Charlie Parr

JAMES BEATY | Staff photo

Renowned musician Charlie Parr gets into a blues song while singing and playing on his steel resonator guitar during his performance at Spaceship Earth Coffee in McAlester.

Charlie Parr took a deep dive into the blues during his performance inside Spaceship Earth Coffee in McAlester to round out the fall edition of the Dancing Rabbit Music Festival.

He also touched on folk, country and other roots forms of music during his extended performance — but it all ended with his master class in playing and singing the blues.

Charlie played the closing set of the Dancing Rabbit Music Festival’s fall edition show inside Spaceship Earth last Saturday night, following performances on the outdoor stage by John Fullbright, the husband-wife team Ragland and opener Carter Sampson.

On the inside stage, the acoustic duo Two Runner opened the Spaceship Earth show. With Emillie Rose on the fiddle and harmony vocals, and Paige Anderson on clawhammer banjo, guitar and lead vocals, they performed an animated set. Although they hail from Northern California, they sound as if they came from the mountains of Appalachia.

Their Spaceship Earth performance is the final one of their dual tour with Charlie which started in Portland Oregon, with shows in Seattle, Boise, Idaho; Salt Lake City, Utah, and Denver and Manitou, Colorado, before their show in McAlester.

That gave time Charlie to head up to Wichita to visit his adult nephew before traveling to McAlester for the Spaceship Earth show. Charlie’s nephew not only accompanied him to McAlester, he brought along a batch of limited edition Charlie Parr T-shirts he created especially for the occasion.

As Two Runner breaks into a spirited breakdown-sounding song, I glance around Spaceship Earth. The audience is obviously into it — including Charlie, who’s standing against a side wall, a smile on his face. Two Runner talk about how much they’ve enjoyed touring with Charlie — and then it’s time for his set.

Charlie carries his music instruments onstage, including two that he will alternate between for most of the night — a tri-cone Mule Resonator guitar made of steel, with a maple neck. His other instrument of choice — a well-played 12 string Guild guitar. Charlie’s also been known to play a fretless banjo when the spirit strikes — but for this show, the Mule and the Guild were in heavy rotation.

Charlie also has a setup that amplifies the tapping of his foot — which adds in an almost subliminal way to his rhythmic musical delivery.

Soon, Charlie breaks into a gospel song, asking the musical question “Are you ready, are you ready for when the kingdom comes?”

The song could have came from 100 years ago or it could be a Charlie original. I’m not sure, but Charlie’s fiery delivery sounds as if it could convince the most jaded rounder to get his or her house in order — as if the kingdom is coming any minute.

Charlie starts up a rolling riff on the Mule Resonator, alternating between the slide guitar-picked licks, breaking into his darkly humorous song, “I Ain’t Dead Yet.”

“When I go down that funeral road, I’m going to be dressed up fine,” he sings. “I’ll have a tie and a suit, like I never had when I was alive.” But why wait?

“Well, I ain’t dead yet, I want them clothes right now,” Charlie sings in his road-seasoned voice. “Ain’t nobody going to see them, when I’m locked in that box under the ground.”

Charlie slices the space between each verse with ringing bottleneck guitar and even stops the song for a second, before starting up that rolling riff again.

As Charlie slides through his set I hear the opening notes from one of my new favorites, the title song from his 2021 Folkways album, “Last of the Better Days Ahead.”

Charlie plays a rollicking fingerpicking banjo-like pattern that reminds me of cruising down the road in a vintage automobile from the 1960s or ‘70s, then, he begins singing:

“Money can’t buy back that ‘64 Falcon that you sold in your 20s and then regretted it was gone; Because you thought it contained some meaning or some answers to a life that you never bothered to question or even take a good close look at.”

Charlie spins out the lyrics in a rapid-fire fashion, but they never sound hurried and his lyrics are amazingly clear inside the packed Spaceship Earth Coffee venue. He rides through the verses like a motorist driving down a gravelly dirt road, reaching one of my favorites:

“Because now it’s all so stale and you feel so very old, like you’ve taken all your chances and you’ve tossed them aside, for some stupid piece of metal like tiny bits of trash that line the stolen nest of a greedy neighborhood crow.”

It’s as if Charlie has his foot on the accelerator as he sings through the lines, until he gets to the last few words and his voice drops a little lower and slows a bit.

Charlie’s music touches on a variety of genres, including folk and country, but as he plays into the night, he takes a deep dive into the blues: country blues, Delta blues, Piedmont blues and Texas blues.

He put down his Mule Resonator Guitar and picked up his 12 string Guild acoustic, hitting dazzling runs up and down the neck. I recognized “The Sporting Life,” which I’d recently learned was an old Brownie McGhee blues song bearing a striking resemblance to Willie Nelson’s “The Night Life.”

Wait! What’s that? I see a small hole worn in the wood beneath Charlie’s fingers as he plays the Guild. It’s nowhere near as big as the one in Willie’s classical Martin guitar, which Willie named Trigger — but it looks as if it’s on its way!

As Charlie digs deep into his blues well house, I heard the opening licks on a song from his most recent album, titled “Walking Back from Willimar.” His powerful voice intones the opening line twice, in the time-honored blues fashion:

“The steeple in the distance is lit by a neon cross,” he sings with lots of slide guitar notes packed in-between. “The steeple in the distance, is lit by a neon cross,” Charlie sings again. “ But when he got to the door for mercy’s sake, he found it to be locked.”

Charlie’s steel slide on his finger glides up an down the strings and delivers a metallic twang. He sings blues after blues, barely stopping between songs except to switch instruments, changing between his steel Mule resonator and his acoustic 12 string, whichever the song required.

After the show, I talked with Charlie. Didn’t he tour Ireland and the United Kingdom earlier this year? He nods in agreement. “And Belgium and the Netherlands,” he added,

I ask what it’s like to play in a small, intimate club such as Spaceship Earth Coffee in McAlester after performing in venues around the world. Charlie said that’s what he does, no matter the country in which he’s touring, whether in London, Belfast or McAlester.

“I usually just play in little clubs,” said Parr.

I ask if he and his nephew are driving back to Wichita that night. Charlie says they are, which means they will be driving for several hours after leaving Spaceship Earth. He then planned to head back home toward Duluth, Minnesota, for a little time off before staring the next leg of his tour, which takes him to the north and east, including Woodstock, New York.

During our conversation, I ask Charlie if that’s a sticker with a likeness of Jerry Garcia among the many plastered about his white guitar case. Charlie says it is and wondered how it got on there — but he also tells me how much he likes the Grateful Dead.

I mention that Jerry Garcia must have been one of the purest musicians ever — meaning he obviously had a love for playing music for its own sake. Whenever the Grateful Dead took a hiatus from recording, Garcia booked solo dates in smaller venues with his other group, the Jerry Garcia Band.

I think of Willie Nelson as another pure musician — having seen him play for hours once inside the club at the Ken Lance Sports Arena in Stonewall, long after most other artists would have left the stage. Come to think of it, I believe Charlie is another pure musician, who seems to always be playing and singing his music somewhere and who has played at plenty of unpaid benefits in his life.

I ask Charlie about his taking his Spaceship Earth set into a deep blues dive for the last part of his show.

“That’s always something I’m going to play,” Charlie said of the blues. “It makes me happy.”

“So it makes you happy to sing the blues,” I said, more in the line of an observation than a question.

Charlie nods in affirmation. “That’s great, Charlie,” I said.

Judging by the many rounds of applause and the smiles I saw on faces during his McAlester performance, it made a lot of people at the Spaceship Earth show happy to hear Charlie sing the blues, too.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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