In the music of Charlie Parr, there is a sincere conviction and earnest drive to create. The Minnesota-born guitarist, songwriter, and interpreter of traditional music has released 19 albums over two decades and has been known to perform up to 275 shows a year. Parr is a folk troubadour in the truest sense: taking to the road between shows, writing and rewriting songs as he plays, fueled by a belief that music is eternal and cannot be claimed or adequately explained. The bluesman poet pulls closely from the sights and sounds around him, his lyrical craftsmanship built by his influences. The sounds from his working-class upbringing—including Folkways legends such as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie—imbue Parr’s music with stylistic echoes of blues and folk icons of decades past. Parr sees himself merely as a continuer of a folk tradition: “I feel like I stand on a lot of big shoulders,” he said in an interview. “I hope that I’ve brought a little bit of myself to the music.”
With a discography simultaneously transcendental in nature and grounded in roots music, Charlie Parr is the humble master of the 21st century folk tradition. Parr started recording in Duluth in 2002, where he lives today. Life in the port town on Lake Superior has a way of bleeding into his work the same way his childhood in Austin, Minnesota does. Parr self-released his debut album, Criminals and Sinners, and did the same for his sophomore album 1922 (2002). With growing popularity abroad, Parr signed with Red House Records in 2015, where he recorded break-out albums Stumpjumper (2015) and Dog (2017). Parr’s music has an overwhelming sense of being present and mindful, and his sound is timeless.
Parr’s mastery of his craft is only more apparent when contextualized within the history of folk tradition of which Parr has dedicated his practice The land and lives around and intersecting with Parr have always influenced him, from the hills and valleys of Hollandale, Minnesota to the Depression-era stories from his father. Parr strives to listen to everything: “I don’t see that I’d ever be capable of creating anything if it weren’t for these inspirations and influences, books and music as well as the weather and random interactions with strangers and animals. So, the well never runs dry as long as my eyes and ears are open,” Parr said in a 2020 interview. Before he was even 10 years old Parr was rummaging through his father’s record collection—sometimes drawing dinosaurs on the vinyl sleeves—and listening to country, folk, and blues legends, many of whom are staples in the Folkways catalog. When Parr sings and plays his resonator or 12-string, you can hear influences like Mance Lipscomb, Charley Patton, Spinder John Koerner, Rev. Gary Davis, and Dock Boggs. This is especially true in his playing, when, after a diagnosis of focal dystonia, Parr turned to greats like Davis, Doc Watson, and Booker White for two-finger picking inspiration. Gifted a 1965 Gibson B-45 12-string by his father, Parr has never had a formal lesson and learned by to listening records and watching musicians he admired.
Parr’s first album with Smithsonian Folkways, Last of Better Days Head (2021), foregrounded his lyrical craftsmanship and sophisticated bluesman confidence, with spare production highlighting Parr’s mastery of guitar and elevating his poetry. Last of Better Days Ahead is a portrait of how Parr saw the world in that moment, reflecting on time and memories that have past while holding an enduring desire to be present. In his 2024 release, Little Sun, Parr weaves together stories celebrating music, community, and communing with nature. Putting forth an ambitious and raw album that exemplifies the best of Parr’s sound: a blend of the blues and folk traditions he continues to carry with him and the steadfast originality of a poet.
Before you come into the world you should know // there are things that will hurt and things that won’t //
like scraping your knees on the asphalt // and the freedom right before you fell//
nobody tells it like it is // they say ‘isn’t it lovely,’ and ‘buck up kid,’ // but you learn how to breathe just by
doing it // how to dream until you believe yourself
Living Thing, the newest full length album from Oregon based songwriter Anna Tivel, is an arcing dive into
the existential. Written through the tumultuous eyes of 2020 and recorded in Eau Claire, WI in profound
collaboration with long time friend and producer Shane Leonard, these are songs of struggle and aliveness
expressed with great joy.
“I wrote feverishly in the strange chaos of that year, suddenly out of work and attempting to understand the
shifting human fabric, the depth of desperation and the overwhelming tenacity of spirit. The resulting songs
felt rhythmic and vital, with more melody and soaring chorus than I’ve explored in the past. There was no
way and no means to gather a full band, and I brought the songs to Shane’s doorstep knowing and fully
trusting the skill and exuberance of his creative imagination. Shane stripped everything down to the studs and
we rebuilt it together, just the two of us for a month in his garage studio, Shane dreaming up each sonic layer
while I chased the lyrics to one last double chorus.”
The album takes off with the song ‘Silver Flame,’ a sweeping embrace of uncertainty. ‘Satellites and angel
voices // yesterday tried to destroy us // morning came up golden anyhow // maybe there’s a great creator
// a far off planet trying to save us // but we’ve just got each other for now.’
Tivel is a writer drawn to seminal questions, and this album is no exception. She illuminates the seeking
rather than clinging to conviction. What is it that makes us human? What are we for? How do we move as
we reach toward each other, change our minds, learn to love? The nine songs that make up ‘Living Thing’
look deep into the core and do so with groove and energy. Shane brought a dynamic vigor to the table,
drawing the tender lyrical thoughts into a more potent sound world. He acted as producer, engineer, band,
and trusted creative comrade, even mixing the album on his analog board, playing the faders like an
instrument in an inspired momentary performance of each song.
“Shane gave his whole beautiful heart and mind to this record and I’ve never had such a freeing and powerful
collaborative experience. I learned so much from watching him explore in the studio. We followed the rules of
improv, said yes and tried every idea that percolated – sampled an 8 track symphony backward, looped wine
glasses and lighters, read poetry into lofi microphones, and recorded a thunderstorm into a tape machine.
Shane went on eternal drum tone quests, chased intricate melodic bass lines, and gently encouraged me to let
go and sing from a deeper place. I love this record because it feels like a joyous musical conversation with a
close friend about the big vast mystery of being alive.”
Nobody tells it like it is // they say don’t blow around on a different wind // but you’re gone and you’re not
even listening // they were wrong and the wind is a living thing // and you’re taking a picture you won’t
forget // something real and the way you remember it // you’ll be everything, you’ll be riotous // what a
feeling to be alive