In an adventurous new twist for Americana Highways, here is one musician interviewing another: Abraham Smith (of the Snarlin’ Yarns) interviews Charlie Parr; and as it evolves, they also interview each other.
Abraham Smith is a poet, educator, and mischief-in-chief improviser in the Snarlin’ Yarns. His most recent poetry
collections are Bear Lite Inn (New Michigan Press, 2020) and Destruction of Man (Third Man Books, 2018); he teaches
creative writing at Weber State. The Snarlin’ Yarns’ debut record–Break Your Heart–is out now on Dial Back Sound http://www.dialbacksound.com/snarlin-yarns.
Charlie Parr is an incorruptible outsider who writes novelistic, multi-layered stories that shine a kaleidoscopic light
on defiant, unseen characters thriving in the shadows all around us. He hasn’t moved to LA or Nashville;
he’s stayed in the cold grey north of Minnesota, because that’s his home.
Settle in for a delightful read. You can find the latest from the Snarlin’ Yarns here: https://thesnarlinyarnsut.bandcamp.com/, and find Charlie Parr’s music and info here: https://store.compassrecords.com/collections/charlie-parr
Abraham Smith: I was watching a virtual show of yours recently wherein you talked about being gifted a cake. And then driving through the Badlands through the night. Pulling over. Pulling the seat back. Annnd kicking your gift cake in your sleep! First I cracked up at the cake and then at your road narrative as I just made that drive myself a few weeks back when I carcamped back to Ladysmith WI. Like you, I was driving in the middle of the night. At a certain point I was way off there on a back road and there was nothin but antelope and deer with their tushes in the road while they faced into the ditch to nibble grasses. I was thinkin I might get killed 777 times in one go.
Anyway this is a long ramble to ask, is writing the lyrics to a song mainly for you a lot like the surprise of stepping on a cake while you are asleep? Do they surprise you as in you wake up and you’ve got the frosting of a new batch of lyric weighin’ on your soles? Or is the poetry in your songs more a kind of sweaty lapidary work? Where you chip and chip and like Rodin find the rite poemwords through a whole lot of chiseled hammerin?
Charlie Parr: Great question – and I did get to eat a good sized piece of that cake and share some around before it met its end, so that was good. I’m a believer in the notion that ideas (songs, whatever) are searching for someone to add their piece to them and make them real. So when I feel a song coming on I try and pay close attention and see what it’s like. I usually get the big picture right away and kind of write out a story of what the song’s about, and while I’m doing that, ideas for melody and tempo are coming along and if it’s right then I’ll have a song to start playing around with.
I also don’t think that songs are ever really finished. I feel like I’m rewriting them every time I play them, which I guess is editing only it never ends. It also gives me the chance to go back and fix songs that I’ve written and feel wrong now, so I can update and rewrite and it’s the natural evolution of the song and not a corruption.
I think the surprise part comes in if it’s good. I don’t usually feel like what I’ve written is much good and if there’s a piece that I like then it’s definitely a surprise. I’ve been in isolation mostly since March and I’m surprised at how many songs I’ve managed to come up with. In normal times I don’t really write that much, but lately there’s been a lot and I think it’s because I’m paying attention instead of driving around and trying to find food and a place to sleep. I miss the nomad thing but I also appreciate this time and think that I needed to stop and pay some attention.
How about you? Has the pause been helpful? Or just really frightening? Or both – which I think is where I’m at – I’m adaptable even at my age but the not-knowing what’s coming is hard to reckon with.
AS: Love your sense that a song, when it wants to, will come on down and home in one of us humans. Like Greg Brown sang in his song Eugene, Sometimes you have to let the dog find you. I remember back in the day when Greg B was in that stretch of just pure dee epic poetry-making inside of song, it was an early 90s show and he was sayin in his tween song banter that all of life was pretty much wonder and terror, and that they were one and the same thing. Which was in retrospect I guess his way of talking about the untalkable: the sublime. Or I guess you could say the lifesource of a ton of artforce is paradox.
