Charlie Parr: The story of an Austin-grown mad scientist with a guitar

Published 7:01am Sunday, October 20, 2013
Charlie Parr talks about his passion for the guitar during a Conversation with Charlie Parr last week. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com
Charlie Parr talks about his passion for the guitar during a Conversation with Charlie Parr last week. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Before his concert at the Paramount Theater Oct. 11, Charlie Parr carried in a box of shirts, records and merchandise to sell. Standing in the lobby as fans filtered in, he asked Paramount staffers if there was anyone around to sell the merchandise for him.

The night before, Parr pulled his truck into a rest area to sleep in his truck rather than paying for a hotel room.

Such is life on the road for an independent musician.

A few hours before his concert, Parr, who grew up in Austin, spoke to The Current’s Bill DeVille during a panel at Riverland Community College about his life, music and his career as an independent musician.

“The career part of it, I’m still not really sure about that,” Parr said.

Parr first started playing guitar as a boy in Austin, and he has supported himself entirely as a musician for nine years, though it hasn’t always been an easy or straight-forward ride.

“My career is more like a balled up Kleenex in a wind storm than anything else,” he said. “I have been in the right place at the right time far too many times.”

 Dad’s records

Growing up in Austin, Parr said most children either played music or were active in sports.

“I was the kid on the block who listened to a lot of music the other kids didn’t listen to,” Parr said.

That’s because the musical bug first bit Parr through his father’s record collection, especially the many acoustic, folk, blues and old country western albums his father owned: particularly musicians like Lead Belly, Albert King and Mance Lipscomb.

“All I wanted to do was play guitar like that,” Parr said of Lipscomb.

Now 46, not much has changed, as Parr still has his father’s Lipscomb album.

“I put that record on, and I still want to play guitar like that,” he said.

Even though Parr can play all the notes — and there are countless Youtube videos to teach the songs — Parr said those musicians have a certain unattainable quality.

“Yeah, you can play all the notes, but there’s something else there that’s missing now,” Parr said.

The music inspired a young Parr to teach himself how to play guitar. DeVille asked if people considered Parr cool when he was growing up, since he played the guitar. Parr said that was not the case: “I don’t think anyone’s ever mistaken me for cool,” he replied.

Parr remembers packing up instruments and playing with friends at Todd Park. His first gig was at Lefty’s in the early 1980s, but his musical career wasn’t instantly successful. His set inspired a bar fight of people who did not want to hear what he was doing, and Parr ended up stopping his set short.

Parr left Austin in the mid-1980s for Minneapolis and remembers first living in a Grey rooming house that rented rooms for $60. Most nights, he’d stop at one of the many clubs around the Twin Cities to listen to a musician. While Parr said he was “too chicken” to talk to them, he soaked it all in.

“I’m still the same awestruck kid that I’ve always been around people like that,” he said.

After living in the Twin Cities for about 15 years, Parr and his wife, Emily, moved to Duluth because they couldn’t afford to live in the Twin Cities.

“It was obvious from a long time ago that I wasn’t going to be successful at much of anything, so making any money was out of the question,” Parr said. “So we wanted to move somewhere we could actually afford to live,” he said.

At the time, it was cheaper to live in Duluth, though Parr said that’s beginning to change a bit.

 ’All I want to do is play the guitar’

As a folk-blues musician who typically performs on his own, Parr has little overhead and typically travels alone. He often sleeps in his truck and buys food from grocery stores rather than going out to eat. As he’s a one-man band, Parr doesn’t drink or do drugs, as it’s vitally important for him to keep up his health.

Parr performs and practices frequently. When he’s home in Duluth, he plays every Wednesdays at Fitger’s Brewhouse.

When Parr was getting his start in music, he played frequently, and it helped gain him exposure.

“The one thing that I’ve kind of done on purpose is I play all the time. I don’t want to do anything else. I’m extremely lazy and unemployable,” he said. “All I want to do is play the guitar.”

That eagerness to perform was vital early on, as it helped Parr be in the right place at the right time.

