When singer-songwriter Charlie Parr’s aunt Mildred was on her dying bed, the family gathered around her and sang. Parr played her favorite song, Mississippi John Hurt’s “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me,” and her sisters sang hymns. The moment inspired Parr’s song, “Remember Me,” a blues stomp that speaks to the brevity and passing of life: “I’ve lived my whole life for it to come down to this / Remember me if I forget / When I was a child we took care of our folks / Remember me if I forget / Is it too much to ask to repay what you owe / Remember me if I forget / My grandparents told us we’d reap just what we sow / Remember me if I forget.”
The tune is the Duluth-based artist at his finest: unassuming observations of life’s simple beauty and depth. A skilled folk-blues guitarist with a perfectly old-timey voice, Parr has a penchant for boot-stomping tunes and soul-stirring ballads that speak to folkies and punks alike.
His songs come from “just about anywhere—the weirdest places,” he says. From overheard conversations to first-hand experiences and passing moments, they come when he least expects them and he “always feels lucky and honored” when they do.
A road-weathered traveler who spends much of his year on the road playing shows and sleeping in the back of his truck, Parr enjoys the solitude. Friends put him up sometimes, but he never minds piling into his truck and hitting the road—whether for the next gig or just to find a place to sleep.
“I don’t like staying in hotels,” he says. “It makes me really, really depressed. This way, if I play a gig and I don’t know anybody, or I don’t feel comfortable, I can just wheel out of town and find a rest area or somewhere quiet, get in the back, and go to sleep.”
Spending time alone is nothing new for Parr. He grew up listening to his dad’s roots music and as a teenager, expressed an interest in learning to play guitar. His dad traded a boat motor to get him a Gibson 12-string guitar. Parr took off six of the strings, “re-tuned it until it sounded like the music,” and spent countless hours in the basement, sitting in front of his speakers trying to play along to his favorite roots and country artists.
Without any formal training, Parr developed his own technique, working on one song for weeks. As he puts it, you “don’t win a lot of friends or influence people by sitting around trying to practice Lightnin’ Hopkins,” and the experience gave him “a lot of horrible, horrible, bad habits.” But, it sent him down the path of playing acoustic blues that are raw, simple and honest.
“The thing that inspires me enough to play has always been roots music,” he says. “That space where folk and blues get tangled up. That’s the space I love.”
Parr has 13 albums to his name—most of them indie recordings made in non-traditional recording environments. He doesn’t like the pressures of a studio and prefers to record in places he feels comfortable in—he believes if he’s uncomfortable, the recording will reflect that.
His latest album, 2015’s Stumpjumper, was recorded in the back of a tobacco barn in North Carolina. On it, Parr is in top form as he rips through catchy and stripped-down folk and blues numbers. From the opening track, “Evil Companion,” a song taken from an overheard conversation, through the standout track “Remember Me,” and the hauntingly beautiful final track, “Delia,” it’s the album of an artist who knows himself and his music well.
While his songwriting process is to have no process—because when he tries to force stuff he “usually makes it worse”—Parr walks peacefully through life, paying attention to the in-between moments. He’s not a loud or showy guy—he prefers to find simple, human stories, distill them into songs, and take them on the road to share. In that he finds fulfillment and his life’s work.
“I’ve done well enough that no one has asked me to get a job,” he says. “I haven’t done so well that anyone is asking me how I do it, but I’ve done well enough that no one is bothering me about it. That feels pretty good.”
Charlie Parr will perform at 9 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 21 at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $10. 429-6994.