Scott Miller,
Ladies Auxiliary
(F.A.Y., 2017)

Charlie Parr,
(Red House, 2017)

Though not entirely devoid of humor, Charlie Parr's world is mostly gray skies and bitter winds -- in other words a kind of Duluth of the mind. Indeed, Parr resides in Duluth, Minnesota, when he isn't galavanting about plying his trade on the international folk circuit. His songs, moreover, give the impression of occurring in the Depression. The musical style -- part Delta, part Appalachia -- evokes hard times, dispossession, desperate rambling, cruel fate. These are states of Depression, and as metaphors they may stand in, as they do here, for states of depression.

"I had some really, really bad depression problems over the last couple years," Parr says with disarming candor. If this were not a composer with Parr's grown-up touch, one would fear the worst, which is to say the sort of singer-songwriter recording described as "deeply personal," as if that were a good thing. As a general principle, in truth, it's a huge hint to escape the building post haste. Not that worthy songs can't be summoned out of personal emotions and experiences, of course; it's that they need to give voice to life stuff that's recognizable and broadly human.

It's well, surely, that Parr is grounded in that most humanly shared of musics, the kind that grew up out of folk traditions, communal practically by definition. Parr, I'm sure, could be neither precious nor self-absorbed if he tried. If his musical persona is out of humor on Dog, well, that's just the way that persona emerges over a dozen or so albums. The current release, his second on Red House (I reviewed the previous one, Stumpjumper, in this space on 16 May 2015), is less raucous and reckless, in fact stripped and toned down, with just four players backing his vocals, guitar and banjo.

Stumpjumper hit me pretty hard. It felt like a masterpiece, if destined to be unheralded except by a tuned-in audience of Parr appreciators and anybody else who happened to wander by. Dog didn't immediately strike me, not because the power or mojo or whatever you choose to call it wasn't there. It did, however, require summoning, which means you have to listen attentively to let the beauty sneak through. The occasional song (e.g., "Hobo," "Salt Water") treats sorrow as inherent in the world, including the physical world, where a typical Parr song is set, even if metaphorically. (One useful definition of traditional music, I've long thought, is "outside songs.") The remarkable title song, not at all comic or sentimental, is from the canine point of view. I have never heard anything like it. "Another Dog" visits, captivatingly, more familiar territory, in the manner of a been-around song with "Old Blue" and "Old Rattler" lurking in the neighborhood.

Aside from balladeers, bluesmen and songsters of another time, Parr counts among his influences the fabled Koerner, Ray & Glover, the Minneapolis-based group that recorded some of the most distinctive downhome sounds of the 1960s and beyond. The rowdy "LowDown," clearly a tribute, could pass as something from one of KRG's fondly recalled "blues, rags, and hollers" Elektra albums. "I Ain't Dead Yet" draws from the specific character of Spider John Koerner's mordant humor. Still, in the end it's all Charlie Parr, a musician at or close to his peak and worth getting to know if you don't already. While we revel in the songs, let us hope the man who made them feels better soon.

Though a fellow folk-based singer-songwriter, Scott Miller is not much like Charlie Parr. He is, though, reminiscent in some ways of Robbie Fulks: the distinctive twist on what might be called Appalachian sensibility, the acidic social commentary, the freewheeling sexual humor ("Jacki With an Eye"). And so what? Everybody gets something from somebody. It's all in what you do with that. It's also conceivable that Miller and Fulks just happen to like the same music and to see the world in more or less the same way, and it's not as if a green, impressionable Miller showed up just a few days ago.

In truth he has been around since the 1990s, first making his mark with the Knoxville-based V-Roys, then issuing CDs under his own name, of which Ladies Auxiliary is the tenth. I don't know if he was thinking of the Woody Guthrie ditty when he gave the disc its name, but as it happens, the acoustic band behind him is all female. It features roots-scene notables such as Rayna Gellert (fiddle) and Jen Gunderson (piano). Miller and associates fashion intimate atmospherics even when in service to, for instance, the brilliantly caustic "Lo Sienta, Spanishburg, WVA."

On the other side are the pensively romantic songs "Someday/Sometime," "Epic Love" and "This River's Yours/This Valley's Mine," which evoke disappointment and failed connection without exhaling the standard sighs and burbles. The first -- and second and third -- time I heard it, the simple line "Your mother's headed to Kentucky for a while" (from the first-mentioned) precipitated an intake of breath.

I doubt that Bill Monroe knew of Edgar Allan Poe's axiom that "the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world." Even so, that is the subject of Virginia Stauffer's "Body & Soul," which Monroe memorably recorded and which Miller covers here. (Another Monroe song on the subject, written with Peter Rowan, is the unforgettable "Walls of Time.") "Ten Miles Down the Nine Mile Road," a collaborative effort by Miller and my old compadres Robin & Linda Williams, resurrects the never-unwelcome "Shady Grove" melody and applies it to a vividly told ballad of a calamitous marriage. Terrific title, too.

music review by
Jerome Clark

23 September 2017

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