Minnesota music hero Charlie Parr finally has a team behind his new record but is still a one-of-a-kind, one-man operation on the road.
Video: Soundcheck: 'Delia' with Charle Parr
It’s dinner time at Bayport BBQ, but instead of sticking around for a free plate of lovingly smoked ribs and sausage, Charlie Parr heads out to his little Kia Soul to take a nap.
An Austin, Minn., native whose family mostly worked at the city’s Hormel plant, the mild-mannered, mystic-man-looking singer/songwriter and ace guitar picker gave up eating meat a few years ago. He found it a lot easier to kick than alcohol.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories,” he said of the meatpacking business.
Vegetarianism isn’t what drove the scruffy maestro of acoustic folk and blues music out to his car, though. He got only four hours of sleep the night before, and they weren’t exactly at the Ritz. They were in his little car, parked at a highway rest area — one of his favorites, at least — along Interstate 94 near Madison, Wis., coming from a gig in Milwaukee.
So it goes in the dauntingly peculiar yet ridiculously practical life of Charlie Parr.
At 47, Parr spends a majority of his nights on tour sleeping in his Soul. He removed the back seat so he can tilt the driver’s seat all the way back and still fit a couple of guitars inside. He brushes his teeth and “bathes a bit” when he wakes up.
As is well known in Charlie Parr lore, he also cooks meals under the car’s hood. He wraps his (veggie) dishes in foil and sets them on the exhaust manifold to heat up over long drives. Typical fare includes red lentils, beans or rice with whatever fresh vegetables he can find. He takes along curry powder, garlic and habanero peppers for seasoning.
“I feel a sense of accomplishment this way,” he said before his show at the barbecue joint near Stillwater last month. “Like I’m that guy on TV who drinks his own pee. ‘Look at me, I’m out here surviving on I-94.’ But I didn’t do nothing, really. Just saved some money.”
Last year, he racked up 263 gigs this way. With the most high-profile record of his 15-year career hitting stores this week, he’ll probably clock in even more by the end of 2015.
Parr wouldn’t have it any other way, though. Even with two kids, ages 8 and 13, and the world’s most understanding wife, Emily, at home in Duluth, he said he hasn’t thought of lessening his travels.
“I still get excited when somebody wants me to come play for them,” he said. “I’d be playing guitar whether I was getting paid or not, so getting paid still feels like a nice bonus.”
He did concede that “I do get lonely, sure. Especially if it’s a travel day and I’m only stopping for gas and a cup of coffee. Besides ‘Thank you’ and ‘Have a nice day,’ you never talk to anybody.
“Even for somebody who’s naturally introverted like me — I was a terribly shy kid — you store up a lot of conversation in your head after a day like that. By the time I get to the show, I’m usually ready to talk people’s ears off. That’s a weird thing for me.”
Works well with others
For once in his storied and gradually ascendant career, Parr has a lot of company involved in his new album, “Stumpjumper.”
It’s his first release through a well-established record label, St. Paul folk outlet Red House Records. It’s also his first with heavy input from a producer and a band behind him — unless you think a washboard player counts as a band.
Phil Cook of the popular indie-Americana band Megafaun served as producer. A native of Eau Claire, Wis. (he and Justin “Bon Iver” Vernon are ex-bandmates), Cook is a longtime fan of Parr’s. He even covered one of Parr’s songs on a solo record. Cook now operates out of Durham, N.C., where he recruited musicians to back Parr. There are even drums on some tracks, another first.
“I’ve done it the same way for a long time,” Parr said of making records. In fact, he admitted, “I have no experience arranging material for a band.
“I brought a lot of the songs in as I play them solo, and we did it together. It was really, really refreshing and spontaneous. I felt really comfortable.”
Before you go thinking it’s Def Leppard with a resonator guitar, know that “Stumpjumper” is unquestionably a Charlie Parr record. It’s raw, rustic, evocative lyrically, and arguably the most consistent of his 13 albums, with a handful of tunes that rank among his all-time best, including “Over the Red Cedar,” the woodsman epic “Falcon” and the gospel-flavored “Remember Me If I Forget.”
“Charlie has so much integrity as an artist, I knew he’d never go off the rails and do something that wasn’t 100 percent pure,” said Eric Peltoniemi, Red House Records president.
Peltoniemi wanted to sign Parr even before he heard the sessions. “He’s a natural fit for us, not just musically but on a personal level, too,” he said, recounting the recent tribute Red House staged for the late Minnesota acoustic-blues guru Dave Ray of Koerner, Ray & Glover fame.
“There was no question we had to get Charlie in the show. He’s the torchbearer for that music now.”
Songs of life
The only song on “Stumpjumper” that’s not an original is the deadly traditional blues/folk standard “Delia,” which Parr more or less learned by watching Spider John Koerner perform it weekly at the Viking Bar. Parr attended Augsburg College in the late ’90s but spent most of his time studying at the Viking and other Minneapolis blues joints.
During his youth in Austin — a period ravaged by the infamous 1985-86 Hormel plant strike — Parr became unusually, voraciously attracted to Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” and other Depression-era blues and folk. As one of Parr’s previous producers, Tom Herbers, noted, “He isn’t somebody who stopped playing in a punk band one day and decided all of a sudden to switch to blues.”
Authenticity has always been Parr’s strong suit, but “Stumpjumper” makes clear how much he has grown as a guitar and banjo player and especially as a songwriter since his Viking Bar days.
No surprise, a lot of the new songs are inspired by his travels — not so much the landscapes and sights, but the people. “Over the Red Cedar,” for instance, came from a conversation he overheard at one tour stop about a guy who bought a fancy new truck, then lost his job the next day.
“My input into the conversation is the part about the Red Cedar,” Parr said. “You do your thing in life: You lose your job, you buy a truck and crash it, the trees keep growing, the river keeps going by. That helps me, knowing that in my life.”
Touring as much as he does pays off as a two-way street when it comes to writing. “I don’t try to find people to be inspired by,” he said. “You just go out there, it’ll come to you.”
Parr has endured his own personal dramas in recent years, some of which plays out on “Stumpjumper.”
His mom, 87, suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and he has watched her generation dying off. “Remember Me If I Forget,” which features Emily Parr singing harmony, was written the day his mom’s older sister, Mid, died. (“Like my mom, she’d let you know how the world works, and that’s just how it was,” he recalled.)
Alcohol hasn’t been too kind to Parr, either, and echoes of his struggles can be heard in the eerier tunes such as “Frank Miller Blues.” Said Parr, “I’ve fallen off that wagon and gotten run over by it more times than I care to admit.”
Still, Parr has noticeably slimmed down in recent years and made healthier living an integral part of life on the road. He can’t keep up his routine without it.
“Sitting in a car for eight hours a day is not a healthy lifestyle,” he conceded. “If I want to keep doing this, I’ve got to keep on myself. I do a lot of exercising now, and eat a more balanced diet, as much as I can when I’m gone.”
So don’t be scared if you come across a long-haired, unshowered forty-something gentleman doing jumping jacks outside a Kia Soul with his toothbrush and tinfoil dinner in hand at a rest area on I-94. It’s just Charlie Parr doing his thing.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658
CHARLIE PARR RELEASE PARTY
When: 8 p.m. Fri.
Where: Varsity Theater, 1308 SE. 4th St., Mpls.
Tickets: $15, www.ticketfly.com.
Watch Parr Play
in the latest installment of our Soundcheck video series, warming up at Bayport BBQ, at startribune.com/soundcheck.