Charlie Parr: guitar virtuoso, friend, barefoot prophet

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Charlie Parr is one of the most unusual and fascinating individuals I’ve ever met. He has lived in my neighborhood for years, but for some reason I hadn’t summoned the courage required to knock on his door until only recently. Finding him to be as accessible as an open book, I unexpectedly encountered a kindred spirit while making a friend. I don’t come across many kindred spirits, so this is worth writing home about.

I encourage you to obtain every album (roots, blues, folk, old-timey, soul-infused music that is deceptive in its simplicity) he has ever put out, on vinyl if you’re fortunate enough to own a turntable. He is an absolute virtuoso with his 12-string and Resonator guitars. He is entirely self-taught and hasn’t had a single lesson. This alone might place him fair and square into the lineage of old-school folk musicians, a proud tradition of musical pioneers like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Charley Patton, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and other luminaries, but his life itself is what makes him so bona fide.

I’d say he owes a lot to his daddy. A fist-fighting union man, he appreciated good music and dearly loved and supported his son. One day the elder Parr brought Charlie down to the music center to inquire about guitar lessons. Charlie started playing on his own at the age of seven, showed signs of promise, so he encouraged his son to pursue this area of interest. The man behind the counter, sporting an epic mid-seventies rock n roller mullet, asked young Charlie what kind of music he liked. Parr, who only listened to his father’s record collection, replied, “I like Lightnin’ Hopkins.” “WHO???????”  His dad took over at that point, lightly directed Charlie to the side, and asked the 20 something hairball, “What kind of music do you teach?” The rocker proceeded to list off all the seventies rock icons you can imagine, and said he could help the kid to play like them. Politely, the elder Parr said, “Um, we’ll think about it.” Outside, he was adamant with Charlie that he was not going to pay 6 bucks for each half-hour lesson so he could learn to play krap like that. And that was the last time Charlie Parr ever considered taking lessons. Absolutely incredible.

Parr dropped out of school on the first day of 10th grade. After repeatedly skipping school in 9th grade, the truancy officer was waiting for him at the door and said, “I’m going to be on you like stink on sh*t, Parr! You’re going to come to class every day, will keep up with your homework, etc…” Charlie unemotionally replied, “No, I’m not,” turned around and walked out, while the truancy guy ineffectively hollered in the background, “PARR! Get back here!!!!!!” He never set foot in the school again.

This was Austin, Minnesota, where Spam is made. School had nothing for him in this small town in the early 80’s. His father’s response was surprisingly laid back about it. He simply said, “Well, you’re gonna have to get a job. I can’t just have you lying around here doing nothing…” The next day Charlie got a job at the filling station, which was staffed entirely by other dropouts. Life has been a winding road for him since then.

Charlie contents himself with a single pair of pants. I immediately recognized them from the cover of his latest album, Stumpjumper:

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(CRITICAL UPDATE!!!! Since this post was written, Charlie has obtained a second pair of pants at the Army surplus store for five bucks. If Beyonce’s short shorts and Kim Kardashian’s latest outfits are considered newsworthy on a daily basis, I figure you have a right to know…)

This album, recorded in an old barn, is vintage Parr.

The second time I knocked on his screen door, he opened it in pajamas in the middle of the day, saying, “It’s not every day the author walks up as you’re finishing his book!” He was literally on the last page of my book, The Emancipation of a Buried Man. He put Edward Abbey down to read it, and then cruised through in two days. Wow. What an honor. Then he proceeded to explain that he was in pajamas because he spent the morning on his bicycle. His pants were in the wash after being destroyed by rain and mud.

One of Charlie’s comments that day gave me pause. He nonchalantly said, “so and so understands and advocates for people like us.” To be accepted as somehow sharing similar struggles and goals by someone so accomplished as an artist absolutely fills me with gratitude. He is no elitist looking down on the rest of humanity just because they can’t play the guitar. I never considered myself an artist, but I suppose now that I’m producing, working, and honing my craft as a writer that I actually am one. I married a painter, and have been drawn to creative types for years, but spending 12 years in front of computer screens in various office settings had a way of “placing my lamp under a bushel.”

