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Folk Master Charlie Parr Tries A New Arrangement On ‘Little Sun’

Shelly Mosman

“I’m just moving all the time,” says Charlie Parr in some notes to a new album written by his hometown friend Brad Zellar. “I go someplace where I don’t feel comfortable, and I don’t feel comfortable telling anybody that I’m uncomfortable, so I just leave…I’m driving and I feel good again. That’s my spot. That and getting to sit down and play.”

Charlie did feel comfortable telling me that he was uncomfortable sitting for the interview we did for Episode 282 of The String (and I appreciate the candor). Happily though, he didn't get up and leave. In fact, he engaged in one of my favorite conversations in many months. I understood going in that he’s something of an introvert who doesn’t like to be asked to explain or describe his songs, so I kept the atmosphere as loose as possible and my questions largely about his unique path and road life. For 20 years, the Duluth, MN-based troubadour has toured solo, keeping expenses low and crisscrossing the country, playing his idiosyncratic and often brilliant expression of the folk blues for his loyal and discerning audience.

The new album in question is Little Sun, a 12-song collection of original ruminations, pictorials, and stories set to guitar-driven concepts that are by turns rollicking and atmospheric. Little Sun is Parr’s second release for the prestigious Smithsonian Folkways Records. Following on 2021’s Last Of The Better Days Ahead, which was a typically Parr creation featuring just his voice and guitar, the songwriter let himself go a little bigger sonically and immerse himself in a collaboration. Hosting the intimate studio affair was Portland, OR producer Tucker Martine, acclaimed indie veteran of records with the Decemberists, Bill Frisell, Aoife O’Donovan and others.

“I liked a lot of the records he produced, you know? I'm a big fan of Bill Frisell,” says Charlie. “And the kind of atmosphere he'd managed to create was, I felt, really good…He kind of got right away how I would need to be recorded in order to be comfortable.” The small crew of musicians were drawn from Martine’s colleagues, including standout electric guitarist Marisa Anderson, a favorite of Parr’s. With an elegantly frugal rhythm section, they are able to have some gorgeous, spectral conversations on their guitars, especially in the long tone poem “Bear Head Lake.”

As I say in the show, Little Sun was the nickname of Tony Glover, a blues harmonica player and journalist who emerged in the Minneapolis scene of the 60s and 70s. Glover played and recorded in various combinations with guitarists Dave Ray and “Spider” John Koerner, one of the lesser known icons of the folk revival and a friend and mentor to Charlie Parr back when he was getting started. One of my favorite lines in Charlie’s homage to the late Glover is “It’s a matter for perception - The music we choose to hear”

What Charlie heard growing up was a hodgepodge of old scratchy LPs that his father would stack up and play on a console stereo. This story in the interview is priceless, but it’s no spoiler to say that one day a record by Texas acoustic blues man Mance Lipscomb hit the turntable and blew Charlie away - at age 8. He seems to have been chasing that feeling ever since, mastering fingerstyle guitar and absorbing a huge range of blues and outsider artists. He dropped out of high school and left his confining home town of Austin, MN and moved to the twin cities, where the live music scene - from Spider John to Husker Du - took him over and led in some indescribable way to the deeply personal and rapturously written songs we have from Charlie across nearly 20 albums.

As we got close to the end of our time, I trepidatiously asked about a factor in Parr’s career that I knew wouldn’t be easy to talk about, his battle with the muscular and neurological ailment focal dystonia. His guitar playing right hand can curl up in a spasm. He talks about learning a new way to play and having to give up the banjo because no adjustment was enough. Charlie’s disclosures about adjusting and sacrificing to keep playing the guitar are poignant, courageous, and wistful - much like his music.

Charlie Parr - "Bear Head Lake" (Official Audio)

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>