plans after that. Mikkel and Sneaky Pete will be on there, and my wife might come and sing on it.

Let’s take a step back in time now. When did you first start performing in public?

Well, it must have been in the 1980’s sometime. I can’t remember exactly. I kind of eased into it. I didn’t really plan on doing this, you know. When I started playing, I played pre-war blues songs and that’s not something you play out in front of an audience. That’s all I listened to; it’s all I wanted to play. I was friends in Austin (Minn) with this country-western band, and they were into what I was doing because they had never heard this stuff before. They said, “Come on down to our set and play during our break.” It was a complete disaster. I was playing this old National that didn’t have a plug-in so no one could hear anything except the people who were close to me, and they didn’t like it. I just kind of eased into it. I played for a time at the Ace Box Bar in St. Paul and that’s the era where that one really early recording comes from with Mikkel and Terry Thissen (1999). Eventually, it started to kind of click, and people started to show up. Then, I was asked to do a regular bi-monthly show at the Viking Bar, and I figured I had pretty much made it.

Was that right around the time of Criminals and Sinners?

No, before that even. Then I moved to Duluth and figured I was done. But I found that the music scene up there is not only more vibrant than in Minneapolis but more vibrant for folk music. I could play all over Duluth. I could play these crazy old blues songs, and there was an audience for that. That’s when I recorded Criminals and Sinners and that’s when I ended up getting more offers for shows in Minneapolis.  

Let’s talk about the Barn-Aid concert around that time.  Did you know Greg Brown before then or did you meet him that day?

I knew him before that. A friend of mine and he were friends, and I’d met him through her. He and I hit it off immediately. He’s an amazing guy, and I kind of relied on him as a mentor on how I want to act in this business. He’s just like you think he’s going to be. He’s down to earth, honest, just an amazing guy. When I think about how I want to support myself as a musician in the world, I think about Greg Brown. And Bo Ramsey for that matter, who produced When the Devil Goes Blind, those guys are just really good, genuine, honest folks.

Tell us about the Asa Jones, King Earl, Cheap Wine trilogy of songs.  Were those all written at the same time and recorded later or was there something about that story that you wanted to go back and explore from another point of view?

It’s actually a quadrilogy, Public Record Rag is the end of it. Well, when I first got married, I thought I would write short stories. And I was horrible at it. But I wrote this longer short story called “King Earl,” and I was really proud of it. I sent it to this friend of mine who is a writer, and I got back this caustic letter about how horrible this was. And it went on and on (laughs). It wasn’t even like, just being polite, it was more like, “You shouldn’t do this. This is not where your strengths lie.” At the time, I was working with homeless people, and he said, “That sounds like the kind of career for you. You’re good at that. Do that! Don’t do this! Don’t send me this!” So I put it away and tried to forget it ever happened. Then, when I started writing songs, I kept thinking about the themes in my story. The story is basically, very simply about a homeless man, Earl, who is living in this weird little neighborhood and the guy that runs the local liquor store who is a very unhinged individual, very unhappy with his life. One day he just snaps when he finds Earl in his back alley panhandling people and kills him. He bludgeons him to death and throws him in a dumpster and then frames another guy who is a slightly mentally disabled alcoholic. When the police come to get him, he’s also kind of unhinged, and he threatens the police, and they kill him. They figured he killed Earl, and he’s dead now, too. Well, the liquor store owner is having a horrible amount of guilt and feeling that his life is now really worthless. When a young man comes in to rob him, he pulls his gun like he’s going to kill the young man, and the young man tackles him for the gun and kills him instead. That’s the story, in a nutshell, and the four songs are lifted out of that story.
There’s an instrumental piece, Paul Bunyan’s Fall, you recorded a few years ago that fits into the American Primitive genre and tradition. Was that just a one-off or is that something you might do more of?  
I really want to do a whole record of that. I love that stuff so much. I’m a big John Fahey fan; Jack Rose was a friend of mine. I love that music so much. I listen to Robbie Basho a lot, I listen to Leo Kottke, I’m friends with Peter Lang, I get to listen to that stuff a lot. And that piece - that’s not the right title, by the way. It’s called Paul Bunyan Died for Your Sins. The record company, Honest Jon’s, didn’t want to call it that because they felt it was...scandalous (laughs). So they changed it. The song is not very directed though; it’s really a meandering thing, and I’m not super happy with it. Someday I want to go back and fix it, redo it, maybe add it to a record in the future with the correct title. The title comes from my son. When he was younger, I gave him my book of Tall Timber Tales, and I told him, “This is the most important book that I own. It’s the best book that there ever was.” He’s so smart and he read the whole thing. Then he read it again. He’s like, “Yes, you’re right, this is wonderful.” At the same time, he’d also been reading this little illustrated Bible for kids that my mother had given him. And he said to me, “There’s one story missing from Tall Timber Tales.” I asked him which one that was, and he said, “The story of how Paul Bunyan was crucified for our sins.” I told him no, that was Jesus and he said “No, no, that was Paul Bunyan.” I’d never forgotten that, and that’s where the real title comes from. I hope to come back to it sometime.  

