Charlie Parr Links Up With Smithsonian for Latest Album

The Duluth musician discusses songwriting, mental and physical health, and ”Last of the Better Days Ahead,” out July 30

Photo by Shelly Mosman

North Shore residents and fans across the Midwest are typically spoiled by how often prolific performer Charlie Parr plays locally. His blend of virtuosity and sincerity makes every show special. After he recovered from a career-threatening injury and weathered the pandemic storm, a busy summer is ahead for Parr.

Years ago, my family and I went to Chester Bowl in Duluth and listened to Parr play guitar on an outdoor stage. The crowd sat in folding chairs and on blankets in the grass on a beautiful summer night. To end the show, he belted out his signature a cappella version of “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down,” stomping his foot as we all clapped along. His words echoed around the hills above Chester Creek: “When I hear that trumpet sound/Gonna get up out of the ground/Ain’t no grave/Gonna hold my body down.” As the sun set behind the green rim of the valley, it was Parr’s raw, defiant power that turned me into a fan.

Since 2002, Duluth-based Parr has released more than a dozen albums exploring traditional blues and folk songwriting. His latest album, Last of the Better Days Ahead, is out July 30 on the Smithsonian Institution’s nonprofit record label, Smithsonian Folkways. Among his many upcoming shows, he’s set to play at the Blue Ox Music Festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which runs August 19-21 this year.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Parr talked about joining Smithsonian Folkways, music genres, songwriting, storytelling, mental health, his definition of music, and a devastating shoulder injury that nearly derailed his guitar playing.

How does it feel to be releasing a record on the same label as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and a modern star like Rhiannon Giddens?

I haven’t been able to process it yet. This whole thing happened in the pandemic, and it almost doesn’t feel real. If I go to my record collection right now, fully half to maybe even two-thirds of it is music on labels that are either Smithsonian Folkways, Folkways, or some other kind of related label. This is music that I listened to my entire life. My dad had Folkways records in his collection. I’m probably not going to feel like I belong in that [company] at all. I probably will never feel like that. When I actually see a record with both my name and Smithsonian’s name on it, that’ll hit home a lot harder. It’s been a really supportive group of people to work with in such a weird time to do it. It’s hard finding a lot of optimism right now. The Smithsonian, on the other hand—they offered me a record deal in the midst of this. 

Your songs seem to sit at this intersection of folk and blues and even gospel. Does it matter what label you give your music?

Well, I don’t think it matters at all. That’s just a name. The biggest compliment that I’ve ever gotten is when people tell me that I cross genres. I really like that because I don’t think that those lines are real anyway. Music is music. For instance, there’s a jazz trio, I guess, out of New York called Harriet Tubman. And they’re as much jazz as they are acid rock. It’s all a blur. When you get surprised by something, because it’s in a box you didn’t expect it to be in, I think that’s a good thing.

To answer your question: I don’t care what it’s called. I think it’s music. I’ve been using terms like folk and blues, just because people are concerned about it. They want to know:
What is it? I get that. Especially people who are dipping their toe into music, they’re scared and they want to know what they’re getting themselves into. And the deeper you go, the less it matters. If you envision music like a river, by the time you get to the middle of the river, you’re in it now and it doesn’t matter what it’s called.

How did this batch of songs come together?

The songs for the Smithsonian record came from songs where I had a story in mind. When I first started writing songs, I was thinking of myself as more of a short story writer. I wrote a little book made up of seven short stories that were all kind of interconnected, and it was terrible. I was able to take these stories and rebrand them into songs. And then that became the model for writing for me.

I don’t really have a set pattern. I try to be aware of my creative impulse, and when it feels like it’s turned on, be ready. [laughs] I know there’s something in there and it’s ready to go. And if I’m quiet and I pay attention, I’ll get it to come out. That’s what this year was actually, aside from the hardship of it—that was a good thing about this year. I had the time to let things come up fully.

When you record songs like Mississippi John Hurt’s “Louis Collins” [off 2002’s 1922 album], are you trying to educate people or are you just following your own curiosity?

I’m not the kind of person who would presume to try to educate anybody because I really don’t feel like I hold that kind of knowledge. I’m really more of a fan. “Louis Collins” is a great example. He was on one of the records in my dad’s collection, Mississippi John Hurt. He, Mance Lipscomb, and “Lightnin’” Hopkins deserve all the credit for me wanting to pick up a guitar in the first place. “Louis Collins” is not a traditional song. That’s his composition. But it sounds like it’s thousands of years old. It sounds like a crazy 1830s Wild West scenario, but it’s not. It’s a song that John Hurt made up, but it’s tapping into that. I’m an instant fan of that vibe, of that whole atmosphere. And I’m just indulging myself in that. So I don’t feel like I set out to try to show anybody else. It’s that I’m indulging in it and it happens to be what I’m interested in. If people look at what I do, they’ll see that.

I can remember the first time I heard certain songs like Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues.” I remember where I was in the house. I remember hearing that, playing it again. I think I ruined needles just because I’d run to the record player and I wanted that song to play again. For certain types of music, that’s never gone away. I can put Mississippi John Hurt “Spike Driver Blues” on right now and I’ll still get that same surge of, “Damn, listen to that.” I can’t believe that somebody did that. I can’t believe somebody made this three minutes of unadulterated bliss for me to listen to. It’s never gone away.

