Dim evening light made even weaker by a thick blanket of fog filtered through the densely packed foliage of the UC Botanical Garden’s redwood grove July 7. Charlie Parr has been hailed as one of the most important voices of the contemporary American folk scene. Looking at his hunched figure before his set, however, one would be hard-pressed to guess that the man was even a performer at all.
Parr, dressed in an oversized grey sweatshirt, cuffed baggy jeans exposing thin ankles and dusty, unlaced Converse, fit right in among the trees and beanie-clad audience members. Head hung down low over his guitar, shoulders gathered up around his ears, Parr looked as though he was trying to take up as little space as possible. He barely said “hello” to the audience — a group mostly composed of graying folksy types and young couples with children — before taking a seat on the humble wooden chair placed before him, his knobbly knees pressed tightly together.
The voice that ripped from Parr’s bent-over body sounded like it had been pulled straight from the belly of the earth, scorching the audience with all the smoulder and unyielding intensity of a coal fire.
Though the passion with which he sang suggested it, that first shocking song was not a Parr original, but a cover of “The Moonshiner,” an old folk tune. It was a pattern Parr continued throughout the night, intermixing his own music with traditional folk songs pulled from the “Anthology of American Folk Music,” the definitive volume of the genre.
Folk is the music Parr was raised on. His father had a “big wild kind of record collection” filled with blues, folk and country music. From the age of seven and a half onwards, Parr taught himself to play guitar based off those recordings. By the time he dropped out of high school in the 1980s, that love affair had turned obsessive enough that Parr went weekly to the club where his folk hero “Spider” John Koerner played.
In an interview with The Daily Californian, Parr summed up his passion for the genre succinctly: “It’s all I ever really cared about,” he said.
His attraction to folk, Parr says, is mainly driven by what he calls the genre’s “accessibility.”
“I can appreciate a lot of other kinds of music — classical music, jazz or rock ‘n’ roll,” he said, “But I don’t get the sense that I’m eligible to participate in all of that. … Folk music is all of ours. … Whether you like the music or not, it’s accessible to everybody.”
At Parr’s show in the redwood grove, the music was indeed everyone’s. During some of the more upbeat numbers, the audience rattled the wooden arena stomping in time with the music, creating a human metronome.
Before all of this sat Parr, awkward and clearly uncomfortable. In between songs, he filled the silence with what his Facebook page calls “pathologically deadpan” banter — weird little stories about why he doesn’t have a watch (it fell out of a hole in his sweatshirt pocket seven years ago and he hasn’t owned one since) or a brief reference to his father’s funeral.
“I’m trying to cut out this pesky talking thing during my sets,” Parr quipped at one point. The audience, their sparse laughs bubbling out from the wooden arena up into the trees, seemed to understand.
But when Parr’s fingers met the strings of his guitar, the halo of self-consciousness surrounding him dissolved into the cool evening air — revealing a man as honest, raw and earthy as the music itself.
Listening to Parr play live is like remembering a vision of America distantly forgotten. Humbly, his songs offer up the grit of the Dust Bowl, the earnest humility of backcountry living and the black, iron hardness of alcoholism, manual labor and death. It’s music unlike anything else produced today — sounding more like something heard off a dusty vinyl record excavated at a garage sale than music that can be downloaded off iTunes.
“I’m no poet,” writes Parr on his website. Maybe that’s true: His lyrics, humble and uncomplicated, take a backseat to his near-virtuosic guitar playing. But the experience of seeing Parr live in concert feels a bit closer to Emily Dickinson’s definition of the art form: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
Charlie Parr is a musician unmatched by any other today. His art — revolutionary in its rawness and authenticity — is a seamless addition to the patchwork tapestry of American folk music. It’s been 13 years now that Parr has made a living as a professional musician. For the sake of the music industry and the genre, let’s hope he can continue for 13 more.