Last question - you’ve been driving across the country for years and years now. Do you have any good stories from the road? Phantom hitchhikers? A really good diner in the middle of nowhere, Iowa? How are things out there?

Well, in 2010, I finally managed to quit drinking. I’d been drinking since I was thirteen. I finally managed to quit when I hit kind of a real scary bottom. When I quit drinking, my traveling changed a lot. It used to be that I never felt very this time of night I’d be pretty much out of it. I’d get up in the morning and gobble down a bear claw or two, a few cups of coffee, you know, then I’d hit a diner for a burger and fries for lunch. When I quit drinking that food really associated itself with those old times, and I couldn’t stomach it. I didn’t want it. I got sick when I quit drinking, and I spent a month basically not eating; I was just not feeling good at all. I lost a bunch of weight, and people thought I had cancer. When I kind of came back to, I started eating healthier; being on the road became different. My thing now is trying to find healthy food, seeking out the co-ops. Madison is fun because Willy Street Co-op is amazing; they have a lot of good stuff over there. There’s that green book where they have all the co-ops...what I do is when I roll into town, I get groceries and make up the food and cook it on the manifold of the motor while I’m traveling. The last time I was out I was able to break through this barrier where I’m able to cook like I do at home, except on the motor of the car. I cooked a spicy lentil curry. I cooked a vegetarian black bean chili. I made a vegetables and rice saute kind of thing. I felt so happy with myself that I broke through this barrier. I was pulling up at a rest area in Idaho once, and I figured the veggies and rice was probably about kind of figure twenty five miles in good weather is about enough to cook that. So I pulled into the rest area, popped the hood, got the pliers out to kind of ease the tin foil package out..there’s a little space between the manifold and the I’m trying to ease it out, and this old guy comes up and loudly clears his throat and says, “Well, what’s the problem?” So I say, “I can’t get my lunch out. It’s stuck, and I don’t want to rip the tin foil.” And I’m looking at him like this is going to make sense. He’s like (in a huffy voice), “Lunch?” 
So he looks in there, then looks at me again. I tell him, “This is as old as the hills, man, this is steam train stuff, don’t tell me you don’t know about it.” He kind of huffs and goes storming off. Seconds later, this other guy comes up and says, “What are you having?” I told him veggies and rice. He’s a truck driver, and he cooks on his manifold all the time. I offered to share but he was big meat eater guy, and he wasn’t going to have any of that. But we shared some recipes. Anyway, that’s been my road obsession lately. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Uprooted Music Revue interview

A Discussion with Charlie Parr

Interview by Chris Mateer
February 13, 2012
Reprinted from Uprooted Music Revue blog

I discovered the music of Charlie Parr by starting with a pair of his albums that were recorded with two of my favorite artists: Glory In The Meeting House (featuring Black Twig Pickers) and Backslider (featuring Trampled By Turtles). After absorbing these two, I moved onto Roustabout, Jubilee (featuring Dave Simonett of TBT), and When The Devil Goes Blind.

