By Royal Brevvaxling Special to Published Jun 04, 2012 at 1:04 PM

Duluth's most-loved lo-fi blues and traditional musician Charlie Parr will perform at the Cactus Club, 2496 S. Wentworth Ave., on Wednesday, June 6. New York folk and Americana band O'Death shares the bill. Admission to the show is $10.

Parr's setlist for the Cactus Club show will include a variety of old stuff he's taken a recent interest in and a few songs he's working on for the upcoming "Barn Swallow" album. He'll also play a few of the gospel songs (from both of his gospel albums and possibly others) that fans of his live performances have come to expect.

"They always make it in every time I play. But mostly I do what I feel like playing at the time," says Parr, who's performed in Milwaukee before. "I've played Cactus Club a few times and Garibaldi's down the street. I like eating at the Palomino very much."

Parr played at Linneman's Riverwest Inn, 1001 E. Locust St., before that and says he enjoys Jim Linneman's company.

"I've always had good experiences coming to Milwaukee. I'm looking forward to it and to hearing O'Death perform," says Parr.

Parr's latest album is "Keep Your Hands on the Plow," which features backing vocals from his spouse, Emily, the band Four Mile Portage and additional electric guitars and drums from Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, slowcore veterans from the band Low.

"Keep Your Hands on the Plow" is primarily an album of old gospel songs, but also includes a couple traditional folk and a chain gang song.

This is the folk picker's second gospel album. His 2010 album with the Virginia-based string band Black Twig Pickers, "Glory in the Meeting House," was almost entirely comprised of traditional gospel songs.

Parr loves gospel, but for musical and familial reasons.

"I'm not a real churchy person, don't happen to go, but mom and dad liked old gospel and I grew to know all the words. I got all these collections of pre-war gospel songs from them. The music just vibrates with me and I've been including it in my sets for years and years," says Parr.

Parr enjoyed working with Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, and it wasn't the first time. They've toured and worked on a few side projects together.

Sparhawk gave Parr, who usually plays acoustic or a banjo, an electric guitar and even went to his house and set it up for him. Parr hated the electric so much he got rid of it after just 10 days.

"I looked at what was involved and decided he might as well have handed me an oboe; I just couldn't get it, everything was so different, sound is coming from somewhere other than the guitar, etc., it was just weird," says Parr. "But I'm lucky to be friends with all those guys. Alan has been super helpful to me; he accidentally taught me a lot of stuff just by how he handles himself in studio."

Parr usually plays a National resonator guitar and a 12-string that Todd Cambio, of Fraulini Guitars in Madison, built for him.

"Cambio makes guitars with an eye to the past, specifically 1900 to 1920; they're all handmade and just beautiful," says Parr.

Cambio made a reproduction of Leadbelly's guitar.

Parr has two kids, a 5-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy. His kids go to same swimming class as Sparhawk's and Parker's kids.

Lately Parr's been engaged in a lot of end-of-school stuff and is planning to keep the kids away from video games with some Duluth-area summer activities.

"When you're from somewhere, you always think it's unique," says Parr, commenting on the Duluth music scene.

With heavy-hitters like Low and Trampled by Turtles hailing from Duluth, Parr says the area's musicians are a strange mixture.

"It's a really diverse cast of characters playing a variety of stuff, metal, hip hop, punk – gobs of different music – and everybody gets along really well. Even though there's not a lot of people up there who like to go out to shows and listen to everything" he says.

Duluth has a population of about 86,000, with a couple hundred thousand more folks in surrounding areas, including Superior, Wis.

"I feel I am a part of (the scene), even though I'm a niche odd ball, they're nice to me. The connecting tissue is that everyone loves music so much that you can't even imagine, really," says Parr.

Parr is set to finish recording "Barn Swallow," his new album of original material, in June, but that recording has been "kind of a process" with this one.

Rumored on the Internet and in some Minnesota music circles that he has been suffering from carpal tunnel, Parr clarified that he actually has severe tendonitis which has "basically settled in for life."

"I'm feeling pretty lucky about it right now; last year I would have been pretty gloomy about it," he says.

Parr usually plays with his thumb and two fingers but now will play thumb and one finger, if he needs to. Players like Reverend Gary Davis and Mance Lipscomb picked with thumb and one finger, as well as many country / blues guitar players that Parr is fond of.

Parr says he's paying more attention now, in part because he has to in order not to exacerbate his tendonitis, but he's found that the new attention to what his fingers are doing as he's picking has its rewards as well.

"When I started out playing, I found it easier using two fingers, like Mississippi John Hurt. I don't think my style has changed much; if anything, it's slowed down a little bit but also become more precise," he says.

Parr was writing everything for a while on banjo and then transferring his music to the guitar, but he found the banjo harder on his arm. He usually writes with the National, but can still write with either, and is working on getting back to traveling with the banjo.

Parr doesn't like studios very much so will finish recording the new album at a friend's farmhouse in the woods near Cannon Falls, Minn.

Although most of the songs on "Barn Swallow" were written a while ago, Parr kept working on them and says he's become more comfortable with his songwriting, especially with the storytelling aspects, and also intends to include a washboard player, some harmonica and maybe a fiddler on the new album.

"But it won't be anything crazy new, like electricity. I'm a pretty predictable person I guess, but these songs feel like a new direction," says Parr.

Royal Brevvaxling Special to
Royal Brevväxling is a writer, educator and visual artist. As a photo essayist, he also likes to tell stories with pictures. In his writing, Royal focuses on the people who make Milwaukee an inviting, interesting and inspiring place to live.

Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.