by Preston Rogosheske
There are few musicians in the Minnesota music scene that are as original as Charlie Parr.
The constantly touring self-taught Duluth-based musician has always been revered locally for his distinct take on Piedmont-style folk. Over his many years on the road, Mr. Parr has garnered a national and international following (including being the subject of a French documentary). And now, he will be taking part in this year’s Pizza Luce Block Party (along with GRRRL PRTY, Mark Mallman, Heiruspecs, and more).
I chatted with Mr. Parr at Grumpy’s Northeast, where he was part of the line up of this year’s Northeast Folk Festival, and we talked about the evolution of and influences on his music, his life on the road, and got a recipe for cooking on a car manifold!
PRESTON ROGOSHESKE: What’s the best way to travel?
CHARLE PARR: I toured in an RV for a little while. Parts would fly off of it all over the place. I lost the awning the second day out. It unrolled, became like this big parachute just filled with air and I’m on the freeway going 75 miles an hour. It finally ripped off. Pulled to the side a bit and sped up trying to, well.. I saw it flying off in the back, and we just drove away, ya know?
We need a manifold recipe. Think you could help us out?
So, the only surface on the motor that really gets hot enough to cook on when you are driving is the manifold. This new little car is really, really good, so I’m kind of excited now again, because my pick up wasn’t that good. It was challenging. It’s nice now; it gets 36-40 miles to the gallon. The pick up I had before that was unreliable and got 16-18. You open the hood now, it’s a four cylinder, and the exhaust manifold comes out the back like a shelf. So I just set it on there and shut the hood. With the truck I had to wire things to the manifold.
The last thing that I did really well, because I haven’t been eating meat, I can’t eat meat right now, so I did red lentils, which are easy to cook at home, and vegetables, a little bit of water, made kind of a curry situation, a couple layers of tin foil, and about 40 miles. Turn it. Then another 15 to 20 miles depending on how hot it is. The weather has a lot to do with it. Turned out really well. I was real happy with it. Gobbled it right up. You could make a little rice with it if you want. The little car doesn’t have a whole lot of room but you can make two things at once. You just gotta be mindful which is which.
We’ve heard the best way to travel with food is to dehydrate, turn it into a powder form, and just boil water to add. Would that work on the manifold?
I travel with a lot of dried beans and rice. I soak beans overnight before a gig and the next day when I head out I can cook them on the manifold. After about 50 miles, depending on the weather, I’ve got beans.
Kind of cool counting your cooking time out in miles though..
The one thing I want to do with this new car, because it’s hotter than my truck, I suppose because the motor is so much smaller, is I want to get one of those oven thermometers that they make now. The element can go under the hood and it’s wireless, so the read out is in the car. I could tell exactly what’s going on. If it rains, you’re out of luck. You can’t cook in the rain. If it gets real cold, you have to adjust your time, but this way I’d be able to know exactly what I’m doing. I’ve cooked a ton of different stuff on the manifold, and sometimes I burn things. In Texas, where it’s over 100 just by the weather, I felt once like I needed to check it after about 17 miles. After I open the hood, I see that it’s a crispy little nothing. It’s just ashes. So it’s a work in progress.
How long have you been traveling now this way?
I haven’t had a job in 10 years.
(Jokingly) What took you so long, because you have been a musician for a such long time now?
Yea, but I’ve been a folk singer. No one has indicated to me that I would have an opportunity to do this as a job. And then about ten years ago, I was working for an outreach unit. We did outreach to people that were homeless and I was working 45 hours a week, plus I was gigging three nights a week. It just got to be too much. I was in a pretty good place and felt like I could count on a few shows coming in so I thought I’d go on a hiatus, which I did, and I’m still on hiatus. I just saw my boss just two months ago and he said that there’s still a place for me. I said to just give me a bit longer; you know this folk singing thing can’t last forever, and as soon as the bottom falls out I’ll be on the phone with him getting back to work. So I’m still on hiatus and I’m all right. I’ve been having a great time. I’ve been really lucky. Last year I was out of the country for three months. This year I decided to stay in the country but so far I’ve been busier than ever. I’ve got a new recording planned for this summer, and next year I’ve already got tours for Europe and Australia booked.