Born in Austin Minnesota, and now based out of Duluth, Charlie is an artist that I quickly became fond of, both artistically and philosophically. He is a storyteller, guitarist, banjo player, and songwriter who has not just collaborated with an impressive roster of artists and friends throughout his career, but is also an artist who prefers capturing his work as field recordings over professional studio spaces. He has recorded his albums in empty storefronts, a brewhouse, warehouse spaces, and living rooms.

Last month, after receiving a copy of When The Devil Goes Blind for my birthday, I decided to reach out to Charlie Parr directly to ask him if he would be up for an interview. As a fan of his work, I was thrilled to receive a seemingly immediate response, inviting me to send my questions over to him when I had them ready.

I have to say that this feature has been a lot of fun for me to put together. I have enjoyed learning more about his work through collecting his recordings, and conducting this interview with him has been a real treat. I find that it is always such a reward to speak with an artist you respect, who also turns out to be even more genuine, friendly, and generous than you imagined. I mean, when I asked him if he had a photo of the hand-painted rooster on the back of his guitar for the feature, he snapped one off on his phone and sent it right over. So with that, here's our discussion:

Where did you grow up an how did your local geography influence your beginnings in music?

Charlie Parr: I grew up in Austin, MN which is a smallish town and home to Hormel's first packing house. Music for me meant folk music, which is what my Dad listened to pretty much all the time. We had a big old record player and plenty of records: early country, folk, and blues. Plus, there was a polka band down the block that had yard parties all summer. Music was always important to me.

Can you discuss how when you were inspired to pick up the guitar and banjo?

I started on the guitar at 7. My Dad got me a Gibson 12-string and I fought with it trying to learn Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb songs from the Arhoolie records. I'm self-taught, and I just really wanted to play the country blues. You could say that I'm still am trying that. Later, I picked up a banjo and begin fighting with that. I am still fighting with that one too.

My first love is the 12-string, since I started there, and nothing else seems to come close to that sound. I got a hold of a resonator guitar in my late teens and was immediately hooked on that, too. The banjo, in it's way, is both an entirely different thing and somehow kind of a middle ground between the 12-string and resonator guitars. Now those 3 are it for me, and all I have.

Which artists and recordings were most influential to you starting out?

Charlie: Mance Lipscomb's record Texas Songster, Lightnin' Hopkins record Blues in my Bottle, and Albert King's Live Wire/Blues Power were the most influential on my guitar playing, even though I've long since given up trying to achieve anything close to those levels on the guitar.

My social life when I was young did not influence me much. I didn't go in for sports or do any hunting so the other kids and I didn't see eye to eye right off the reel. I had a few friends and it was all about music and riding our bikes. So I had time to practice. Girls hated me. One likes me now.

When did you start writing your own material? Can you discuss how you began discovering your own artistic voice and style and your experiences developing your own voice?

Charlie: My Dad died in 1995, and I started writing songs then, trying to grieve, I think. The only thing I could play was folk/blues (still is) and so the songs I wrote had to fit that style. When I started working as a homeless outreach worker, my work touched the same nerve as my Dad's passing and I started writing in a more socially conscience kind of a  way.

Now the songs come as stories and I try and let them develop that way, even though I guess it's not really songwriting, but when it works I feel good about it.

I'd like to ask you a little about your songwriting processes and albums. First, can you discuss your songwriting process both when composing and lyrically?

Charlie: First, the story comes to me and I try and develop it like I was going to write a short story. Then I cut it up into verses that may or may not rhyme and then I kind of hear the music and try and learn that. By the time I have a song that I'm happy with, it's probably really different than the original story and makes much less sense, but usually I don't notice since it makes as much sense to me as it ever did.

