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May 2024

 Photography by: Zeke Hanson

Charlie Parr

By: Zeke Hanson

There can be a very visceral reality to sensory memory.

Taste can bring back visuals

Smells can trigger memories.

Whether it’s the popping greens after a fresh rain, or the dank smells of cellar air, it’s hard not to have multiple experiences at any given moment.

Even in memory care units, music is used to brighten and build, and stringed vibrations can bring cognitive results.

You don’t have to be a musician to appreciate music any more than you have to be a painter to stand in awe of a portrait.

Take Charlie Parr of Austin, Minnesota.

He’s been a folk journeyman for decades, and as far as I can tell, mastered the art of self-contentment as much as folk.

“I got interested in playing the guitar when I was eight. It was mostly because my dad had a pretty unique record collection, and it was really diverse.” Charlie, reflects, “and I remember I was kind of obsessed with a couple of blues records.”

Specifically, Parr had the formative blues listening of, Mans Lipscomb¹ and Lightnin’ Hopkins², “you know, just kind of solo blues sounds. And my dad got me a guitar, and I didn't take any lessons, but I just kind of poked around with it.”


Like most people, Parr listened to music when it was on. When you’re a kid you don’t really have any say in what’s on, you’re just a sponge to whatever is playing. Sometimes a tone strikes you and it just won’t let go; sometimes the music chooses you.

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“I mean, I’d listened to music all my life before then because [of] my mom and dad and my sister. But then from that point on, when I felt like I could participate, somehow, I was obsessed, and it never went away. It's still exactly the same as it was when I was eight.”

Charlie immersed himself in music, but he didn’t take any lessons.

Point of fact, the life lessons he would gain, were hard-earned.

“I dropped out of high school, I got into trouble.” Charlie says, “I did a bunch of dumb things. My dad, who was working in a packing house, he was a full on laborer, and he told me, he said,’ you know, you should just do this.’ I was a teenager at the time. He said, ‘just do this. See what that's like. I don't know, you know, life is weird. You know, don't get stuck in a track, you know, try this, try that, whatever.’ I started getting gigs and at some point, someone gave me some money and I thought, ‘you know, that’s
already something that I did that.’ I could kind of engineer my life towards that. But then again, I didn't really know how. And so my answer to it was just to say ‘yes’ to every single gig and never say ‘no’ to anything and play all the time. And then it wasn't until about six years ago when I ended up getting the manager, that things became very directed through that, because I don't have those skills, I don't know how to...,manipulate things in order to position myself.”

Charlie’s dad passed away when he was 26. At that time, he was playing gigs in Austin³ (the one in Minnesota...not Texas) or Minneapolis, he wasn’t finding gigs, so he was playing on the streets or in store fronts. Happy to have anyone listen. After his father passed, Parr started writing his own songs.

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“It just morphed into what it's happening now, I guess,” Charlie reflects, “is the sound that you get at... that, that is you. That comes from you mimicking the records that you got initially. I think that in folk forms of music, acoustic music, or folk blues music, I think that that's where a lot of people start. You start with thinking, ‘here's my template.’”

That template being the Mance Lipscomb, or Memphis Minnie⁴, “And you set about trying to learn what they do in the 1970s, when there was no YouTube.”

Parr says he didn’t even know there were films of Mance Lipscomb playing when he started out, he just played with the strings himself trying to mimic the sound for himself, “I had no idea. So, I was guessing. So, the combination of you trying to mimic someone and you, being you, produces something, a third thing, and I think that's the natural kind of progression of learning that way.”

Folk Legend Pete Seeger’s⁵ dad, Charles Seeger⁶, coined the phrase “folk process,” which is what Parr is explaining here, “you produce something else by trying to bring forward something that you want to play, but you can't.” Especially with artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson⁷, for example, he's pretty idiosyncratic, you know, or Charley Patton⁸. They're ciphers. Skip James⁹, “Spider” John Koerner¹⁰, they're... they're ciphers.``

Charlie explains, “they're a set of one. So, you can't play like they did. You know, Elizabeth Cotten¹¹, you can't play like she did. You can get really close. And you can make it sound like that, but you can't really do it. And so there's going to be you and her blended together.”

The ‘you’ and the ‘them’ that Parr is talking about, creates this unique ‘third thing’ sound that carries forward.

“If I ever made music that happened to be something that someone wanted to, you know, play, which I doubt that, but if there ever were, they would create another thing that would be all of my idols, for lack of a better word, and then them...and then the next thing, which is all of us.”

We don’t get to pick who we influence. The more you create, the better chance you have of leaving something behind that someone after you picks up and carries in their own way.

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Charlie Parr has played for free on street corners, and he’s headlined to sold out crowds. To him, it’s the same show, it’s the love of the game. “Kurt Vonnegut¹²,” (doesn’t write for Nosebleeds), Parr thinks for a moment, “in one of his books, I think it was Breakfast of Champions. Anyway, he's describing this painter, and the painter just lives to paint and says, ‘you know...all this other stuff, just put me on a spaceship, sending you off into space with paints and brushes. All I want to do is the act of laying paint on a canvas.’ That's what I'm after. And I feel the same way about guitar playing. Touching the strings, having sound come out. Playing with rhythms and manipulating these melodies, that's all I'm after. That's the goal right now.”