Is that with someone else’s tour or is that your own?
It’s my own tour. The people that I work with in Australia are super cool. You tell them when you can come and they pretty much set up everything around you.
I know that you had a documentary released recently, are these the same folks that helped you put that out?
Nope, those guys were French but I met them in Sidney. The guy that I work with in Europe is the same way. They set everything up for you. I buy a rail pass and get it cheap. All you can ride. I get it about nine months in advance. I finally go and just ride all the trains around.
Have you ridden the Amtrak here in the States to get around then?
No, in the States, since I have this little car, it’s just so much easier. I’m a bit spoiled by that. And in Australia, the folks that help me there, they usually rent me this little pop up trailer. There, to drive around it’s the same kind of dimensions as the states because there’s so much space. You just drive around and when you’re done playing you go to sleep and when you wake up you drive around a little bit more. It’s easy.
What’s the best site you’ve seen?
The west is amazing but in North Dakota during that pre-twilight time where the sun hasn’t quite gone down yet. It’s not quite twilight but it’s just about. There’s that weird clarity that your view takes on. I love driving in those times.
What I’m working on personally as a musician is very similar to your style, the Piedmont fingerpicking, and blues rhythms that originates in the plateau region just below the Appalachian Mountains on the East coast. Now I’ve never experienced these places or it’s culture yet, but I learn from folks who have and find inspiration in that type of living. How did you go about developing that because I know a lot of what you have picked up is self-taught by ear?
All of it.
Yea. When I was a kid, I grew up in Austin, Minnesota, and there weren’t that many people around that I knew that were playing piedmont blues. So when I was about ten years old I was listening to records by Mance Lipscomb and Mississippi John Hurt wondering how the hell they did it. Ya know the guy down at the music shop was great but he’s playing Leslie West licks. Leslie West is great but I didn’t want to play that way. I wanted to play like Mance Lipscomb, so I sat in front of the speakers and listened and played and retuned my guitar. And listened and played, and I’m still fighting with it. It’s definitely something that takes on a personal atmosphere for me because I didn’t learn the right way or play anything the right way. I just play it the way I play it and I’m not a scholar about it. I just want to play it so I can hear it and feel what it feels like to play it.
Did you learn to jam early?
No, I hardly ever played with anybody else. And that’s the funny thing, even now I have a hard time playing with other people, especially other guitar players because I get intimidated easily. Most of them actually know what they are doing and I don’t. Mikkel and I, my friend that plays the washboard, he’s been playing with me for fifteen years and I don’t have to think about it. We are part of each other. That’s a rare thing to find.
Well that’s percussion. I’ve found it easier to follow a beat also.
But I’ve sat down and I’ve played with other guitar players where I actually learn stuff. Like “oh, what are you doing there? So that’s how you do it. I’ve never thought of that.” Ya’ know, because I’m flying by the seat of my pants most of the time.
I have recently started playing in an experimental drone electric thing with my friend Christian McShane, who’s an experimental musician that plays the guitar but he doesn’t play it in any way that’s normal. He’s in a band called If Thousands. So I feel comfortable with him because we both approach it in this ignorant way just to see what sounds we can get out of these things.
That is a lot of the feel we’re hearing lately. People are using drone tunes, like if you heard Dave Simonette’s latest solo album Razor Pony for instance.
Yea! I know Dave knows those guys from If Thousands really well because they are from the same area. I’ve always liked that kind of stuff. And Pelt. I listen to a lot of that music when I’m at home.
Your last album Hollandale, with Alan Sparhawk, that has a lot of those sounds. That must have been really challenging to play with. At least initially because of how talented a musician Alan is.
