My favourite album is “King Earl,” by Charlie Parr.
Charlie Parr should be a household name for any fan of Americana roots music. He’s a singer-songwriter from Duluth, Minnesota. His style echoes the piedmont-blues finger picking of Blind Willie Johnson and the Reverend Gary Davis.
Any of the tracks on “King Earl” might have recorded in the century twentieth century. Each echoes, hauntingly, of the struggles of the Depression era, when Woody Guthrie also rode the rails. The words and rhythm, of songs by Parr, remain relevant, perhaps because we face the same economic strife and struggles or perhaps simply because blues music is timeless.
The signature style, of Charlie Parr, is bass thumb picking a 12-string guitar. Often, a wailing harmonica and washboard accompany his songs. Somehow, he blends these rhythms with his unique gravelly falsetto voice.
Although many of his songs include these elements, Parr has been able to make each song unique. He’s an accomplished lyricist; his lyrics are as intricate as is his finger picking. Parr is a storyteller. His lyrics spin tall tales and yarns about hobos, the word “hobo” coming from “homeward bound”, trains, coalmines and the glory days of V8 Fords.
“King Earl” could have been recorded before the Great Depression. The album, which is no longer in stock, features 13 songs that highlight the style of Charlie Parr. The nostalgic feel and steady rhythms make these songs great for listening on a long drive or on a rainy day. Although “King Earl” is no longer available, generally, there was limited re-release in Australia and New Zealand, recently, thanks to the popularity of the eponymous song in a Vodafone commercial.
The personal history of Charlie Parr is unifying theme of “King Earl.” His father was one of 17 children, a family of tenant farmers in northern Iowa. In a slice of American history you don’t hear about much anymore, the elder Parr survived the Depression by hopping freight trains from Texas to Appalachia.
The hard life endured as a union worker in a Hormel factory, is a tremendous source of influence for the music of Charlie Parr. You can’t fake roots that deep. The songs that have set Parr apart grew out of turn-of-the-twentieth-century blues and the music influence of West Bank, in Minneapolis.
Here’s an overview of the songs on “King Earl,” and recommendations for individual songs to add to your collection. “Worried Blues” is a barnburner. It displays the brilliance of Charlie Parr as a finger-picker. “Worried” begins with slow and easy sliding and lapsing into a steady, catchy rhythm. “Well I’m worried now,” sings Parr, “but I won’t be worried long. It won’t be long before I am gone.” The contagiousness, of the rhythm “Worried Blues,” brings to memory “1922,” the most popular song from an earlier album, “Barnslider.” Heavy instrumental parts, of this song, make it a great background soundtrack for any adventure. It’s easy to see the world from the open door of a train boxcar, the steady rhythm of the slide could match the steady clack-clack of train wheels on the track.
“Possessed by the Devil” is as chilling as Townes van Zandt’s “Lungs.” With a jagged slide rhythm, the voice of Charlie Parr is haunting, as he describes digging his own grave. This is a blues song, which can send shivers down your spine. There’s stark imagery: a young boy laying in a grave he dug, or washing bloody hands over a sink full of dirty pans. “And every night I wake up from the same crazy dream, this old world just ain’t what it seems,” sings Parr, in the chorus that rises and builds throughout the song.
“Union Tramp,” a toe-tapping song, tells the story of a man who hopped Union Lion freight trains. The slide-guitar parts, of the song, have a jumpy ragtime-rhythm feel. The washboard accompaniment makes “Union Tamp” irresistible. The story, told in the lyric, is about a tramp or homeless man, who rides a freight train in order to get back home, “back to the West, where I belong.”
Another jumpy, almost ragtime-blues song, “Reverend’s Eviction Blues,” is a fun roaring-20s style tune. Parr focuses on common themes in some of his other songs: drinking “rot gut booze,” telling of how a group of tramps “got drunk o’myself, from this wicked world.” The slide-guitar scaling on this song is catchy, and keeps you nodding along.
“Miner's Lament” is another haunting song. This ballad has throwback bluegrass influences, as well as hints of Irish music in the jagged tune. It tells the story of a coal miner who feels trapped within the cycle of work. The chorus, “There ain’t no way out, boys, there ain’t no way out,” follows the same melody as the famous Depression-era union-rally tune, “Which side are you on.”
“V8 Ford Blues” is about the lightest song on “King Earl.” It seems to conjure, effortlessly, images of the open road. Parr tells the story of a young man who grows up on a farm, but finds farm life difficult following a tractor accident that kills his brother. He hops a freight train to Texas and longs for a V8 Ford so he can get back home, safely. One of the most notable moments on the track is when Parr effortlessly changes his picking pattern to resemble church bells ringing.
The eponymous “King Earl,” is an epic. It tells the story of a hobo king, Earl, and his struggle to survive. Although the song has dark contents in its lyrics, something about the melody resembles a lullaby.
“1917,” as “1922,” from the “Barnslider” album, reflects the hardships of the Great Depression. It echoes the bloody union struggles that took place across the United States. This is another timeless creation by Parr.
“West Bank 10 Street Rag” is a tribute to the West Bank, in Minneapolis, a stark neighborhood with deep roots in blues music and a history of the freight-hopping, homeward bound traveling sub-culture, which permeated the Midwest at the turn of the twentieth century.
In sum, “King Earl” is solid album, in all ways. The musicianship, of Charlie Parr, is exceptional. His lyrics chronicle the history of the first half of the twentieth century in a way that parallels Woody Guthrie.
Eileen Rush is an LA-based writer and journalist.
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