[9 March 2011]
If it were possible to get a mainline connection to that dim and distant location mapped out by pre-WWII American blues and folk musics, Charlie Parr would make a reliable operator. There’s more than enough immediacy to his delivery, more than enough old weirdness to his tales of drunkards, roustabouts, cowboys, testifiers, and expeditionnaries. The passage of years and the technologies of mediation fade away so that here and now, in the moment of listening, you can enter the there and then of wherever and whenever tall tales such as these were everyday currency.
When The Devil Goes Blind is, according to his new label, the first of Parr’s recordings to receive wide distribution. In fact, the best place to get hold of Parr’s music, especially for listeners outside the USA, remains his website, where prices are kept low and distribution kept global. Some of the very earliest sets are long gone, but this album’s as fine a place to start as any. It mostly consists of Parr originals, with a couple of traditional numbers thrown in for respectability. Really, though, it’s hard to tell the difference; Parr mines the tradition so brilliantly that you’d be forgiven for thinking all the tracks had been handed down from other pickers or learned from recordings.
Opener “I Dreamed I Saw Jesse James Last Night” showcases the Parr template pretty well. National Reso-Phonic guitar slipping and sliding around the tune, hoarse vocals making a mockery of microphone style and lyrics about trains, tracks, and times past filter through the immediacy of the present. If you follow the story, it’s ultimately the past’s inability to inform the present that is the cause of these post-millennial blues. A similar confusion is played out over the course of the album, Parr switching between instruments—12-string, 6-string, banjo—and alternating between a gruff folk-gospel testimony and a quieter, more reflective vocal style that, along with the weeping National, recalls Kelly Joe Phelps at his most emotive. “For the Drunkard’s Mother” and “Last Day” are beautiful moments of calm amidst the fire and brimstone of the other more typical Parr numbers.
John Fahey described the music he collected on American Primitive Vol. 1 as “made under the influence of enthusiasm”. The enthusiasm he spoke of was a kind of possession, whether Christian or diabolical he couldn’t be sure; a mode of ecstatic communication that intervened in the delivery of sacred and secular messages alike. Charlie Parr’s recordings, which make splendid companions to Fahey’s anthology, are similarly enthusiastic.