It's the music of a self-taught guitarist and banjo player who grew up without a TV but with his dad's recordings of America's musical founding fathers, including Charley Patton and Lightnin' Hopkins, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. With his long scraggly hair, father-time beard, thrift-store workingman's flannel and jeans, and emphatic, throaty voice, Parr looks and sounds like he would have fit right into Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music."
Parr uses three instruments, not including his own stomping foot. He got an 1890 banjo the first time he heard Dock Boggs. "I don't do claw hammer, I don't do Scruggs-style, it's just a version of me trying to play like Dock Boggs, I guess," Parr says.
He has two Nationals, a 12-string and a Resonator, which became an obsession when Parr saw a picture of Son House playing it. "The first time I got my paws on one, I went into debt to buy it," he says. "Nationals are fun because they are as much mechanical as instrumental, you can take them apart and put them back together again." On an overseas tour, the neck of the Resonator broke in baggage: he played the guitar by shimming the neck inside the body with popsicle sticks. "It solidifies your relationship with the instrument so much: It's as much part of you as anything else."
Parr's latest album, Barnswallow (February 2013), is his eleventh studio release. Most of his recordings, including Roustabout (2008), Jubilee (2007), Rooster (2005), King Earl (2004), 1922 (2002) and Criminals and Sinners (2001) eschew typical studio settings. He has recorded in warehouses, garages, basements and storefronts, usually on vintage equipment, which gives his work the historic feel of field recordings. It's not because he wants to sound like he was discovered 75 years ago by Alan Lomax; it's because most modern recording studios make the reticent and self-effacing Parr feel uncomfortable. He often works with engineer and mastering master Tom Herbers of Third Ear Studios in Minneapolis to give his recordings true fidelity no matter what the format, from mp3 to 180 gram vinyl to whatever is in between. Yet his music sounds so timeless that you half wonder if there's not a scratchy Paramount 78 of Charlie Parr singing and strumming somewhere.
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