Initially I wouldn’t have ever done it, but I had this conversation with Alan telling him how much I’d like to do something with that and he just said to come out to the house. So I came out to the house. He had a microphone set up in the room and was asking, “What does it sound like?” What I was doing was playing my 12-string in tunings that I would never normally play, these weird drone tunings. I’d mess with the octave stings. You can tune a couple octave strings to fifths or to thirds and get these weird effects. Jack Rose told me about that before he died, so that’s where I was getting that from. So I played for about two hours to Alan and he recorded the whole thing. And then he came back through over the next couple of nights and played a few things over it.
Oh, so those were dubbed? You two weren’t playing that album together.
His parts were dubbed. He tracked it, so it was all done on my part totally improvised. And then we just put it out. I wasn’t thinking I was going to do something like that. I was really happy with it. It was one of the few times I got something done that I wanted to get done. Recording is hard. It’s not really a lot of fun. It’s intimidating for me because I know anything that I do I’m going to hear it, and it’s going to suck and I’m going to hate it, and going to wish I had never done it. So when you put it out, you just have to close your eyes and floor it and let it be out there and not think about it anymore. If people like it, that’s really good but I sure don’t want to have to hear it ever again.
Those recordings were all instrumental. None of it was going to be scored, so I’d assume none of them are going to be played live.
I play versions of them live occasionally. The tunings are so odd it takes me a minute to get to where I need to be. And then you have to be in this sort of mood because it’s all improvised. If the audience isn’t in the mood for it, I’m not going to force them into it. That would be mean. I’m not going to be mean to anyone.
The first time I was really exposed to that style was when Alan had done what he did with Low at last year’s Rock The Garden. What did you think about that?
I loved it. It was exactly what he should have done. It shouldn’t have been a surprise if you know the band or hear them more than a couple of times. Low has a lot of that in their catalogue. I toured with them and a few nights there would always be some sort of drone-y thing that you can tell they are all in the mood for. It would be about thirty minutes later before they get to anything else. I find it amazing to be present for stuff like that.
Who else is here that’s local that you have had the chance to tour with besides Low?
I got to play this last year with Spider John Koerner, which was a big deal for me because he’s been a hero of mine for a really long time. There’s so much music around Minnesota right now that I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of folks and play a lot. Like how [the Northeast Folk Festival] just happened over here at Grumpy’s. It’s very cool that they put it on every year. Sometimes it’s the only chance I get to see in a lot of those guys.
Have you been out to play in St. Paul at all?
I play at the Turf every chance I get, and a few times at the Amsterdam. I know Mikkel just started a series at the Dubliner called the Green Line series where Dakota Dave Hull just played.
If you had a million dollars to help your community, wherever you feel your community is, whether you feel it’s on the road or it’s local, what would you use that to fuel?
I can’t remember what year it was when I started working with people that are homeless many, many years ago. That’s where my heart goes when I think about the community, I think about those folks. We have a really profound problem. I’m not going to go give everybody a house– there’s a much deeper problem in the way we’ve laddered our society. We have some people that feel like they need a lot of stuff and nobody else can have it, and we have a large amount of people that have nothing, with no access to get it. That’s the problem. I’m not sure a million dollars would help do that. That’s a tough one because there are some problems out there that are so fundamental. What would it take to change attitudes? I’ve met so many people who are stuck in this attitude where “well, people chose this lifestyle. They need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” But I’ve met people that have no boots, let alone boot straps. What are you going to do? You have severe mental health issues– you hear voices. You see hallucinations everywhere you go and you have no home. Making people understand that this is a lot more complicated than they want it to be is a lot more complicated. If I had a million dollars and had to do something right now, I’d buy myself a food truck. I’d go around the town to where people are forced to live outside and make them a hot meal for lunch every day. That would mean nothing, but if that’s what I could do, that’s what I would do.
Charlie Parr will play at 4pm on Saturday, August 9 as part of the Pizza Luce Block Party at the Downtown Minneapolis Pizza Luce, located at 119 N 4th St in Minneapolis. Admission to the event is Free.
Meeting Charlie Parr, the documentary on Mr. Parr’s life and music by François-Xavier DuBois, Charles DuBois, Julian Bertrand, and Nicholas Reverchon, is available now digitally.