“I guess it’s a weird way to play sometimes.” Those are the words of Charlie Parr, reflecting back on how he learned to play guitar, starting when he was 7 or 8 years old. “I was in a tiny little town which was a great little place, but not a lot of people were playing music that I liked.”
So when his dad got him a guitar, he learned to play by listening to records, listening to the songs he wanted to play, and trying to copy the songs he heard. “Weird things come out of that music,” he reminded me.
I spoke with Charlie Parr by telephone on an afternoon in mid-May as he was preparing for a three-week tour in Europe. He was at his home in Duluth on what he called the first nice day in Minnesota this year. “Everybody’s outside wearing shorts and taking down their Christmas decorations.”
Parr started playing a traditional wooden guitar, but eventually found the instrument he is known for today, a National Reso-Phonic guitar. “The National guitar spun my head around,” he said. “It was all I could think about.”
I asked him about his approach to songwriting. “I wanted to write stories,” Parr told me. “I wanted to write like Raymond Carver, stories that were startling and real.” He says most of his songs start with foggy ideas, and over the years he has learned to pay attention to those ideas. “I kinda know when I should pay attention.” Once the idea hits he starts fitting it into song form - verses, choruses, bridges. “But then I think about a song like ‘Pretty Polly’ which has no chorus. Dock Boggs isn’t gonna give anybody a break.”
A lot of people I know listen to music all shuffled up by an iPod or some other means. But artists still tend to put out music in the form of albums. When I asked Parr about this, he said he always thinks in albums. For example, on his most recent record Barnswallow, he found songs he wanted to record but they just didn’t fit. I asked if listeners were missing anything if they didn’t listen to his records from the first track to the last. “I have a foot on both sides of that fence,” he offered. “I’m not writing a rock opera.” After mulling over some of the pros and cons of various listening experiences, he came to this conclusion. “People do what they need to do.”
Many of my favorite tunes Charlie Parr sings are gospel songs. I asked if he learned those from growing up in church. It turns out he learned them from records. “We went to a Methodist church until I was about 5. Then we didn’t go anymore. My dad didn’t like to be inside, and he didn’t like to be preached to. But he did have a beautiful singing voice, a beautiful baritone, and in church I’d just listen to him sing.”
Parr plays quite a number of gospel songs he learned from oldtime mountain music records, particularly those based on styles from before the second world war. He mentioned the Goodbye, Babylon box set and releases from the Tompkins Square label. “I’d buy it all up.” He plays gospel music because he likes it. “And if God likes it too, double bonus!”
Here’s Charlie Parr singing “Badger” from Barnswallow.
Charlie Parr is the Friday night headliner at the Hermit Music Festival. Come hear him at Indian Creek Winery on July 26th.
Learn more at his website: http://www.charlieparr.com/.