So yeah life these days has felt wonderful and terrible. Honestly a lot of my modes and nodes of living are unchanged. Jogs. Walks. Dogwalks now that I’ve adopted Loretta the terrier maniac. Pushups. Situps. Writing. Reading. Backyard sips with a few pals. And like you, the Snarlin’ Yarns and I have been in a really fecund spot–everybody heaving cool intricate new songs into the world. We are hopin to record again this spring. Songs geysering. And I so agree: attention again and again reveals the seams of empathy and the miraculous in common things.
I’ve felt like my writing hasn’t slowed a peep–though right this now I am on a break. Finalized a few new poetry manuscripts that’ll come out I hope in the next few years. For me the bandwidth issue has been with reading. I read a fair bit of news. And then when I sit down to read a book I seem to get a little more twitchy than the usual.
Speaking of the doggedness of the road, finding a place to sleep, I was thinking of this quote I am paraphrasin from John Keats, a letter back to his girlfriend while he was hikin in Scotland: Fanny, I am so tired they could sew my nose to the top of my shoe and let kids wheel me around and I wouldn’t wake up. While I am on Keats, his theory of Negative Capability applies to today too, tho he was talking about the writing process: it all boils down to staying comfortable inside of uncertainty or doubt. Damn hard thing to do these days! And I feel especially for all of y’all full-time musicians. Sure hope a vaccine will crack the lake ice open a bit by summer.
Townes said he finished The Last Temptation of Christ, set the book down, and wrote his iconic song Nothin’ right then right there. I remember in an interview you were talking about reading Paul Bowles. So: what’ve you been reading? And how does reading or other forms of art besides music get under the skin and into the sinew of your songwriting process?
CP: Yeah reading is a huge deal to me and it’s always been a big part of my life. Lately I’m into Milosz’ Native Realm and just finished Werner Herzog’s Of Walking In Ice and probably will read it again soon. Also had a Joan Didion spell this summer and read a bunch but liked Year of Magical Thinking best. Always into Southern authors too – Barry Hannah, Faulkner, Carson McCullers, O’Connor – always Paul Bowles and Love your sense of ever-evolve-shapeshift song nature. No error ever on the air of song.
Raymond Carver, and Harlan Hubbard who gets read once a year along with A Confederacy of Dunces.
I was a terrible student but loved to read and skipped class to read and practice the guitar until I dropped out. I got a GED in the early 80’s and took philosophy courses which I wasn’t very good at, but it really fuels songwriting for me. The bluntness of Carver, particularly, has really influenced me – the way he puts it there in front of you, with no judgment, and then just leaves the room and you’re left to deal with whatever painful image he’s painted for you. That’s definitely a goal for me in lyric writing for sure. If I’m not listening to music or practicing I’ll be reading most likely.
I like some movies and all, but they really don’t impact my own writing that much. I’m doing my best to keep up on current events, specially since they’re changing so fast and I know it’s important to see all that’s happening, but I also have a severe anxiety disorder that’s associated with my clinical depression. And since I’m not on meds it’s important for me to take care of myself in a lot of little, everyday ways to make sure I don’t get down in that hole.
Lately I feel good when I’m paying close attention to little things, taking walks, listening to a lot of music, learning little things on the guitar and practicing them … Wittgenstein said that eternal life means to live truly in the moment and I think he was right. I’m alive and doing well right now, listening to Howlin’ Wolf.
AS: That’s a thunderously potent readerly catalogue! The pith and kith of Carver was a revelation for me as well. Same with all those southern folk. And Herzog! Hubbard is new to me. Just ordered a book of his a few minutes ago. We were talking about the role of the artist as the eyes of a people–artist as witness–the other day in class and Milosz sure comes up there: from his poem Dedication: “What is poetry which does not save nations and people? A connivance with official lies, a song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment.”
Speaking of leaving an image for the hearer to wrestle, while all of your records are stippled with pure duende poetry, your last one on Red House is even more so a lighthouse of arresting poetry beauty. The first song is one of your finest poems I think. And Mag Wheels, and that mural that never looked right: there’s such tender melancholy honesty beauty there.
I think of Lorine Niedecker’s poetry when I think of yours. I can really feel the damps and the weeds of Fort Atkinson WI in her work. The poetry is so alive that it feels like those scratch-n-sniff stickers from back in the day. I can smell the muskrats in every enjambment. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how much the ascetic nature of your lifestyle mirrors the life and poetry of Jack Gilbert. He lived a no-frills life for his art. Lived his art. A really pared down devotion to the muse. And he steered away from the mills of institutional learning too. I feel like y’all two too are kin.
