Artist Stays True to His Rural Roots
Published: Friday, February 21, 2014
Updated: Friday, February 21, 2014 01:02
For Charlie Parr, the best music is the music that stays truest to your roots. A traditional folk and blues singer-songwriter, Parr has been producing albums that resonate with his rural Minnesota upbringing for over 11 years. A humble soul with a rich and raspy voice, Parr currently makes his home in the Northern Minnesota city of Duluth, where he enjoys “ice-biking” on the frozen surface of Lake Superior during the frigid winter months.
As a child in the small town of Austin, Minn., Parr would listen to his father’s records, which featured the likes of Woody Guthrie and Mance Lipscomb, and after receiving his first guitar at the age of seven, he began teaching himself how to play. On his banjo, his 12-string or his National Resonator guitar, Parr used to play only covers of his favorite songs. However, following the 1995 death of his father, he began writing his own.
“I had so much grief and depression surrounding me, and songwriting helped deal with those issues,” he said.
This January, nearly 20 years later, Charlie Parr released his 12th album, “Hollandale.”
The title of the album refers to the gentle hills and beautiful landscape of his uncle’s farm in Hollandale, Minn. The album differs from his past work in that it is entirely instrumental. Producing something that successfully translated his passion and strong ties to his beloved Minnesota farmland is something Parr has had in mind for quite some time, but a lack of self-confidence delayed it from coming to fruition.
“When I sit and play at home, I don’t sing songs,” Parr said. “I just sit and play.”
With the encouragement of his friend and fellow musician Alan Sparhawk, Parr recorded some of
“Hollandale” in the comfort of his own home.
“I tried some alternative tunings and some new things, and then I just sat down and played,” Parr said of his writing process.
The result is a five-track collection of songs that are full of both authenticity and improvisation. For Charlie Parr, songwriting is just like storytelling. Songs like “1922 Blues” and “Cropduster” reflect his father’s memories of the Depression era or his own childhood experiences on the farm. Over the past few years, however, he’s tried to keep his persona out of his songs by writing from a more creative point of view.
This new approach has helped to define his style, but the biggest changes to Parr’s music were because of developing arthritis. Picking and strumming every day since the age of seven has taken its toll on Parr’s joints over four decades, forcing him to use new techniques that he wouldn’t have come across before. Initially, Parr was “pretty torn up” about his arthritis, seeing it as just an indicator of old age, but he has been able to find another way of performing that is just as satisfying.
“I’m not going to see 25 again,” Parr said, “but I’m always going to play music. When I get to be 75 years old, people will just have to come to my kitchen and see me play there.”
Following the recent release of “Hollandale,” Parr will be on tour for most of this spring. On Feb. 26, he will appear at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Millennium Stage. He confessed to feeling shocked when the Kennedy Center asked him to play.
“I thought, what the hell for? That doesn’t seem right,” he said.
Usually, he plays in much smaller venues where he feels very comfortable.
“I like getting together with all the people and playing what they like. We grow together and find a place where we can all get along for the night and make a pleasant evening of it,” he said.
Performing at a place like the Kennedy Center will challenge him since he never writes set lists. He plans to play at least one song from “Hollandale,” but the concert will mostly feature his more familiar and lyrical songs.
“I really have no idea what I’m going to do,” he modestly said, “but I’m sure I’ll make some new friends.”