Charlie Parr,
(independent, 2005)

If it is still possible for a deeply rooted folksinger to become famous -- and stranger things happen every day -- Charlie Parr may be bound for glory. As it stands, he's something of a cult figure among independent rock musicians while remaining obscure to most folk fans, though with a talent of Parr's dimensions one can only presume that this state of obliviousness can't stand long.

Rooster, his third CD, is more of the same. (I reviewed his second, King Earl, on this site in February 2005.) He doesn't sound a whole lot like anybody else you'd encounter these days, though his vocals sometimes have the gravelly rasp of a Tom Waits or a young Dave Van Ronk. His most apparent proximate influences, however, are the likes of Dock Boggs, Blind Willie McTell and Bukka White.

Most of his repertoire consists of original songs that sound like whiskey-fueled, late-night laments and complaints, growled and spat out over a guitar in a room in a fleabag hotel during a particularly grim year of the Great Depression. The songs that aren't original are traditionals. "Dead Cat on the Line," however, is not the Tampa Red song, but a sulfuric Parr composition about an old man's fading days. The traditionals here are the well-traveled "Samson and Delilah" and "Wild Bill Jones," but rendered with fierce creative intelligence sufficient to restore life and race blood.

Parr's instrument of choice is the National steel-bodied guitar, which he plays with the authority of an old Southern country bluesman even though he's a latter-30s white guy who lives in Duluth, Minnesota. Like all true artists Parr inhabitants his material, and he becomes the hard-bitten, anxious, frightened, doomed characters many of his songs portray. He is adept as well on old-time banjo, wood-bodied resonator guitar and baritone 12-string. On some cuts he's backed variously on percussion, slide guitar and a handful of other instruments, none of which make him sound as if he were recording in the lifetime of almost anybody reading these words.

An intense performer, Parr wastes no energy bothering to try to prettify his sound for those seeking sweet, unthreatening entertainment. He demands -- and commands -- attention. You're expected to meet him halfway and to listen hard even if that renders you uneasy. Put another way, melody tends to take a distinct second to blunt emotion and narrative drive.

In my hearing Rooster lacks a single song as immediately appealing -- and thereafter distinctively memorable -- as King Earl's "Reverend Eviction's Blues." There is, on the other hand, nothing on the present recording that falls short of full satisfaction if the listener is open to receive it. Parr's music cannot be absorbed in one hearing or even several. There's just too much far-from-simple human reality going on. The songs take their power from their cumulative effect, which comes in the eventual recognition that chunks of coal mined by genius shine like diamonds.

by Jerome Clark
14 January 2006