Photo by Scott Preston
To many, Parr is considered a regional artist, which is another way of saying he doesn’t like to travel far from his family’s Depression era roots. “From Cleveland to Seattle and down to San Francisco and back is my area,” he says, though the focus is unquestionably Minnesota and the Northern Plains. Yet he’s built a big enough audience in both Ireland and Australia to tour both regularly. He’s had especially good fortune Down Under, where his “1922 Blues” was used as the counter intuitive music behind a Vodafone mobile commercial and became a viral and radio success.
Three of his songs added atmospheric resonance to the 2010 Australian western “Red Hill.” On his last tour, his fourth of that continent, he was a guest DJ for three hours on a Melbourne roots music radio station, on which he played songs from his own mix CD. “The newest thing on it was some Bukka White recordings from the 1940s,” Parr says with some incredulity. “People were calling all morning to say how much they like the music.”
Quiet, thoughtful and humble, Parr has made two albums of spirituals, and a few traditional songs of the hard life and the hereafter are always in his live sets. Such music isn’t necessarily rooted in the Methodist church in which he grew up: “It was more like, let’s get the service over quick so we can get downstairs and drink coffee and have pie!” But faith, though undefined, underlines all of Charlie’s music, both in the listening, the covering, the writing and performing.
“When you listen to Charley Patton playing something like ‘Prayer of Death,’ way over and above it just being a ‘Charley Patton’ song, or a ‘spiritual’ song, it’s one of the most beautiful and haunting pieces of music you’ll ever hear in your life. You can’t quite put your thumb on it, you just want to do something like that so much…I don’t think I ever have, but it’s a weird, visceral thing. Any time I get a song like that right, I get kind of that weird feeling, you know?”
—Wayne Robins, April 2012
Wayne Robins has been writing about music since the 1960s, and lives in New York.