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Time out of mind

Charlie Parr talks Piedmont blues, monophonic recording and internal combustion cuisine



At the top of Charlie Parr's My-Space page, there's a slogan that couldn't be more prophetic: "If it's electric, it's gonna let ya down."

Earlier this month, fell victim to a hacker who managed to get electronic dance music to start up every time you open the site. What better introduction to a musician who plays fingerstyle blues, has recorded three albums in mono, and does songs like Tampa Red's "Dead Cat on the Line" and his own "Riding Lawnmower Blues"? (Oh yeah, Parr also makes his meals in transit by cooking them on the exhaust manifold of his van, but we'll get to that later.)

"I contacted MySpace and they ended up not being able to help me with it, so it's just hanging there in space," mourns the Minnesota musician, who's since migrated to "I wish they had found someone else to hack, but I guess I just need to move on."

This isn't the first time Parr has been on the receiving end of Internet irony. Last year, his country blues song "1922" was featured in a viral ad for mobile telecom giant Vodafone. The commercial shows a yuppie couple enjoying the miracles of technology in their luxury apartment. Parr wrote the song about his father hopping freight trains.

"He passed away in 1995," recalls the singer-songwriter, "but I got to sit around and hear a lot of good stories before he left."

Parr also got to dig through his father's blues collection and immediately took to the Piedmont style practiced by the likes of Elizabeth Cotton and Blind Boy Fuller.

For those who aren't familiar with Piedmont blues (I used to think it was named after a neighborhood in Oakland), Parr is happy to explain: "Piedmont, of course, refers to that region south of the Appalachian mountains all the way down into Georgia and back up the Eastern seaboard. It's mostly characterized by an alternating thumb — your thumb ends up playing kind of a bassline between the fourth and fifth strings, or whatever the bass part's gonna be — and then you play the melody with your fingers. As opposed to a lot of Delta styles where the thumb kind of hammers on one note. It's more related to ragtime than the Delta or Texas styles are."

Parr isn't exactly a purist — "I kind of follow whatever feels right when I'm writing songs" — but his back-to-mono approach is definitely an anachronism.

"A lot of the guys I know really love mono," insists Parr, who befriends people in bands with names like the Black Twig Pickers. "I don't know how many really famous people are using it, but I think the recordings end up sounding like I sound, and that's what I like about it."

And then there's Parr's exhaust manifold cooking, which keeps him well away from roadside Burger Kings: "You've got a heat source right there," he reasons, "you might as well use it."

Besides, there's really nothing like wrapping up some vittles in tinfoil, wiring them to your engine, and hitting the highway.

"I did a nice kielbasa and potatoes that turned out pretty good," says Parr. "It took about 130 miles to do it."

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