Still only recently liberated from “the office,” I crave meaningful conversations with local artists like Charlie, who feed their families by their wits, creativity, and through an astonishing level of risk-taking. I feel tremendously accepted by these people, taken in as one of them. They understand the struggle. Words aren’t even necessary. I’m not peppered with questions about what kind of job I’m looking for. I find it incredibly fascinating to learn how they feed their family while doing what they love.

Charlie is well-established locally, regionally, nationally, and has a following in various pockets of Australia and Europe, but he continues to eke out a living even though he has opened for such luminaries as B.B. King and Taj Mahal. A traditional job would be much safer. He’d have a retirement plan, for example. Parr does what he loves, is wholly devoted to his craft, and the business side of things is definitely on his back-burner. This is so refreshing!

The man is barefoot so much, only wearing shoes begrudgingly when absolutely necessary, that I think his feet must be the seat of his soul. Shoes seem to cramp more than just 10 wiggly toes. He’s an advocate for the homeless and other downtrodden folk, so the other 10 digits seem equally important in creating a true hands and feet soulfulness.

A while back the insides of the neck of his guitar broke, evidently dropped from the plane to the tarmac, as he embarked upon a 30-day tour of Australia. Hours before his first show he took the guitar apart in a bar. Pieces were spread out as if on a gurney in the ER. While puzzling over what to do, the bartender came up with a brilliant idea. He hauled out a box of popsicles from the freezer so Charlie could make use of the sticks. Popsicle sticks and tape held the neck together, but since he had shows back-to-back-to-back each night of the trip, the sound deteriorated after just two performances. Thus, he was forced to take it apart every other day throughout the month of the tour and go about the laborious process of bracing and piecing things back together. Remarkable. Think about this next time you get on an airplane and the airline representative advises of the following: “By handing this guitar to us, you are absolving ______Airlines of all legal responsibilities concerning the safety of the item…”

While on tour in the States he drives an inexpensive Kia, which sips the gas at 40 miles-per-gallon. A wire on the manifold of the engine enables him to heat up meals under the hood while traveling. He eats lots of bean burritos and sleeps in the vehicle most nights, so Charlie’s definitely getting his money’s worth out of his chariot.

At home he bikes and walks much of the time. I suspect some passersby seeing him walk along one of his circuits may think he’s homeless. This doesn’t bother Charlie in the least. By the way, his teenage son isn’t embarrassed by his dad’s appearance, so he’s doing something awfully right. When asked about his differentness or “weirdness,” he is fond of saying that it is not his problem if other people can’t handle somebody different than themselves. He regularly reminds his children of this as well, and encourages them to embrace their uniqueness while not following the rest of the herd.

Charlie gave me a tour of his stable of bikes that consume most of the space in his shed. Take a gander at the rig in the pictures accompanying this post that he used while running a few errands and to stop by my house for a recent visit, wide handle bars and all. His bikes are definitely quirky, and he’s had them for years and years (since childhood in some cases, such as one with a long banana seat and huge handlebars that has a most unusual feel). This year he also converted one into an ice bike by screwing sheet metal screws through the tires and padding the space between the screw heads and inner tube with remnants of an exercise ball “borrowed” from his wife. It’s interesting that he doesn’t believe in gears or “performance.” As a biker myself, I imagine that it must be tough to not be able to shift gears in a hilly town like Duluth. However, the simplicity of the arrangement reflects the rider himself. He has always been into biking, even in the 1980’s when it was definitely not cool. I’m positive this has influenced his song-writing and playing. It’s one of those things that you can’t put your finger on precisely, saying, “See, right there! Biking influence…” It’s more of an alternative way of being. Charlie exudes this as he strives to live fully in the now. He never seems to be in a hurry, and is always glad to visit with a friend. He’s fully present during these chats, and shuts off his phone when necessary. In our harried culture that is consumed by technology and speed, he is rather anachronistic, a real breath of fresh air.

Charlie Parr reminds me of an Old Testament prophet. His music is absolutely infused with soul and spiritual imagery. More importantly, his persona screams John the Baptist. I candidly shot this picture from my front window. With his hands and feet exposed, I think it’s a window into his soul. IMG_4891

The Duluth “Stumpjumper” release show is coming up on May 27 at the Red Herring Lounge. Brady Perl is celebrating his new release that evening as well. Brady will kick things off at 9pm, doors at 8pm.

***UPDATE, November 2015*** Check out Charlie’s new guitar here. My wife painted a bear on it. Charlie refers to him as “Captain Fuzzy.”