It’s been enthralling for me to bring my poetry approach to the Snarlin’ Yarns. My poetry way is really disjointed associative. I go where the next image or sound takes me. So it’s less like roads connecting roads and less like deer-roads connecting to rabbit-trails–and much more like a mouse running for its mousy life from one safe hole to the next. Heavy on the swerve and breathless scamper. What I do in the band is to make up a small song inside of the guts of the larger scripted song which gives our crew our mantra: never the same snarl twice. So I am permitted to be the same tower of babble I am in my poems in the band. And this joy happily ruins my own songwriting a lot of the time because I think, why would I sit down and finish this song when I am going to make up like 20 little mini thrown together songs inside the songs tomorrow night…
I wanted to ask you about authenticity. Howlin’ Wolf feels to me like he metabolized Charley Patton without ventriloquizing Patton. He’s made Patton his own without doing Patton karaoke so to speak. In your work I hear the same thing. That you metabolized Mance Lipscomb and many other blues titans and when you play and sing, you bring forth your cosmic family of influences, sure, but you are also unmistakably Charlie Parr from Austin and Hollandale and Minneapolis and Duluth. I remember for example how crushed flat like a licked stamp I was when I found out Gillian Welch was from CA and met Rawlings in a how-to-write-a-country-song class at Berklee College of Music. I so wanted her to be the deep south person waiting at the bus stop that she was on the cover of Revival. Since then I’ve matured and become more open to a range of authenticities.
How do you define and see authenticity working in a folk world whose audiences are so hungry for it? And as you are a great student of the folk tradition, what are some of your favorite connections that you have found between musicians, where you can hear how one ‘authentic’ singer has come from another in the great web of learning and borrowing and leaning on one another that we all get more than by on?
CP: I wanted to say some good stuff about authenticity for you since it’s such a sticky and multi-faceted topic but I’m not entirely sure I can … I’m not entirely sure I even know what the word means now. I’ve met some that value it highly, whatever it is, but the definition they use is hard for me – if authentic means kind of the first one to do a thing then we won’t ever really experience that. Charley Patton was certainly a student in his way of a local guitar player (Henry Stuckey?) … We’ll never hear that man’s music.
I’ve started to replace “authenticity” with “Sincerity” and that allows me to include Robert Johnson, who learned his songs both from the people around him and from records, and Dave Ray, who came from Minnesota and was definitely not the son of a sharecropper but whose music speaks volumes as well as any’s. I listen a lot to Marisa Anderson, who I find as authentic as anyone even though her version of the folk/blues idiom is one of deconstruction. Bill Frisell also feels like an authentic musician, finding sounds in ancient places and adding his voice to them and coming up with new phrases. Spider John Koerner, maybe better than anyone, embodies Pete Seeger’s “folk process” in taking our oldest songs and reimagining them as Spider John songs.
The music I want to hear is music that was made by people who love music first and foremost and would be doing it even when it doesn’t pay or even when no one is listening or even when no one cares or even likes what they’re doing (I have avant-garde records by obscure musicians that I love so much and the intense passion and commitment to the sound is so evident). I want to participate in music at that level, where it’s pure music and nothing else. Maybe that’s authenticity.
I finally got to have a listen to the Snarlin’ Yarns’ record and it’s great, thank you! I’ll listen again and more closely later on – I need to spend time with music to really hear it – a positive outcome of quarantine world is that I’ve returned to an earlier state of deep listening that I did before jobs and adult time took over and now I regret ever having been distracted from it, careful listening feels so good.
Today it’s Jeff Parker … super innovative guitarist. If you have time, by the way, check out Brian Beatty’s poetry – obscure and very much alive, but really good nonetheless.
AS: So appreciate this unpacking and steering authenticity over to sincerity. Hugely agree with you there. Ezra Pound has a line that runs something like this tho I think I am embellishing a little: your sincerity as an artist is revealed by how it is that you mind and mend the structures of your art. I love your sense of becoming the music. Living for and as the sound. Emerson said words are vascular and I know when my poetry performance, be that shoutin the poem live or rattlin em out of this loud old keyboard, is at its dearest, I get to feeling like my whole corporeal frame has become poemstuff. Same with the band. When we are really all in as one we ain’t muscle and bone anymore. More just living songstuff. Coiling vibrations. Pure music and nothing else like you call it when you call out to authenticity.