Do you work on songs individually and bring them together for the albums, or work from a preconceived theme?

Since I've always kind of had one direction in songwriting, putting albums together has been pretty easy. I do want to start thinking more in terms of unifying the theme of a record, and this next one's going to be a guinea pig on that idea, but I really haven't tried to force myself to write for a specific theme.

Could you briefly take new listeners through your discography?

Charlie: Criminals & Sinners (2001) was kind of a template for most of the releases that followed it: I recorded it live, and not necessarily in a studio, with minimal accompaniment. 1922 (2002) was next, then King Earl (2003), Jubilee (2005), Rooster (2007), and Roustabout (2008) were all recorded in places like garages, store fronts, bars, living rooms, and places like that. When the Devil Goes Blind (2009) was the first time I recorded in a studio, and ironically, it was the first time I recorded a record with no one else around.

One thing I really admire and enjoy about your recordings is that you have recorded some of your records as field recordings: in store fronts, living rooms, garages, and in other intimate and simple settings. Can you discuss why you choose these kinds of spaces and settings to record in, over, say, "the studio" kind of setting?

Charlie: I think the simplest way to put it that I've never felt comfortable in a studio and now it's a thing that just really works for me. I think if I'm uncomfortable or distracted by a studio, then that's going to show in the record, and if I'm at ease, that will show too. I usually pick a place based on how I feel first, then I'll sit down and play there to see if the sound is good. If it sounds like my kitchen, it's a keeper.

What is most rewarding to you about working in this way, and what connects this process for you to blues and roots artists that have influenced you?

For me, it feels like a very honest way of recording, even though I know that's very subjective. The artists I listen to the most (Charlie Patton, Bukka White, Blind Willie Johnson) were mostly recorded in studio settings, even though the studios of the day were pretty rudimentary compared with the ones now. Others, like Robert Pete Williams, were recorded at least initially in prison, but I'm not interested in following those footsteps.

What has been most rewarding for you being based out of Duluth, MN? Can you discuss the rewards and benefits of your local music community?

Charlie: Duluth has a very vibrant music community, and I've found it to be very supportive. I don't get out much, especially nowadays when I've been busier and have kids and suddenly feel like I'm getting older (2 years ago I didn't feel like that at all, but now it's come up on me). If I could go out, I could see original live music in this town nearly any night of the week, though.

I love hearing how artists came across their instruments and their experiences with them. Can you tell us about your instruments?

Charlie: The only guitar I've had over the entire span of doing this is a National steel-bodied resonator guitar. My son and I painted a rooster on the back of it in 2003, and it's got photos of my family pasted all over the top where I can see them while I play.

National Guitars has been very kind to me and they've fixed it through 2 broken necks and a multitude of other abuses that I've heaped on the poor thing. But it sounds better than ever and I'd never part with it. My very first guitar was acquired when my Dad traded a Johnson 9.9 boat motor for a Gibson 12-string. It was a great trolling motor, and I still worry that he got took, but I'm glad he did, I suppose.

You have recorded with some of my favorite artists, including the Black Twig Pickers and Trampled By Turtles. (In fact, for me, Glory In The Meeting House was the first record I bought of yours, which led me to Backslider, Roustabout, and on down the line of your recordings). Can you discuss some of your collaborations?

I've been lucky to have good friends who've shared my musical interests. It's always been fun playing with other folks, although I really think of myself as being a solo guitar player first. Glory in the Meeting House was a really fun night, and the last time I recorded anything when I was drinking. The last collaboration, Keep Your Hands On The Plow, was recorded with my wife Emily, Alan and Mimi from the band Low, and Four Mile Portage. It was very rewarding.

