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MN Music Reviews: Charlie Parr

Charlie Parr Last of the Better Days Ahead album
Charlie Parr
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Charlie Parr travels the hard road on legendary label debut.

Lonesome bluesman Charlie Parr has always pushed his beautifully-haunted, guitar-wizard sound into deeply personal places. This raw, unvarnished introspection can sometimes limit an audience - the masses simply can’t relate or don’t want to understand - but in the hands of a master it can have the opposite effect.

Parr is a grey-sky, cold-wind, lost-on-the-backroads master. As his music has gained popularity, his albums have gone from being distributed by Shaky Ray Records - an operation based at a dining room table in Duluth - to one of the most important record labels in the country.

Last of the Better Days Ahead is the 14th full-length release for Parr and his first for the monumental Smithsonian-Folkways label. It’s no small feat. The historic Folkways label was home to folk and blues giants like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and is now regarded as a keeper of the roots music flame.

The Folkways library was so culturally significant it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, which documents new traditional American artists and ensures its collection never goes out of print. This is a good thing because Last of the Better Days Ahead is worth keeping around for a long time.

Recorded in a tiny, southern Minnesota town called Cleveland, the 11-song album is an hour-long drive with a distressed, magnetic, soul-searcher steering a bench seat-Ford between fallow cornfields and abandoned crossroads. The driver never brakes and recites a book of grim ghost stories. It’s not a joy ride but you don’t want it to stop.

Parr doesn’t burden his work with drum or bass, it’s just a 12-string or resonator guitar that ignite his words. Like a good hobo campfire, the flames, smoke and red-hot oak create a dangerous and beautiful scene at the same time.

For example, the title track wrestles with the regret and heartbreak of old age. Over a relentless 12-string figure, Parr spits out hollow memories and questions a materialistic life: “Why do you always feel so empty in spite of all you have? Were those feelings you remember even real?” he asks. There is no easy answer at the end of the song - only a huge, rust colored sunset.

The characters in Last of the Better Days Ahead are all traveling through life saddled with demons or disadvantages. By foot, automobile or motorboat, it’s a difficult journey for all. A son struggles to concentrate on the past and keep his life afloat. A woman breaks out of small town constraints. In “Everyday Opus,” a restless janitor drinks himself to sleep and waits for friends who never visit: “Walkin’ in these shoes isn’t as easy as you’d like. Dodging all these bricks that are breaking all my lights. We all have to struggle and hold it as our truth. It’s about as special for me as it is for you.”

“Bed of Wasps” is a harrowing tightrope walk on an E-string. “Rain” watches a weary migrant sink into muddy misfortune - a tortured upright bass joins the somber dirge.

Parr’s rich, homespun guitar work gives each song a different shade and moody feel - like a rainbow on a grey to black scale. The lightest, brightest and most heartwarming song in the collection is “817 Oakland Avenue.” The 12-string chimes, the beat bounces and Parr sings like a Sunday morning preacher who just survived a plague of locusts: “Do you remember what it’s like when all the world’s filled with light? Now do you have that in your sight? Spread it around, do.”

The record ends with a creaky, slow-motion, 16-minute guitar journey into the horizon. Strings bend, burst, harmonize and fall silent. A bow drags across a bass. Drums appear and disappear and a piano sails in the distance. Up in that makeshift studio in the sky, Folkways founder Moses Asch makes a field recording of it all.