Don’t know that I’ve listened to Dave Ray or Jeff Parker–am gonna head over to their tunes today. It’s raining here in Ogden and at the same the smokes are sitting apronheavy on the hills and dales so it’s a really odd mishmash of drip and fume. I know Beatty mainly from single poems. Need to check out his books. Danke for the reminder of his cool work and the nudge towards a going more deeply in with him. I’ve had a couple other poets in my head as I’ve been meditating on all things Parr and those are Fred Moten and Will Alexander. I think you’d really dig a book by Moten called The Feel Trio. What he’s up to in colliding his encyclopedic head with jazz is somethin. And Alexander, well, I’ve never had my head torn off and resewn on so perfectly offkilter by anyone else. I think you’d dig his gnomic, vatic, wild philosophical whistlin’.
What a balm this rain is. Green is in my nature from all that north Wisconsin pine and birch livin. Almost never rains here in the high desert. So I am kind of dancing to the tappings at the pane. Here’s another corrupted line but it’s something like this and William Carlos Williams said it: write so carelessly that everything which is not green dies. Maybe that gets a little at what you were saying about diving like Pip to the bottom of the ocean of the song and living the music no matter who might be eavesdropping or aware. Anyhow it’s a lifeway. And lucky are we to follow the sonic magic crookedly forward.
Man, we are so grateful that you gave our Yarns’ record a spin! And delighted that you dug it! Grateful too that you’ll give us another listen as time allows. We played two distanced shows last night to celebrate the release of our record: came out yesterday on Dial Back Sound which is a little bighearted label run by Matt Patton of the Drive-By Truckers and Bronson Tew. And while I did feel great about chunks of the shows, I was saying after that one of the sweeter things is to feel that we could do better live than we did. Or I should say I. That aspirational vibe is a very healing one. I can be my own harshest critic especially when unspooling improvised mangy manias as I do. Do you remember when you started to feel that your best day of practice was mirrored in what you were doing on the stage? For a self-described shy soul, you are surely one of the most mesmeric performers around.
My role in the band and my way as a poet is to untidy. Which is a word I heard you use to describe your songs. I write some of the more unkempt poems goin and I dive into our Yarns’ song middles sort of like a dog jumpin in a pond. The songpond is suddenly a dogsongpond. I wanted to ask you about how lyric and guitar-play live together. Would you call it almost an uneasy relationship between the lyrics and the tune? Antagonism is the wrong word. Maybe a delicate tension is better? To describe how the song and the lyrics intertwine and live together? I guess I am trying to ask about your writing process– if it’d be right to call it unmaking in order to make?
CP: I’ve had very few actual performances that feel as good as times at home when I really feel locked in. It’s physics, though, right? The atmosphere of the experiment changes the nature of the experiment … it’s hard to get lost in the deeper parts of the river when everyone’s watching. But I’ve gotten close, lately, as I do this more, I start to abandon the idea of the performance and allow myself to just play and hopefully that will bring along a few people. Shyness and social anxiety have dogged me all my life, at times it’s debilitating and then sometimes I can overcome it – I work really hard on mindfulness and being present and awake. I don’t react well to meds so I need to do this on my own, and it definitely affects my ability to “perform,” but as long as I’m able to think clearly about it I feel ok.
My writing process with the guitar doesn’t feel like tension if it’s working … there’s a great live recording of Fred McDowell talking about this … he says his guitar is an extension of his voice and will finish a line if he doesn’t and then he demonstrates the idea and it’s fluid – liquid gold. When the guitar gets the poetry and helps write it, then I think I’m onto something good. I wanted to be a guitar player all along, and never thought of myself as much of a writer or singer … unfortunately for me I’m a terrible student and have never been able to become the kind of guitarist I wanted to be. I’m still practicing a lot and trying to learn new things all the time but I need to learn them in my way so it takes me longer than maybe it should. I’m definitely ok with that, as long as I get to play.
