_CHARLIE PARR – KEEP YOUR HANDS ON THE PLOW
2011 – House Of Mercy Recordings
I’ve been a fan of Charlie Parr’s since hearing his first recordings nearly ten years ago and am still impelled to play his older albums, as well as a few bootlegs, on a fairly regular basis! I’ve seen him live a few times over the years and have been almost mesmerised not only by his extraordinary musical skills but also by the quiet intensity that he is able to bring to his incredibly authentic strand of ‘old time’ music. His previous recording, ‘When the devil goes blind’ was my album of the year 2010 and was very closely followed by the tremendous ‘group’ album that he made with the Black Twig Pickers, so after a lot of soul searching and numerous listening sessions it’s my feeling that this is his best yet in a career of great albums. He is often referred to as a ‘blues’ musician but the beauty of his work is that the musical gene pool he comes from is a mix of the old time blues players and the just as old time ‘hillbillies’. This blend dates back to the early days of recording (and beyond!!) when, generally, the only difference between a rural blues player and the rural hillbilly player was their skin colour, certainly, in most cases, not the music they played. In fact, there are numerous stories of ‘hillbilly’ singers learning their musical chops from old blues men in their towns and villages, a famous and easily researched case being the late great Hank Williams.
It’s rare that Charlie uses other musicians on his solo albums, perhaps sometimes to add just a little colouring, but this current effort almost has the feel of a band album, with the biggest noticeable difference being the addition of his wife Emily on some of the vocals and tambourine. Charlie handles most of the lead vocals, guitars and banjo, with Brandy Forsman on fiddle and vocals, Tom Maloney, banjo, guitar and vocals, Alan Sparhawk, vocals and electric guitar and with Mimi Parker playing drums on one track this is the biggest line up of musicians ever on a Charlie album. It should be fairly obvious to anyone that has read this far that as far as I’m concerned all of this extra ‘colour’ works brilliantly, and in fact, actually enhances the power of the music. The playing by all concerned is of the highest quality, with Charlie’s mastery of, and the sound he gets from, his National Steel resonator guitar, as well as his banjo, being a constant highlight. Despite the fact that there are more people than usual involved in this album the sound still has the sparseness necessary to allow each song to keep the haunting element so necessary to this old as the hills music. The harmonies are never smooth and cloying but always have a slightly discordant feel, thanks mainly to the inclusion of a female vocalist, thus enhancing the almost ‘otherworldly’ atmosphere.
Charlie is a tremendous songwriter in the old time blues/hillbilly genre, well able to blend his own compositions with traditional songs without the uninitiated ever being aware of the time difference between those compositions. On this album he chooses to use traditional songs and a few that are credited to ‘old timers.’ Interestingly, to me at least, is the fact that these songs have been recorded by a huge variety of ‘roots music’ artists from Blind Willie Johnson to Bob Dylan and from Mississippi John Hurt to the Flying Burrito Brothers. Very few of these blues, country, folk musicians however, have succeeded in creating more feeling or atmosphere than that contained on this extraordinary album. Fairly obviously, it would be impossible for anyone to surpass the haunting, unearthly atmosphere that Blind Willie Johnson brought to his own composition God Moves On The Water, but credit Charlie and company for giving this great of the past a run for his money with their accapella version! Similarly, East Virginia Blues, a song that has been recorded scores of times over the last eight decades, with the Carter Family’s recording as the definitive version of this tremendous song, and Charlie’s version can now be mentioned in the same breath. This hauntingly atmospheric song kicks off with a slow moodily plucked banjo and quietly haunting fiddle sound before the introduction of Charlie’s just as evocative vocal, making it even spookier and more authentic sounding than many of the songs and recordings from the era whence it came! All The Good Times Are Past And Gone, againstarts with a high lonesome fiddle, then the banjo comes in giving it an authentic almost primitive hillbilly flavour but when the atmospheric multi vocals take over it becomes an evocation of a front porch gospel song. It has the incredibly eerie feeling of something that could have been recorded in the American civil war era rather than the 21st century. Daniel In The Lion’s Den tugs at the heartstrings thanks to the gorgeous sound of Charlie’s national steel resonator guitar and Emily’s haunting harmonising with Charlie, giving this ages old song an almost funereal atmosphere. On Farther Along the echoing banjo and four part harmonies create a calming atmosphere, enhanced by several different lead vocalists on the verses of this beautiful song. Album closer Poor Lazarus, unusually, has an electric guitar as the foundation for Charlie’s keening vocals on this spookily atmospheric folk/blues song, with a drum beat that you would have expected to hear prior to an 19th century execution, giving it an even more haunting, otherworldly feel.
Part of what makes this album so extraordinary is the perfect selection of songs, voices and instrumentation that when combined really do on occasions give you the feeling that these people have been transported from a spooky lost Appalachian ‘holler’ in the mid nineteenth century for long enough to record the songs, only to disappear back to whence they came. It really is that haunting. The recording quality is also excellent giving plenty of space and depth to the vocals and instrumentation, allowing everything to breathe.
So is the album perfect? Probably not in the truest sense, but near enough for me to say this is well on its way to being in my top ten single disc non-compilation albums ever.
It’s a shame it was released too late in the year to make mine and others year end lists but I’m carrying it over to 2012 as the standard setter. I suspect that by this time next year it will still not have been surpassed.