Charlie Parr headlines Durango Blues Train this weekend
FARMINGTON — While grinding through his rebellious and surly teenage years, Charlie Parr once got the devilish notion that the surest way to stick it to his dad — who had committed the apparently unpardonable sin of introducing his son to the music of such icons as Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Lightnin' Hopkins — would be to subject him to an album by a gang of angry young British punks.
And so it was that a household where the walls hummed with such classics as "Folsom Prison Blues," "The Battle of New Orleans," "T for Texas," "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "Shotgun Blues" suddenly was inundated with Joe Strummer screeching his way through the likes of "Charlie Don't Surf" and "Police on My Back."
The teenage Parr sat back, grinned and waited for his old man to come unhinged.
Boy, was he disappointed.
"He came down and listened to the whole thing with me," Parr said ruefully, recalling his father's response. "He said, 'You know, this is really just folk music.'"
Angry as he was at the time that his clever little plan had backfired, Parr has a different takeaway from that episode more than three decades later.
"That was just my dad — if it was honest music, he liked it," Parr said. "He gave me that."
And so it was when Parr gave up his day job several years later and cast his lot as a full-time musician, it was no coincidence that that same brand of honesty would serve as a hallmark of the Minnesota native's own music — as did the stripped-down, bare-essentials style that many of those aforementioned artists employed.
Parr, who is part of a six-act lineup on the Durango Blues Train this weekend in Durango, Colo., is perhaps the ultimate low-maintenance artist, taking a no-frills approach to his music making — and much of his life. He not only tends to record his discs in such untraditional settings as warehouses, garages, basements, storefronts and barns (as he did with his most recent release, 2015's "Stumpjumper," on the Red House Records label), he also makes a habit of sleeping in his car when he's on tour, and his preferred dinner is rice and beans that's been simmering under the hood for a few hours.
Those examples shouldn't be misconstrued as mere affectations. Speaking by phone in, coincidentally, Farmington, Minn., one afternoon last week where he was performing at a county fair, Parr said his choice of what some might describe as primitive surroundings for recording venues doesn't represent an intentional desire on his part to make things harder than they have to be.
"That just happens to be where I'm most comfortable," the soft-spoken Parr said. "If I'm uncomfortable, that will show up in a recording. I try to capture what would ideally be a live performance you'd be proud of. But the nature of the kind of music I try to make, it's changeable ... What you hear on a record of mine is just what I sound like on a particular night."
If the raw, rootsy and spirited "Stumpjumper" is any indication, Parr sounds plenty good most every night. The disc features him playing with a full-fledged band for the first time in his career, the result of an informal recording session arranged by Parr's pal and co-producer Phil Cook. The two agreed that Parr would drive to Cook's farm in rural North Carolina, sit down with a group of local players Cook had lined up and just see what happened.
It's hard to argue with the results. As is the case with many of the best recordings, "Stumpjumper" has the distinct organic feel of a bunch of musicians simply coming together in the moment and enjoying playing together — no egos, no posing and certainly no heavy hand in the production booth. Parr said no one in the band had even heard any of the songs he wanted to record before he arrived, but they still managed to record 11 cuts in an almost unheard-of 10 hours.
"It just felt really, really good," Parr said of the experience. "It seemed like we were in kind of a trance. It was one of the most naturally feeling times to make music in my life."
It was also a much-valued growing experience, he said.
"One thing I like about myself, and that's a problem at the same time, is that I don't play well with others," he said. "But now, I kind of understand what it's like to play with an ensemble. I had fun, and I learned a lot."
Parr employs an untraditionally thick vocal and guitar-playing style, but both are worked to great effect on "Stumpjumper," particularly on the title cut and such tunes as "On Marrying a Woman with An Uncontrollable Temper" and "Frank Miller Blues." Parr is a clever lyricist who doesn't go out of his way to impress you with his cleverness, and he sings and plays with a conviction that leads you to believe this is what he'd be doing even if nobody were listening. It's an appealing package, and it harkens back to the best instincts of those artists he was exposed to at an early age by his dad.
Parr takes that same easygoing approach to most aspects of his career. He said he was looking forward to playing on a train this weekend, even if the constant, unpredictable motion that comes along with that setting can certainly take its toll on a performance. Parr said this won't be the first time he's played on a train — he also played a steam train in Australia once — and said the trick is just being flexible, both physically and artistically.
"There were a lot of hitches, bangs and rolling," he said of that earlier experience. "But I finally got my sea legs and went with it."
The truth is, Parr's music is very well suited for an old steam train, and he's used to playing in circumstances that other performers might consider less than glamorous, laughing as he explained that he once opened for a pie-eating contest in Minneapolis. During another gig, this one during a white-water kayaking competition in North Carolina, he found himself positioned onstage in a beer garden in the middle of the river — and a great deal of chaos.
"My philosophy has been to say, 'Just work out the details later on,' " he said. "That leads you to some interesting places, but you know what? Every one of them turned out to be good."
While some might classify that approach as just a good old-fashioned taste for adventure, Parr prefers to think he's just learned to keep his options open as he gets older.
"I don't want to fall into that situation of thinking I know everything," he said. "I'm creeping up on 50, and I realize a lot of other people know a lot more than I do. So I've really enjoyed these times of having someone in that co-producer's chair. But I'm too much of a stubborn person not to have my hands in there somewhere."
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