Charlie Parr: Resonator fueled folk songs and beyond

by Halee Hastad

photo by Jason Rosewarne

Minnesota’s landscape is unassumingly beautiful. Hills roll, do not mount. Trees grow, not too tall. The more than 10,000 lakes rest as symbols of seasons. There are oppressively humid summer weeks with waters like tepid bathtubs, and winters with cold so blistering and raw, the lakes, rivers, and even gasoline freeze.

The city of Duluth is in the northeast corner of the state and shares a border with Superior, Wisconsin, just around the edge of Lake Superior. Both of them are home to the Port of Duluth-Superior, the leading volume port of the Great Lakes and second largest dry port in the U.S. This area sees many tourists and has a vibrant local community due to multiple universities and colleges. Yet, in many ways, it’s slow and sleepy during the cold season.

Winter calls for time spent inside here, which demands the residents get creative with their energy, and this means many artists; painters, sculptors, bakers, musicians, jewelers, crafts makers, you name it.

Charlie Parr is one of them. And the city is proud to be called his home.

Born and raised in Minnesota, Parr, now 50, moved from where he grew up on the southeast border of the State to Minneapolis and then again to Duluth in 1999.

As a child he remembers sitting in his family home listening to his father’s music on a large record player. His father always encouraged he listen to and play music, he said, and it wasn’t long before a passion arose.

Parr was given his first guitar at the age of eight, a gift he was appreciative of with little idea as to how it would change his life from that point on.

“I never planned to do this,” he said, chuckling. “And I’m still not really sure about it.”

There are memories of him sitting near the record player late at night and teaching himself how to create the sounds of the blues and folk music his father had, he said.

And that’s the kicker – Parr is completely self-taught. He draws from musicians such as Spider John Koerner, Mississippi John Hurt, and Bukka White. His repertoire of instruments includes the mule resonator, national resonator, a fretless open-back banjo, and a 12-string guitar, playing with techniques influenced by the Piedmont blues guitar style, and also some banjo and parlor style traditions. What the listener is hearing in the end, however, is pure Parr.

“My sound isn’t really one thing or the other because I haven’t formally learned one thing or the other,” he said with a warm Minnesotan accent.

Parr writes all of his own songs, many reflecting to times past. He described how a recent song was written from a memory of a couple’s conversation accidentally overheard in an Irish pub years ago. In that moment he had no intention of remembering what they said, but he found himself writing down their dialogue, almost verbatim. There are also words about his father, now passed, a dog he had, Blue, also passed. Relationships, the weather, and the ebbing and flowing of a man’s experiences as a traveller and musician.

“I sometimes feel I’m a failed short story writer,” he said.

The first live shows he played were at what was the Ace Box Bar in St. Paul. He would sit in a corner and play into the night, still with no real intention of a future as a full-time musician. It was more than anything a dedicated hobby he wanted to share.

Now, more than two decades later, Parr remains devoted to sharing his passion. This is the best part of being a musician, he said. He sees the audience as a partner and never prepares setlists as he believes songs should be played in accordance with the atmosphere of the moment. He prefers to feel like more of a participant than a performer, he said. And the energy of his live shows is reflective of such intention.

“Once I opened myself up to the idea that my set needs to cater to the audience, every show has felt more exciting because I never know what’s going to happen,” he said .

Not long ago Parr had a weekly gig at Duluth’s Fitger’s Brewhouse. The floor would always be packed with sweaty, dancing bodies. Parr, his guitar and harmonica, and whoever was playing beside him, would be sitting in the corner, just as he did at the Ace, unassuming as the Minnesota landscape, and at the same time making such a moving sound, just as the seasons transition wildly from one extreme to another.

His discography, too, is lively, and extensive. With more than two dozen albums and compilation records, not to mention singles, collaborations, and a DVD, Parr remains humble.

“It’s never felt like a lot,” he said. “That fire and electricity, that obsession I felt as a kid, it has never diminished.”

Come September Parr will put out another album, Dog, which has one of the oldest songs he ever wrote and other tracks featuring some of his oldest friends. It is a culmination of a year or more worth of emotional matter, he said. The album was recorded under Red House Records live in studio to tape in one day and has a unique sound resulting from ambient sound additions, which he hasn’t before used.

He will be touring solo prior to the release of Dog, making his way past the rolling hills of Minnesota and over the mountains of the west.

“It’s weird to find yourself in this odd position just travelling around with a goofy smile on your face,” he said, “…just an unwashed individual in the same sweatshirt you’ve had since age 12.”

Parr plays The Green Frog on July 26, and in Spokane on the 27th at the Bartlett. He will return to Duluth in mid-September, having avoided the humidity of a Lake Superior summer and just in time for a few sweet weeks of pleasantly warm days and cool nights.

Until then, he will surely be missed.

For more about Charlie Parr, visit See him at the Green Frog on July 26.