Charlie Parr, |
Keep Your Hands on the Plow
(House of Mercy, 2011)
(Red House, 2015)
With his new album, Stumpjumper, and a new label, the respected folk imprint Red House, Charlie Parr stirs thoughts heretofore only nascent. For example: if there were still new Dylans, would Charlie Parr be counted among them?
Of course, nobody who expects not to elicit giggles talks about "new Dylans" anymore. A more pertinent question comes to mind when I am listening to an extraordinary folk-based singer-songwriter, someone on the order of Richard Thompson, Gillian Welch, Alasdair Roberts or a handful of others. Like Dylan their sensibility and creative impulses rise in significant part from the soil of tradition, and most who know their work agree that it lies on a level well above the ordinarily accomplished. With Stumpjumper Duluth, Minnesota, folksinger Parr ascends to a place that will please but not surprise those who have followed his career, now expanding to encompass international stages. The new album will only accelerate that process.
The question is, are there songwriters equal to Dylan, on occasion better? Another: how much does Dylan's reputation owe to his enigmatic, forbiddingly anti-charismatic charisma? Nobody spends a lot of time contemplating the personalities of Thompson, Welch and Roberts, who from all accounts are reasonably normal human beings. In my limited experience of him, Parr is an amiable and approachable man. Another consideration: what if Dylan's current Frank Sinatra fetish bespeaks less artistic adventurousness than an exhausted end? After Tempest (which I reviewed in this space on 6 October 2012) I wondered if this could be Dylan's concluding statement, a summing up of a remarkable journey that took him, in a sense, from traditional folk songs finally to an extraordinary vision of folk's un-decoded message within the wider American culture. That is what I think Tempest, recognizably the creation of the young man who recorded Freewheelin' in 1963, is about. Given distance, time and genius, one follows from the other.
But let us suppose -- for the moment anyway -- that Dylan is, so to speak, dead, except to those who think he will do as an acceptable Sinatra replacement (not I, or surely most). If that is the case, is it time to turn to the likes of Charlie Parr? He is certainly not Dylan (who, for one thing, unlike Parr rarely writes coherent narratives), but he is someone who filters the modern world through perceptions shaped by folk music, and with it generates awe. After a fair number of concentrated listenings, I boldly proclaim Stumpjumper an album worthy of a Dylan; indeed, if it were a Dylan album, it would be nearly universally praised.
Not a folk-rocker, Parr is very much a creature of folk music in a straightforward sense. Still, here his music roars and thunders as, in its orneriest moments, it smashes up the furniture. The stories he channels feel as if they're overwhelming him in their urgency. As often as not, a word is only three-quarters out of the throat before it's the next one. Even the most attentive listening to Parr's sometimes impenetrable enunciation will not yield all the secrets. (It took me several visits to figure out that "Frank Miller Blues" falls on the comic spectrum also occupied by "The Devil & the Farmer's Wife.") The modest Parr insists he is no poet, that the words and the music cannot be separated. I couldn't find the lyrics to Stumpjumper online, though they may be there by the time you read this.
Parr's original songs integrate traditional references into his working-class fables, laying bare an implicit labor radicalism, expressed unpiously. This is not preachy Popular Front folk, but the landscape is explicitly blue-collar country, and the people who live there are suffering. The title song evokes physical labor's hard realities, and nobody is going to quote it in a paean to our capitalist overlords. The wry "Remember Me If I Forget," evoking both humor and dread, speaks what passes for grassroots wisdom and life's elemental imperatives.
"Resurrection," a blues-inflected spiritual and the longest cut (7:20), retells the biblical story of Lazarus in a voice (underscored by support from Parr's wife Emily) that seems almost literally be whispering from the other side of the grave. The album ends grimly with the traditional "Delia," about a real-life murder in Savannah, Georgia, 115 years ago this Christmas.
Parr's chosen instruments are 12-string, National steel guitar and fretless banjo. He's backed by a small band made up of other stringed instruments, piano and drums. If Parr's musical references are broadly downhome blues and Appalachian mountain music, a more immediate inspiration is Koerner, Ray & Glover, fellow Minnesotans who laid down raucous, extroverted blues and folk like nobody else in the 1960s and beyond. (Spider John Koerner and Tony Glover remain active. Dave Ray died in 2002. See my 20 December 2014 review of the three-disc Ray retrospective Legacy.) I'd say half the cuts show their distinctive influence in one degree or another. To his credit, Parr openly acknowledges his debt.
Stumpjumper is a marvel. Parr's songs and performances storm out of the speakers, loud and dangerous and funny and dire. There are all kinds of ways to present tradition-based songs in our post-tradition century, but it doesn't often get done much like this. Like Dylan, Parr has the flame shooting unexpectedly out of the ashes, and he takes us deep inside the mysteries. This is no small and easy thing. Actually, it's quite a big and complicated one.
It should be stressed that Parr is not just a singer-songwriter, but a singer of traditional songs. Keep Your Hands on the Plow is a finely executed, if notably quieter, collection of ballads, spirituals and hymns. All will be known to those versed in the oldtime American songbook, but the arrangements, keenly performed and felt, will overwhelm whatever skepticism you may bring to your preferred listening device. While "Resurrection" on the new recording is an original about the "real" Lazarus, "Poor Lazarus" is the traditional African-American prison ballad about an outlaw's tragic end. Dylan sang it early in his career.
Emily Parr is a good part, and a welcome one, in the proceedings, which falter only in the couple's strange reading of "Farther Along." If any lyrics should be rendered as closely as possible to normal conversational English, it ought to be those inside vernacular songs. I have no idea what led them to sing "Farther ay-long, we'll know all ay-bout it." Parr seldom stumbles, but such inexplicable pretentiousness renders this otherwise invulnerable venerable hymn annoying to the point of unlistenable. Happily, the other 10 cuts spread truth and joy.
music review by
16 May 2015
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