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Charlie Parr on fertile ground

Minnesota folk artist digs deep into American roots music.
Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH
Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH


âÄúKeep Your Hands on the PlowâÄù

Artist: Charlie Parr

Label: House of Mercy

The past decade or so of American indie rock has brought a revived interest in folk music. Regardless of any objections purists may have, it is impossible to ignore the widespread popularity of indie folk.

As these newer musicians innovate with their own sounds and ideas, the narrative of the American folk tradition has remained constantly relevant. As such, Duluth-based singer-songwriter Charlie Parr’s new full-length album, âÄúKeep Your Hands on the Plow,âÄù is an exciting, refreshing and respectful take on traditional American roots music.

On âÄúKeep Your Hands on the Plow,âÄù Parr has arranged 11 traditional gospel and folk tunes performed by an ensemble of Duluth musicians: Emily Parr, Charlie’s wife, provides spirited vocal work, while the Four Mile Portage string duo and Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker (the husband-wife duo behind the slowcore group Low) round off the musicians present on the recording. That’s three musical partnerships coming together from Duluth to give these songs new life.

Many of the songs are soul-belting, foot-stomping, rustic country tunes. With the straightforward authenticity of tracks like “God Moves on the Water” and “Who Will Deliver Poor Me,” it is impossible to deny the troupe’s honest submission before this timeless music. But it is the mournful and melancholic cuts on which Charlie’s vision are most clearly heard.

As anyone who has spent time in rural Minnesota during the dead of winter can attest to, there is something intimately touching in the midst of such frigid loneliness, and it comes through profoundly on the album. “East Virginia Blues,” one of the highlights, is especially stirring in its scarcity. A slowly plucked banjo plays alongside fiddles that drone and swell. Charlie’s quivering and understated vocals add to the funereal country dirge. The song doesn’t build to the triumphant crescendo it hints at; rather, it slithers back into the din from which it emerged.

On the other end of that spectrum is the closer, “Poor Lazarus,” which is a grueling stomp driven along by Mimi Parker’s steady heartbeat drum and a sneering guitar with just enough distortion. Those few moments when another voice echoes Charlie Parr’s shouts are some of the most haunting on the album.

In 47 minutes, âÄúKeep Your Hands on the PlowâÄù recalls so many kindred spirits in American folk: John Fahey’s wholesome, honest guitar work; the moving Gospel-driven voice of Blind Willie Johnson; the dreamy music box qualities of Washington Phillips. Parr’s innovative revivalism is also analogous to a modern American legend, Tom Waits.

âÄúKeep Your Hands on the PlowâÄù is a remarkable recording that treats these traditional spiritual songs with respect and honor. This is not so much a tribute as it is a continuation of a revered musical tradition. Led by Parr, these six Duluth musicians have not only tapped into something timeless but have also weaved modern Minnesota into the music’s narrative.

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