But now, some friends have suggested Parr plays too much and will oversaturate the market, leading to him playing for less money.

“Those kind of lessons are lost on me,” he said.

When asked if he’d play less often or take an extended vacation, Parr talked about when health problems caused him to cancel a European tour in 2010.

“It didn’t feel like a vacation; it felt horrible,” he said.

Parr has arthritis in his right arm and knuckles, tennis elbow and permanent damage to the tendons in his right hand.

Parr used to play with his right pinky finger resting on the guitar and he’d pick with his other four fingers. The repetition damaged the tendons, especially in his middle and ring fingers, which he can’t use to play anymore.

“The tendons are like old rubber bands now,” he said.

Now he just plays with his index finger and thumb. He had to relearn some of the parts, but since he doesn’t have to touch the guitar now with his pinkie, he can play a little faster.

“Music ignites that kind of fire in you that you will overcome those kind of things,” Parr said.

 It’s a like a show for me’

Parr isn’t like most musicians when it comes to recording. He doesn’t care for recording studios and the machinery in studios; however, he describes it as a personal opinion and not a fault of the studios.

“It’s like a show for me,” he said. “We don’t do tracking; I don’t do takes; I just go in there and play like it’s a show, and everything that’s there is just going to be there, and I know at the time if it’s good or it’s not good.”

Still, Parr said he’s happy with the albums he’s made, and many have unique stories. Typically, he just finds a comfortable place and plays a show. If it’s good, he keeps it. If it’s bad, he packs up and tries it again later.

He recorded one album in the garage of a friend who is a harmonica player and freight train engineer. The album was recorded with a boat and other “junk” stored in the garage and features ambient noise like birds. One of the contributing musicians even encouraged a child to drive his go-cart nearby, according to Parr.

On another album, a friend borrowed a 1920s-era ribbon mic that Parr said resembled a tin can with a bee helmet on top. He and friends experimented to find where they needed to sit to get the recording right.

“The next day we came back and sat down and just played a show to this gigantic weird microphone,” Parr said.

The mono recording perplexed some radio deejays, but Parr was happy with the results.

“That got me in all kinds of trouble, but I was comfortable, and I was happy, and the the songs came out the way I felt they should come out,” Parr said. “That’s the thing I was after.”

After recording, Parr said he tries to forget the albums and the album version of a song.

“Songs aren’t ever done,” he said. “They’re never written. They’re in progress, and the recording is like a show.”

He rarely listens to albums once he’s finished them.

“I don’t have to hear it again, because the songs have now moved past that spot and moved into a new spot where I have them with me,” he continued.

Parr paused, asking DeVille and the audience, “I sound completely insane, don’t I?”

“A bit of a mad scientist,” DeVille quipped.

 You’ve got to do it’

Parr said his wife, Emily, looked at him recently and said music has ruined Parr’s health and destroyed many of his relationships; however, her point was that it’s the happiest thing he’s done.

DeVille asked what advice Parr would offer other young musicians: “Don’t do it?” DeVille asked.

“No,” Parr said, “Definitely not ‘don’t do it.’ You’ve got to do it.”

Despite his health issues in his hand, Parr has no intention of quitting. He’ll continue playing whether anyone keeps listening or not.

“When the bottom falls out of this — and it will — I will still be sitting in the kitchen playing guitar,” Parr said.

The panel:

First Panel

•Jennie Knoebel, executive director of the Austin Area Commission for the Arts and the Paramount Theater

•Jack Torrey and Page Burkum, The Cactus Blossoms

•Ellen Stanley, executive director of the Minnesota Music Coalition and a performer under the moniker Mother Banjo

•Sara Horishnyk, drummer for Bethany Larson and the Bees Knees and she runs Xylo entertainment, a booking and marketing agency for musicians

•Wendy Larson, a musician with the Austin band Full Circle and an Austin Public Schools employee

Second panel

•Charlie Parr, Austin native and folk-blues musician

•Bill DeVille, deejay with 89.3 The Current and host of “The United States of Americana”

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