Charlie Parr

Article Published: Mar. 22, 2012 | Modified: Mar. 22, 2012
Charlie Parr

‘Keep Your Hands on the Plow’

Charlie Parr’s gospel is on fire.

Burning fast and bright, slow and steady, and sizzling out into darkness, the songs of “Keep Your Hands on the Plow,” Parr’s collection of traditional folk and gospel, deepens the brand made by generations of musicians, storytellers and people of faith.

The album, Parr’s seventh, was released on House of Mercy Recordings in December 2011.

Parr’s fire-starter was his father, a hard-laboring man who enjoyed traditional, folk, blues and early country music on his record player. His father relived his youth, a time when he rambled the country on freight trains, through the recordings. Constantly exposed to his father’s stories and those of the musicians coming out of the stereo, Parr was destined to be a storyteller himself.

But unlike his previous albums, the stories on “Keep Your Hands on the Plow” are not new, nor did Parr write them. Like folklorist Alan Lomax, who collected some of the songs featured on his album, Parr is archiving, making a record of the songs passed onto to him by an older generation.

These are songs that have no doubt been recorded time after time, but Parr puts a zeal into them that could have only grown from a lifelong love of an art strong on conviction and wrought in emotion. The 40-something Minnesotan, armed with his guitar and worn but warm voice, commits antiques like “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord” and “Who Will Deliver Poor Me?” with an ease that only comes from years of hearing and playing them.

Joined by his wife, Emily (vocals, tamborine), and friends Brandy Forsman (fiddle, vocals), Tom Maloney (banjo, guitar, vocals), Alan Sparhawk (electric guitar, vocals) and Mimi Parker (percussion), Parr sat down in a church and recorded an album that reignites songs older than himself. In Parr, there’s a spark that is noticeably missing in many singing the gospel today.

“Keep Your Hands on the Plow” is a snapshot of America’s music history, but also Parr’s history.

Along with introducing him to the classics, Parr’s father gave him his first guitar at age 7. Delving deep into Piedmont Blues and traditional folk and eventually picking up the resonator guitar and banjo, Parr developed a humble and heartfelt style reflective of his father’s influence.

Parr’s singing and playing is soaked in equal parts sorrow and elation. While “East Virginia Blues” is pitch black, “Gospel Plow” and “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” are spirituous foot-stompers. He maintains a melancholic middle ground in “Farther Along,” and many of the other songs on the album.

Like the original songs, the renditions on “Plow” are simple and unadorned. Parr keeps to tradition. His versions could stand alone on their multi-layered vocals, but Parr and friends provide a light instrumentation that is authentic to the presentations of his predecessors.

He simplifies gospel blues guitarman Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Moves on the Water,” making it a mostly vocal affair with tambourine; regardless, the song about the sinking of the Titanic is no less affecting. His take on the prison work song, “Poor Lazarus,” is the most powerful song of the album; a singular drum beat heard throughout the song concludes the work, its pounding reverberating through the listener for minutes afterward. It’s one of the many subtleties that Parr utilizes in making a long-lasting effect on his audience.

One may wonder if it is necessary to record the ancient songs of “Keep Your Hands on the Plow.” Charlie Parr’s performance makes it evident that these are timeless pieces that should never recede from the public performance. To keep them burning requires a flamekeeper, and Parr masterfully stepped into that role.

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