Minnesota is about as far north from the traditional southern strongholds of U.S. folk and blues as you could get. But Charlie Parr, from Duluth in Minnesota, has carved a solid career since first picking up a guitar at the age of seven. Eleven albums on, and his new release, Barnswallow, still draws on the strong southern musical traditions that thrive in his home area. His lovingly executed East Coast Blues style comes across as authentic, organic and honed from a deep-rooted love of the music….and it’s all true.
The album opens and closes with two traditional foot-stompers, favourites of Charlie’s musical heroes Dave Ray and John Koerner (all other songs being Charlie’s own work). Jimmy Bell has instant appeal with its driving guitar and conversational style. At the other end of our 40 minutes, Rattlesnake adds some heat to Doc Watson’s Muskrat Song.
Of Charlie Parr’s own compositions, he says he’s no poet – but he sure is a story-teller. Like many other songs on the album Nowhere? Fast draws you into a tale and Henry Goes To The Bank takes a side-shot at the wagging tongues of office gossips. In contrast to the balladeer approach to story-telling, Badger is a stark and frank short story. Simple in its execution but with all the depth of retrospect, it shines out. It also presents the strongest piece of imagery in the whole album
A fallen soldier from the 6-pack laying at his feet
There are offerings of a more raw blues style, such as My Wife; with fretless banjo, jaws harp and plaintive vocal or Groundhog Day Blues – a comic tragedy that includes old fridge parts in the percussion. In Motorcycle Blues fast-paced harmonica and slide guitar are backed by a washboard that keeps time with an almost mechanical precision, it belies the seemingly unsophisticated nature of the music. And how often do you hear an American petrol-head coveting a British motorcycle marque?
Bringing these songs together has helped Charlie purge the demons of a few hard years where he’s battled against alcohol dependence and a tough life on the touring circuit. Despite more recent problems with tendonitis and arthritis in his right hand, Charlie continues to provide masterful finger-picking on his Resonator & 12 string guitars and fretless banjo. The influence of Charlie’s own experiences isn’t always obvious in his song-writing, but True Friends is a nostalgic outing that shows just what a sentimental soul he is
True friends, true friends are hard to find
To get one you gotta be one
And then they’ll always be around
…speaking of which – personnel for the recording are very close to home. Long-time collaborator and friend Mikkel Beckmen impresses with that driving percussion by means of a washboard and various improvised goods, while Dave Hundreiser provides harmonica, jaw–harp, and resonator mandolin.
Despite the folk, blues, and bluegrass tradition prevalent in the album; the allegoric Jesus Is A Hobo stands out not just for its more modern approach and thanks to the backing vocals (provided by Charlie’s wife, Emily) but for its styling reminiscent of Richard Thomson (ok, there’s probably a more obvious Trans-Atlantic influence that hasn’t occurred to me).
Barnswallow was recorded live to tape over two days at the Winona Arts Center, and the natural feel of the album is very much part of its charm. The music is raw but highly accomplished. Charlie Parr’s albums feel like musical history, you almost expect to see a wee photo of Alan Lomax lurking in the corner of the cover, but there’s also a distinct timelessness. There’s an honesty in his music that’s reflected in its presentation; unsullied by the modern studio techniques he’s always shied away from employing.
If you’re already a fan of Piedmont blues Barnswallow, with its mix of authenticity, invention and realism, should tick all the boxes. If you’ve yet to be convinced about American roots music, Charlie Parr could easily go a long way to convincing you of its worth. Make friends with Barnswallow – you won’t regret it.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Barnswallow is released on Tin Angel 22 April 2013