Charlie Parr,
King Earl
(independent, 2004)

In anybody else's hands a song titled "Ode to a New Dealer" would be addressed to the drug peddler down the street. Not here. Charlie Parr's immersion in the 1930s is so all-consuming that he means New Dealer in the old-fashioned -- Franklin D. Roosevelt -- sense.

The world of King Earl (also the title character of a deeply gloomy song with a disarmingly sweet melody) reposes in a state of both Depression and depression. Its residents are broken men stuck in hard, dangerous jobs or looking for work on winter streets or just congregating in the freeze of a railroad yard in hope of a passing freight. In this country it's cold and bitter inside and out. You probably will figure out for yourself, just listening to the songs, that Parr must live in a frigid northern city like Duluth, Minnesota. Well, in this case it actually is Duluth, Minnesota.

Parr's day job is as a social worker, so the down-and-outers he conjures up in his vividly imagined and rendered songs owe much, one presumes, to real people and real life. His musical instincts, however, are thoroughly retro, his instrument of choice a steel-bodied guitar, his approach unambiguously underscoring debts to Bukka White, Furry Lewis and Blind Willie Johnson, with the occasional nod to sort-of more modern artists such as fellow Minnesotan Spider John Koerner (who could have written "V8 Ford Blues Pt. 2") and Tom Waits -- themselves, of course, looking backward at least as often as forward.

"Worried Blues" and "Miner's Lament" are traditionals, and the rest are originals, though new or old is something you wouldn't know without prior knowledge or attention to Parr's minimalist liner notes, which appear as if composed on a typewriter well overdue for a thorough cleaning. There are no clunkers here -- nothing close, in fact -- but "King Earl" and the raucous "Reverend Eviction's Blues" (with the memorable refrain "I got to unroll myself/From this wicked world") stand out and stick in memory long after the disc has ceased playing.

This is folk music in the old-fashioned, ripe, unbathed and unshaved sense. What it lacks in sunshine and warmth, it more than makes up for in arctic wind and bone-numbing temperature. You're glad you're not any of Parr's characters, but he lets you be happy that you've met them.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 26 February 2005

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