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 archive.org 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 good...by 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 done...you 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 block...so 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. 

5 comments:

  1. good stuff. let's hope that Black Eyed Snakes collaboration materializes...Highway 61 Revisted was freaking brilliant.

    -D.

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  2. Great interview...wide ranging and very interesting. Thanks for taking the time to post this.

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  3. I Love Him... Great Music always. Only watched in person 3 times, but not enough. Will continue when he is in my area.

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