I usually come away from collaborations learning a lot even though it's kind of challenging for me to get started since I always think of myself as a solo artist. I'm pretty introverted and I take music very personally. But this last record I got to work pretty closely with Alan Sparhawk (of Low) and I found that to be very inspiring. His approach to music and his intuitions about it are amazing, and I took away some new ideas about all the sounds that are available to someone recording, as opposed to performing.

How have these collaborative experiences added to your own approach in writing your own music?

Charlie: I think it's giving me a little more patience towards letting songs evolve and cook a little more before I record them, and definitely while I'm writing them. I've always suspected that songs are never done, now I feel confident that they're never done.

Reflecting on your work over the years, what would you say is the common thread(s) that connects your work?

Charlie: My common thread is the folk/blues guitar style. I still like it the best, and I still find plenty of challenges to keep me interested in it. Also, the subject matter for my songwriting (grief, poverty, death, social justice and hopefully a little humor once in a while) hasn't changed much.

What has changed the most for you?

The thing that has changed is I feel older now. It feels like the days are going by too fast and I want to make the most of everything, but it seems like I try too hard at times. My guitar playing is bound to get worse, my memory for songs will fade, my ideas will dry up, but I've been fighting against these voices lately and working towards living in the moment instead.

We discussed your earliest music influences earlier. Looking back on your own discography and music experiences, which artists would you say have most influenced you development as a songwriter, performer, and artist over the years, and how so?

Charlie: My guitar playing is a work in progress and is constantly influenced by who I'm listening to, anybody from Mance Lipscomb to Charlie Patton and Bukka White to John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Jack Rose, Peter Lang, Spider John Koerner, Gary Davis, Most recently I've been listening to Alan Sparhawk and players from Africa (that I've found on compilation records).

What kinds of non-musical experiences do you enjoy outside of playing, performing, and writing music? How would you say these experiences influence and/ or inspire your musical work?

Charlie: I like spending time with my kids: biking and skating, hikes, and camping. I like to read and I find a lot of inspiration in authors like Raymond Carver and Flannery O'Connor.

When I'm on the road I listen to a lot of music and cook my meals on the exhaust manifold of the van, which has gotten me interested lately in my own health and trying to feed myself a little better. It's made me a more self-sufficient musician, I think, being alone and figuring out interesting meals, fixing my own guitar, wrenching on the van ... I feel like I bring that attitude to my songs sometimes, wrenching on them all the time now, tinkering with them and writing them over and over.

What's new for you? What do you have coming up in the new year? Will you be recording and/ or touring in 2012?

I've been very lucky to have been as busy as I am, and this year is going to be even busier, I think. I've got a recording project with the Black Eyed Snakes coming up (Alan Sparhawk's side project), and another one of my own for early summer. Then I have some shows and will be recording with my own band called Devil's Flying Machine.

For tours, I'm doing two on the west coast in the next few months, and two to the east later this summer and fall. I also will be heading to Ireland in May, Australia after Christmas, and possibly Europe and the UK this fall when the new record is out.

On a final note, what have you been listening to lately?

Charlie: Mississippi Records can't miss. I've been listening to Takamba a lot, the Alan Lomax Southern Journey Georgia Sea Island record (Volume 12: Biblical Songs and Spirituals), some Honest Jon's records that compile African 78's from the 1930's-50's. Those have all made me look at some new tunings that I need to get better at and will probably show up later this year if I can master them. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

DFM Audio Documentary on KAXE

New audio documentary produced by Amy Clark for KAXE that focuses on The Devil's Flying Machine and includes recent performances of "Samson and Delilah," a rockin' "Ain't No Grave".

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Simple Folk Radio Sessions

Simple Folk Radio broadcast a session yesterday that was recorded last November during Parr's tour of the UK and parts of Europe. 

Setlist: Just Like Today; South of Austin, North of Lyle; Last Day; Mastodon; Hogkill Blues; To a Scrapyard Bus Stop; Jubilee; Possessed by the Devil; Cheap Wine

Listen to two more sessions in their archives.