Most folk probably think of Appalachian mountains and woods or fetid Southern climes when it comes to the rootsiest Americana music. Charlie Parr, who comes across as a dyed in the wool backwoodsman reminds us that the frozen north, home of strip mining and decaying industrial landscapes has its own history. Duluth, Minnesota is his stamping ground and lest we forget Dylan was forged in the folk scene in Dinkytown where the likes of Koerner, Ray and Glover were assimilating the lessons learned from the Harry Smith Anthology of American Music. Thus a second wave of performers who had learned the classic repertoire from records and who had no direct contact with the everglades, cotton fields or hillbillies populated the sixties. Parr is another step in this evolution and on this, his eleventh release he highlights it with two songs that were recorded by “Spider” John Koerner and adds eight of his own songs that sound as if they have been exhumed from the dirt with an authenticity that is spot on.
Playing a resonator guitar and occasional 12 string and fretless banjo Parr recorded this album live to tape with accompaniment from Mikkel Beckman on washboard and Dave Hundreiser on harmonica. He can whip up a storm as on the opening Jimmy Bell or deliver a sentimental and heartrending ballad such as Jesus is a Hobo (with partner Emily Parr on harmonies). He writes some acutely penetrating scenes whether it be the memory of his father looking to shoot a badger bothering his crop or the misleadingly jaunty murder song Groundhog Day Blues where he attempts to get revenge on the mailman who cuckolded him only to blow up his own house. Henry Goes to the Bank is the tale of the tittle tattle enjoyed spuriously by a bank worker’s colleagues when he fails to turn up for work. We don’t find out where Henry went but it’s a perfect capture of small town gossip and prurience with the plinking banjo and homemade percussion resembling the clatter of chit chat in the canteen.
There are some sinewy blues numbers such as True Friends featuring some excellent slide playing while Motorcycle Blues rattles along with propulsive harmonica as it portrays a frustrated racer who wants to test drive a Batmobile. However our favourite is the opening track, Jimmy Bell. Parr, Beckmann and Hundreiser deliver this traditional piece in fine style with the guitar, harp and percussion driving the song along and at a faster pace than the Koerner, Ray and Glover recording on Blues, Rags And Hollers. In fact listening to this we were reminded of those other exponents of the blues back in the sixties, Canned Heat with Al Wilson.
All in all one has to be grateful for artists such as Parr who can help us reconnect with the original folk who recorded the scratchy 78s Harry Smith collected. Long gone we can only imagine what they really sounded like but listening to an album like this or seeing Parr live can slice through the mists of time allowing us to be on a plantation in the 20’s or in a college dorm in the sixties experiencing Goosebumps as the slide guitar slides and the vocals holler and moan.