At this interview, Parr is getting ready to play a gig. He drove four hours and ten minutes to get there, and after the gig is done, he’s driving four hours and ten minutes to go home. To sleep in his own bed, “which is dumb,” Charlie laughs, “it's a dumb thing to do. You know, I'm 56 years old, so I'm probably unemployable at this point... it's been 22 years since I've had any kind of steady employment... that's what keeps me doing it, because I'm a folk singer. I'm not going to make enough money to... support a family or anything. I made it, I've made enough money to keep away from employment and no one's bothered me about money. That's working for me. As long as I get to do that, sit down and make... manipulate the air in such a way that it's pleasing to my ear, that's kind of what I'm after. So success has already been achieved for me.”

Parr has been at this grind for nosing on 40 years. What started as an appreciation for his ears became an itch in his fingers. As Charlie describes it, the strategies of a folk singer are to plow the same field, for a very long time. You’ve got to maintain a certain amount of traction in order to keep at it. “That's what you're after,” Charlie explains, “because you know that the stratosphere is not really going to be an option. And maybe that's not even something that a lot of people in my shoes would want. But, you know,
going downhill is scary because like I said, at my age, I'm not a desirable employee or anything like that, so...I’m looking to maintain my traction.”

Parr is a one man show. He’s not opposed to playing with others, but he understands the give and take of managing a team. The overhead is lower, both financially and realistically, but there are also demands of a band that involve the throwing of creative energies toward a singular goal, “and I do that by myself,” Charlie says with levity, “so if I have a band with me, I'm asking them to forego their creative goals for mine. So they need to be paid and fed and slept and kept happy...and I can't afford them.”

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Coming up, Parr struggled to find work in Austin, Minnesota so he moved North to Duluth, Minnesota.

“Duluth had a very, very and still has a very, very, supportive and encouraging music scene,” Charlie reflects, “you know, it's not a big place. So all the music that people make, people are conscious that this is important and they take good care of it; and I was kind of imbued with that atmosphere.” Parr has since moved to St. Paul, Minnesota where he is able to leave the gig management, well, to his manager, “I kind of just go and play,” as he describes it, “because I'm also not good at self-promoting, I'm not good at getting gigs, I'm not good at social media or whatever...”

At this point, Charlie is self- contented. He has a new album out called Little Sun that just dropped. When it comes to himself and his art, he is satisfied. He wants it to be something that people feel good about.

“I hope that I continue to be creative for the remainder of my life and in a way that is meaningful to me. I want to be intentional about my creations. I want them to be meaningful, you know, to myself...and I think if they're meaningful to myself, somebody else will find value in them somewhere in the world. And that's. That's great. That's more than I need.”

That is the true embodiment of the folk process. The very process that Charles Seeger coined, but only after refining it from the keen mind of Cicil James Sharp¹³. If you want to take a deep dive into the “process,” you can look into more of Cicil’s work by reading his English Folk Song: Some Conclusions.

You aren’t so much as what you eat, as what you consume. If you want to be good,consume good.

What’s out there has already been done. There’s already a version of that. Allowing the influence to wash over you, as you adapt to it, to give room for your own shortcomings and errors to be part of your development, that breathes life into that ‘third thing.’

That ‘thing’ is the proverbial ‘it’ factor that people want to sit down and listen to more of. Everyone has the potential for that, but not everyone can get out of their own way to let it shine.

Whether you’re playing a traditional guitar upside down like Elizabeth Cotten because it’s what you have, or a rumored seven string guitar like Robert Johnson (musician and songwriter, 1911-1938, Mississippi), the difference you bring to your craft, out of necessity or habit, is what gives you a style worth paying attention to.

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As usual, Charlie Parr¹⁴ brings it home.

“My goals are, more or less just to kind of continue to be, creative,” Charlie is getting ready for his show now, but the even keel of his music isn’t lost on his vision of self-perspective, “even if it's dumb, you know, even if it's just a little thing here and there and no one ever sees it in the world that I've managed to exercise that part of myself, until I die.”

In summation, Charlie says, “I just want to play the dumb guitar and be left alone about it.”

You can find his music here


¹ Beau De Glen “Mance”, American Singer and Guitarist out of Navasota, Texas 1895-1976

² Samuel John “Lightnin’”, Country Blues Singer, Songwriter, Guitarist, 1912-1982, Houston, Texas
³ some states have cities with the same names, but are not in fact...the same place

⁴ Lizzie Douglas, Guitarist and Vocalist, 1897-1973, Hip-Hop/Rap and Blues, Mississippi

⁵ Peter Seeger, folk singer and activist, 1919-2014, New York

⁶ Charles Louis Seeger, Jr., folklorist and musicologist, coined the phrase Folk Process, 1886-1979,Mexico City, Mexico

⁷ Lemon Henry Jefferson, Singer-Songwriter, “Father of the Texas Blues,” 1893-1929, Coutchman, Texas

⁸ “Father of the Delta Blues,” musician and songwriter, 1891-1934, Mississippi

⁹ Nehemiah Curtis “Skip,” singer and guitarist, 1902-1969, Mississippi

¹⁰ singer songwriter and guitarist, 1938, Rochester, NY

¹¹ “Libba”, left handed player on a right handed strung guitar, playing the instrument upside down, 1893-1987, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

¹² again, doesn’t write for nosebleeds, writer and humorist, 1922-2007, Indiana

¹³ folk arts and styles collector, lecturer and musician, 1859-1924, Surrey England

¹⁴ R&B/Soul, Folk, 1967, Minnesota

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