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From The Depths

From the Depths: Catching Up With Charlie Parr

From the Depths: Catching Up With Charlie Parr


Welcome to From the Depths, a recurring feature that spotlights deep underground sounds lurking within the Napster catalog.

I've subtitled this installment "Catching Up With ..." because Charlie Parr is a man of perpetual motion. With his collection of stringed instruments slung over his back (resonator guitar, 12-string, banjo, Weissenborn-style lap guitar), the folk musician from Duluth, Minn., wanders from gig to gig, city to city, state to state, in a seemingly endless journey across America. If you're unfamiliar with him and his always-expanding discography, that's not a big surprise. Though by no means shunning media attention, the low-key Midwesterner -- the child of proud, northern-plains unionists -- seems more concerned with meeting the demands of his artistic mission. If you hear about him, you hear about him; if you don't, well then, no biggie.

For those who belong to the latter camp, I would advise you to check out his music at your earliest convenience. In my humble opinion, Parr is one of the top voices in modern American folk music. Now, when I say "folk music" let's be clear about something: he isn't an indie kid in untreated denim and suspenders, dealing in witty sing-alongs. Rather, Parr is an experienced and accomplished musician and storyteller, one who has stuffed a considerable amount of living underneath his belt. I know I'm coming off like a snob here, but considering the trendiness of Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers in recent years I feel a need to distinguish Parr from the indie roots movement. Indeed, in terms of lineage, he instead descends from older practitioners "Spider" John Koerner, Dave Van Ronk and even Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. Like these ancestors, Parr understands that, in order to unlock their deeper secrets (in terms of the metaphysical, but also nut-and-bolts construction), the majority of America's vernacular traditions demand nothing less than a near-tragic level of devotion.

One of Parr's standout traits is his understated versatility. Though his basic musical language is a fully blended fusion of Piedmont blues-style finger-picking and Midwest country folk music, he also is well versed in old-time revivalism, spiritual ballads, union anthems, singer-songwriter fare (go straight to the unforgettable "Migrant Boxcar Train") and even neo-John Fahey American primitive experimentation. This versatility makes the exploration of his catalog a genuine joy. His latest full-length, this year's Hollandale, a set of largely improvised instrumentals recorded with the aid of fellow Minnesotan and Low cofounder Alan Sparhawk, might be his most idiosyncratic to date. Standing in stark contrast is the song-based collection Roustabout, released in 2008; lead track "Don't Send Your Child to War" proves just how incredibly gruff and forceful Parr's vocals and playing can turn when needed. But on the flipside, the hymnal "Come Along & See" reveals his equally developed delicate side, boasting a voice so frail it feels like an old-growth oak that knows the next thunderstorm could be its last. Then there's his wonderful collaboration with the Virginia-based old-time outfit The Black Twig Pickers: 2010's Glory in the Meeting House. They are old pals in possession of an exceptionally subtle chemistry, one that enables them to successfully marry rollicking Piedmont blues and hard-sawing Appalachian string band music.

Despite all this versatility, Parr the man remains wholly himself. In other words, he doesn't don different masks for different sounds. Even at his most experimental, Parr belongs completely to the very vernacular traditions from which he has emerged. That's a very cool and unique thing. To dive deeper into the artistry of Charlie Parr, please check out my playlist.

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