Your songs “Turpentine Farm” and “On Stealing a Sailboat” are hilarious. Is humor in your songwriting intentional or incidental?

There’s a very long answer to this, but I’ll spare you. I’ve had diagnosed depression and anxiety issues most of my life since I was teenager. Music is my main way to deal with that and enjoy my life. But another way is this idea of mindfulness and really appreciating very ostensibly small things that aren’t really small. Really appreciating these little moments every day. And for me, everything is kind of funny. There’s always this thing about most mundane everyday events that’s kind of funny. I’m not talking about big tragedies and terrifying things. I’m just talking about every day, weird little things that I find humorous. And that helps me immensely with finding meaning and joy in life: humor.

It must be pretty difficult sometimes to share mental health challenges.

It is difficult. But you get to pick your difficult because it was just as difficult not to say anything about it for me. In this part of the country we don’t spend a lot of time talking about stuff like that, and it’s not encouraged. It’s not something that even my own dad, who was a roughneck philosopher type. He was not comfortable when this whole thing went down for me. He was a “fix-it” guy. He would never throw anything away. You fix it. He was a Depression kid born in ’22.

And so when I got sick, he was like, “I don’t know how to fix this. I’m really uncomfortable with it.” And my whole family thought, “Well, what is it? What is actually happening?” There’s nothing to say about that. Those aren’t the right questions, actually. The problem is not that there’s no answer. It’s that you’ve asked the wrong question.

I just found it easier to just say it. When I’m having an episode, a panic attack, an anxiety attack, or if depression is on the loose, I act different because it affects me physically. I get dizzy, I get tunnel vision, I get pretty crabby. And people say, “What’s the matter with you? You’re aloof, you’re shy. Or you’re mean,” or whatever. There’s more to it than that. So it’s easier just to say it, to get it over with.

I used to think of a record as an entity in itself, and now I think of it more as a snapshot of actual music.

Jerry Garcia actually talked about this at one point. I think he put it really well. He said, “Music is happening when people are playing music.” So the record that you’re holding in your hand is an impression and it’s nothing more than that. It’s not actually music. It’s the remembrance of music. It’s a souvenir of music. I feel like music is happening when I get to perform. And that’s what I love about music that touches on improvisational music, because if you’re lucky enough to hear it when it’s happening, you’ve heard something that probably will never happen again.

When you injured your shoulder in a skateboarding accident a few years ago, your main thing was threatened. How did it affect your artistic approach? 

Well, this is hilarious. I broke my shoulder bad. Really, really bad. I had this five-hour-long surgery. I still have all my original bones, thankfully, but I almost shouldn’t have, because the surgeon said it was so bad. It was a real mess. And I still have a lot of residual kinds of issues with it. So, I get out of surgery and I’m in there and the surgeon is not super certain that it’s really going to work. I said, “Look, man, I’ve got a gig.” And he’s like, “I don’t think you’re going to be playing a gig any time soon.” He said maybe like six months, or maybe never.

And so I’m at home and done, this might be it. What do I do? I’ve got no skills. I dropped out of high school, but then I had gotten my GED and I ended up taking university courses in philosophy, of all things. If that’s not the badge of the unemployable, I don’t know what is.

And then, I’m working on healing and I’m listening to music all the time while this was happening, I found that I could play my guitar flat on my lap without hurting my shoulder. I can get the instrument back under my fingers. As soon as I realized that, even if I could never hold a guitar again, I could still play it on my lap, all this other stuff about “I should diversify,” all that went away. It’s like a heroin addict and I can get my fix, get that guitar in my lap, and touch those strings. All those other kind of well-intentioned thoughts about maybe learning how to weld are right out the window.

It’s easy to be worried for you and envious of you at the same time.

At some point, that’s going to come up. I’m not going to be able to play guitar at a certain point and I’m still going to be alive, maybe. That’s going to be an interesting time. In some kind of perverse sense, I’m going to be an observer at that point.

“Spider” John Koerner is one of my favorite guitar players, and I saw him in the year before the pandemic. We were talking about what was going to happen next. And he’s like, “I can’t really do it anymore.” It was there and then it kind of faded away. It’s something of privilege. You get this gift for a while. I think it’s really good to understand it as being something that you’re a steward of and not something that you own. I think that’s a good attitude to have. Because as long as I think of myself as being a caretaker of this particular set of skills that will eventually be taken away, then I can use my time a little more wisely than I do if I think, “I’m a guitar player. That’s my identity.” It’s not. I have access to this thing for a while and then it’ll go away. Then, I’ll still be here. So, I have to reconcile. There’s a reckoning I have to come to. I think everybody does.

I think it also puts gratitude into your mind a little bit. To think that this isn’t mine. If I have the opportunity to do it, I need to do it. And if I don’t do it, that’s time that’s gone and I can’t get that back again. What did I do? I watched TV or did something stupid. I want to avoid that.

Charlie Parr will perform at the Blue Ox Music Festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, on August 20 and has an album-release show set for November 13 at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul. More at charlieparr.com

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