**Also, give a listen to this podcast I recorded with Parr on May 11, 2016.**

Nobody can ramble like Charlie. Here are his comments from his Facebook page after I knocked on his door that fine day…

Folks don’t just stop by the house too often, which seems a shame, I can remember my Dad’s friends dropping by out of the blue just because they were in the area and they’d all sit around the kitchen table with the coffee talking about nothing in particular. Sometimes Brother Dave stops over and we throw guitar bits back and forth with the coffee, but other than that it’s usually just Rueben and me bumming around the house or picking up sticks and dog poop in the yard. Eddy Gilmore stopped over the other day, though, out of the blue, and I got so happy to see someone that I talked his ear off and nearly drove him away. Eddy’s a pure soul, though, he wrote a book called The Emancipation of a Buried Man which he left me and I thought it was a great read so I returned the favor, dropping out of the grey sky along with the rain into his personal home to share tea and another round of nonstop chatter from me. Years ago it was work for anyone to scrape a sound out of me, or even a look, I was so shy, but nowadays I’ll wear the dog out with endless monologues concerning idle and meaningless things, things that mean the world to me somehow. So it goes, I’m turning into a trapdoor spider, waiting in the house for some innocent soul to stop by so I can weave my web of dog walk incidents and daughter hair snarls and bent tuning machines and bicycle tires and pants that don’t fit because I was too impatient to try them on at the store. Small wonder that no one drops in.
Thank you, by the way, for all the understanding and kind words I’ve been receiving lately. We’re all hanging in there around here, and I’m grateful that I’m home to help out. Rueben’s doing well and seems to be a lot happier without that kidney stone so that’s good, we walked our little route yesterday, poking our noses into everything from shrubs to the hardware store. I talked the whole time, telling her about my plan to get off my butt and start some tomatoes in that nice 5 gallon bucket we found last week. Listen, I’m gonna shut up now and see what Rueben has to say.

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14 thoughts on “Charlie Parr: guitar virtuoso, friend, barefoot prophet

  1. Thank you for this. You’ve put into words (beautifully) a description of Charlie that is just how I imagined him to be. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Charlie sharing his gift on stage a couple of times. Moving experience each time.

    1. So glad to hear it, Brandy. Yeah, he’s not only one-of-a-kind, but he’s the sort that has a deeply moving subtlety about him that’s truly rare. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great blog Eddy. Charlie is a salt of the earth man and so fascinating to read about, especially the way you write about him and understand him. Love, SJR

  3. What a brilliant insight into a wonderful man.

    I’ve had the absolute pleasure of meeting Charlie 3 times now as part of the “pocket” of fans he has here in Australia. His performances have always been breathtaking and what strikes me is how he is as quiet as a churchmouse when he speaks but the second he steps on stage he roars like a lion. Each of the 3 performances I’ve seen rate amongst my favourite shows of any artist.

    Charlie’s music holds an unusual spot in my collection (he sits amongst the Wu-Tang Clan / Sven Vath / R.E.M and any number of non-contemporaries lol) and it’s his unique soulfulness that sets him apart.

    Continue to continue on, Mr Parr – we’ll see you when you return here to the shores of Sydney. Enjoy your rambling and wandering in between.

    1. I have to say that it certainly is exciting to hear from a fan in Australia! I’d just love to see one of his shows Down Under. Of course, I have this image of a show at some roadhouse deep into the outback. You know, Crocodile Dundee stuff, except without the crocs…. I love the juxtaposition of church mouse and roaring lion as well. That image will stick with me…

  4. It was a moment of serendipity that presented Parr’s music to me one evening listening to an online radio. I was hooked. The song was Parr’s rendition of ‘Keep Your Hands on the Plow’. Brilliant simplicity with a clear command and message.

    1. Yes! This song has been recorded countless times, but this is a great example of Charlie borrowing from a rich folk tradition while simultaneously making it his own. Check out this video I found of him with wife Emily who beautifully performed on backup vocals while also dancing with their spirited young daughter, Talulah. Preciousness…

    1. Thanks for the friendly words, Rich. Just today I was pondering if I’d enjoy Charlie’s music as much if I didn’t happen to live nearby and have the opportunity to get to know the guy. Perhaps you helped settle that for me. Mass is a great place, and no doubt you help make it that way. Good luck to you….

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