I’ve been enjoying our talk – it’s been enlightening to get another writer’s take on the process, and hard to find people to talk to about this stuff. So thank you for letting me into your insights.
AS: Same here regarding this gab. It’s been highbeam luminous for me to hear you whittle the dowsing rod and stir the deeper deepest waters.
That’s such a dynamite truism: as we de-escalate the terms of the space from the big all caps PERformance space and call it what it really is–just playing–then a deeper inlet thru the isthmus could be helped on to open: between stage and home. Wows me to hear that you’ve never thought of yourself as much of a writer: to my ear, you are one of our great bards kicking these and all days. “About twenty years’ worth of not quite three o’clock.” If that isn’t the perfect multivitamin version of what Thoreau called the quiet lives of desperation that most folks at least sometimes lead then I don’t know what is. It’s some of the purest poetry I know. Bardic manna.
Speaking of Thoreau, I’ve been thinking a lot of him when I think of you. Your approach to the devotional day. Your finding of the extraordinary in the ordinary. Your seer status. Your careful listening. He said one of my favorite sayings and I am sure I am paraphrasing again here due to my swisscheese noggin but it’s something close to: Music is perpetual; only listening is intermittent. I go in bouts with his journals but have been digging back in again lately. Read all of his Sept 22 entries last night in honor of autumn’s kickstart. In one he’s found a beach with some extremely musical sand. To rub your sole on it gives off this really sumptuous, full, satisfying sound. I don’t know what you’d call that way of being. Maybe a sound fetishist? Or more sweetly said: just a really really slow- it-down close waucher (Emily Bronte’s spelling) and close hearer of the vibrations of everything from the telegraph wires to you name it. Anyhow his buddy has his ideas about what it sounds like. But Thoreau isn’t so sure bout his chum’s caketake. He thinks it sounds more like polishing an old wooden table top. And he takes the chance to belly- ache like he does a lot in the journals about all of the folks who walk this sand all the time and never stop to hear it. Now he doesn’t call ’em idiots but he’s pretty bratty, snotty. Anyhow he’s either a loveable or annoying crank I guess depending on the day I am reading him. And to be fair they are his journals, they are after all a cribbed private place where he could let out all his furious angels. Hard not to be inspired by his
exactitudes and wide wide wide earful eyes.
What I love about your approach to music and life, which feel to me like one in the same thing, is this sense: Hey, I’ve found this amazing sound, I’ve seen this amazing thing. Now you come too. There’s this reaching a hand back to us your hearers. Which is to say, there’s such an empowerin and endearin gathering of the tribe vibe emanating from the Parr Telegraph Wires.
Love too your sense that the guitar is finishing lines like Fred said, wood (or in your resonator case, metal) in concert with word. Back to the dowsing stick. Almost that the guitar is just that. Leading you to the deeper agua of the lyric.
Speaking of one of my favorites too, Mississippi Fred M and of deeper agua, one of the jazziest things about the history of blues for me is the Wisconsin Chair Company’s big part in recording it via Paramount Records. It’s such a cool weird beautiful piece of history: that a company that made a helluva lotta those pirate plank long school desk pews also cemented so much great blues to records.
You said in one interview that the blues, “gets to me where I live.” What did you mean by that? I really do honor and respect for example your willingness to share with me and with the public your living as you do with anxiety and depression. In my case, I grew up in an abusive household. And I am sometimes either impatient with myself or in awe at the durability of those blues. I was improv-ing the other night at a livestream show we Yarns were doing, and there he was again, my drunk stepdad, staggering from stage left into my madeup poetry. While I know that my upbringing with abuse has sabotaged a lot of my own willingness to stay in romantic relationships, I guess it’s ultimately a millstone and a wing. Somehow so far anyway utterly inexhaustible imaginatively.
Poet Robert Hass’ description of the ode comes into the play when I think of the blues: that if we had what we wanted we would not have to sing to it. Because we’d have it. So in the ode like the blues from that rankling absence comes such empowering presence and beautiful music. I wanted to wrap all this up by asking you, above and beyond the blues getting at you where you live, if you’ve come to understand at least in part what makes folks like Blinde Willie Johnson and Washington Phillips so arresting? I’ve heard you talk about their powers and I agree. I can still remember the first time I heard each and while I listen to both of ’em all the time, I am always listening to them, it feels like, for the first time. And I can’t put my finger on what makes some folks’ music like that. It’s impossible to wilt it or trite it or stale it. It’s born on every replaying again. And it’s home.
CP: Thanks as always for your kind words – I don’t quite know what to say about such compliments, I’m trying these days to say ‘thank you’ instead of insisting that you’re wrong, so thank you. When I was a teenager I started having some fairly severe anxiety and was acting out with self-harm and suicidal thoughts and plans and I was eventually diagnosed with clinical depression and an anxiety disorder. I was hospitalized 4 times during teenager years for suicide attempts. I skipped school and eventually dropped out. The only thing that seemed to give me ease was music, which in the 70’s was seen as an unhealthy distraction more than a treatment plan. I was not compliant with meds and either threw them out or took them all at once. My parents were laborers and had no experience with mental health issues at all, they did their very best and my Dad even told me “if music makes you better then you’d better just concentrate on that” but I still wasted a lot of time trying to fit in and eventually got an essentially useless BA in philosophy and was able to hold a job working as a street outreach worker in Minneapolis. But the depression never really left me and then in my late 40’s it returned with a vengeance and I attempted suicide again in a motel in Reno and when I was still alive the next day I realized that I needed to get myself in order and I’ve been in therapy and practicing mindfulness and meditation ever since in a daily and sometimes hourly struggle to keep on top of my symptoms.
Music is still the only real balm, and I rely on it heavily. I decided to speak out about it because when I’m in the midst of an episode people around me tended to make assumptions about me (I must be on drugs, I’m aloof or snobby, I’m stupid) and I thought with all the folks who are living with this reality I ought to say something and maybe that would help me
and someone else too. It’s helped me, anyway, I’ve accepted the state of my mind as my reality and I work every day to bring something good out of that and not succumb to darkness on account of it.
It’s been a minute since I’d dug into Thoreau … when I first moved to Minneapolis from Austin I lived in a rooming house and besides my guitar I owned one book and that was Walden. I was obsessed with a minimalist ideal and for a time it drove most of the folks close to me crazy, including scaring a girlfriend off for good. But it was a really good and important time for me and I figured out that my satisfaction had nothing to with stuff and everything to with my attitude and perspective. Eventually I obtained Boethius’ Consolation and let my ragged copy of Walden find its next student (I still don’t keep books, I read them and pass them on and receive them and read them and pass them on). Records, now, that’s a different story … I don’t have many of them but I guard them jealously. I don’t remember when I first heard Washington Phillips … it was on cassette, it must have been in the 80’s somewhere … but I’ll never forget the mystical fog that descended around me. I couldn’t believe that it was real, that such a person had been on the earth, creating sounds like that … and it happened again and again – Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Pete Williams, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, and then John Fahey and Robbie Basho and then Marisa Anderson and Chuck Johnson and others. I don’t know what that feeling means, I know I’m grateful for it, I know that when I’m driving and it happens I need to pull over and just wallow in it … I remember vividly hearing Jack Rose for the first time on a flight from London to Minneapolis after a friend gave me his first cd and I put it in my walkman right after take off and then didn’t even register the rest of the 8 hour flight. Lately it’s been Cinder Well, Swords Daughter, Jeff Parker, Nils Frahm, a bootleg cassette of Daniel Higgs playing banjo outside that have stopped me in my tracks. And yeah it happens over and over.
I don’t see that I’d ever be capable of creating anything if it weren’t for these inspirations and influences, books and music as well as the weather and random interactions with strangers and animals. So the well never runs dry as long as my eyes and ears are open.
I hope that helps a little – it’s hard talking about music in this way – it doesn’t make any real sense and it shouldn’t. I really believe that music is an eternal thing in itself and has no dependent relationship to anything, I believe it was neither created nor can be destroyed and I also believe that while we can participate in it, we can’t really create it or claim it at all or even understand it and certainly not adequately explain it to others. I’m grateful every moment for it, and when I get to hear artists that it truly inhabits (the “authentic” ones, as opposed to the ones who try to use it for insincere motives) I’m dumbstruck. There, that might be as good as I can get to answering your question.
AS: Thank YOU, Charlie, for this truthbright journey. Gratitudes to you, loud and always!