"Oh Hell, Let's Go See Ray"
Thinking about the Old Days
© 2016 by Charlie Parr
Little Judges Publishing Co.
© 2016 by Charlie Parr
Little Judges Publishing Co.
Well, first of all I want to thank everyone for their kind words and concern about the floods. We got off pretty easy compared to many parts of town and we're thinking about the folks who still can't get back into their places.
Despite all the chaos I managed to get the sink done. Of course the stairs I painted are the wrong color and I'll have to re-do those, but that's alright. I painted Elijah's room and that turned out fine, and I finally got the lawn mowed even though I had to use the gas mower since it got so thick and tall from the rains that I couldn't barely push the other one through it. Dave's coming by tomorrow to help me with the screens, summer's here. Had a great time at the Cedar and at Root Note in La Crosse, and looking forward to playing outside in Superior at Barker's Island and in Menomonie at the band shell. Also gonna open for the 4onthefloor in Winona at Ed's on Friday before heading up to StageNorth in Washburn. Maybe I'll record those songs in July ...
I crossed some weird mental line now. My Dad's best friend was
a farmer named Ray who we'd go visit quite a bit. He collected pens,
old ballpoints with logos from banks and seed companies, but he called
them 'mechanical pencils'. He called the toilet a 'biff' and drove my
Dad's old F-250 til he died. Why did I wake up yesterday morning
remembering every single detail of his face? I hadn't thought about Ray
in years, now I can remember every single time Dad would stop what he
was doing and say "oh hell, let's go see Ray" and we'd drive out to the
Iowa stateline and hang out all day in Ray's garage. I wish they were
both here. I'm glad that part of my mind woke up again.
I can smell the first day of kindergarten now. I can conjure it up anytime I like. The other day Reuben and I went for our walk, we go by the dog-biscuit-lady's place to see if there are any samples out to try then we sit in the alley and eat them. We walked by a crab-apple tree and then there it was: kindergarten. I could smell it strong as could be and then I saw it all, the construction paper, crayons, little cardboard cartons of milk, my hook in the coat room. Now it hasn't gone away, it's becoming kind of like a reflection of the newspaper you laid on yr dashboard and can see in the windshield while yr looking at the road. My life is coming back to life, waking up to accompany me. Hopefully for the better.
Thanks Brewhouse, it was good to be back with Lane last night. He got new socks. New to him, anyway. Now I'm looking forward to the Minocqua Brewing Co. tomorrow night, and Boats and Bluegrass on Saturday night. Our set is late, Mikkel's coming and I think Dave's coming, plus Emily and Four Mile Portage are joining me at one of my favorite festivals ever. October's busy, I'll let ya know about it next week. I know Lane and I and his new socks will be at the Brewhouse every Wednesday for awhile though, stop on by if you can.
I have to get Lula on the bus and then Reuben and I are gonna
go take a look at the lake before we get started with glazing the storm
I can't stand listening to the news nowadays. I feel like my Dad, who would turn on the little tv in the kitchen to see the news and then switch it off again in a few minutes, pissed off. I go outside, or put a record on, to keep from feeling too helpless. Dad voted, everytime, and took me with him. I remember the town hall, I remember the big wood box and the old man who sat next to it smoking cigarettes and chatting with Dad about how when Nixon died they wouldn't bury him, they'd just "stand him up and screw him into the ground". Other than that he never talked about politics. He didn't talk about God, either. He lived in the eternal now, which I'm striving for, helpless or not. At least I can try and improve the block I live on ... or the house I live in ... or just myself somedays.
Tonight, though, my friend Mike Munson is coming to play an opening set at the Brewhouse and he's one hell of a good guitar player so I'm looking forward to that.
Vonnegut was right, all moments are eternal.
I used to have a community of old men around me. My Dad, his friends, my Uncles, the neighborhood gang of old men who would congregate here and there and give off a kind of running commentary on life and how to live it. It was irritating. I didn’t fit in anywhere, had long hair and played guitar, had no job and no real prospects. I was a favorite object of discussion, and I think they were just trying to help me along. In fact I’m sure of it, but they knew me, they knew my family, they were from my town. I don’t have that community now, those men are all gone from the world and lately I find myself missing them, missing even the chance to ignore their guidance. The old men that I encounter now don’t know me, I can see a harsh judgment in their eyes: I have long hair, play guitar, have no job and no prospects, I wander my neighborhood with a dirty little dog and a 6 year old daughter who is mud up to her waist from puddle-stomping. I can even hear what they say as I’m walking away and worry about Lu hearing it, too. I don’t mind the harsh judgment, we all do that, I just miss the other part. The part where judgment is followed by something like “that’s just Charlie, he’ll be ok one way or another” or “I worry about that boy sometimes” … “I know him, some part of me cares about him” ... "here's what he oughta do". It won’t be long before I am part of some community of old men, but where will I find them? We won’t fit in, wearing PF Flyers when we’re 75 years old, playing guitar, letting our whiskers grow, no job and no prospects, confirmed failures and defiantly proud of it.
So Mikkel and I wandered the west together, meeting the ghosts
of Dominic Gospodor and John Steinbeck and Joe Hill. We carried Woody
Guthrie and Cat Iron and Washboard Sam with us. Brother Dave made it to
L.A. in a ragtop Mustang (never saw him outside a beat up GMC or a
locomotive engine) and presented me with the most beautiful National
guitar I’ve ever seen and it brought sobs out of me that have probably
been waiting in there for a long time. We made great new friends in
Santa Barbara, L.A., Santa Cruz and San Francisco and reconnected with
our old friends in Montana and Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, Fort
Collins and Denver. Then we had to cut it short, unfortunately, and
miss Colorado Springs while I waited for a new water pump in a tiny
town. It was a great trip, even then. So yeah, thanks everybody for
coming to the shows, thanks Mikkel and Dave for being my community of
old men, not quite old yet.
The radio in my truck played a Ray Price song on the freeway around Black River Falls yesterday. The combination of freeway and pedal steel transported me back in time to 1973 riding in our F-250 with my Dad and our friend Ray out to see some other old guy about something, I never did know what. What I did know was that this other old guy lived on a big crazy farm that used to be a little town called “Renova” and that while the old guys were talking and drinking Oly I’d be rummaging around in the old buildings and playing nascar (I was David Pearson) in one of the many abandoned cars lying around in the meadow. There was always a radio playing somewhere, always a song with that smooth pedal steel sound in it, I always found some treasure or another and came back to the garage where the old guys were sitting around on lawn chairs and I was filthy and ripped up but they always just smiled and let me keep whatever junk I could carry. I rode back to town standing on the seat between Dad and Ray, a hand on both of their shoulders, and listened to more old country radio and them talking the old guy gossip (“why in hell won’t he ever fix a car instead of buying a new one and settin’ the old one out in the goddam pasture?”). I was so, so lucky. My Dad was always there for me, he still is here, the strongest man I ever known. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. We didn’t get enough time, did we?
I’m happy to be home again and struggling to push my poor old
dull-bladed mower through the tall grass (gonna take a vice-grips and a
hammer to get the blade off for sharpening) and looking forward to a
bunch of shows around home (Ryan’s got them all up on the website if yr
interested), but right now I just want to lay in the grass.
I’m listening to “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” and thinking
about Steve O’Neil today. Steve was a powerful advocate for the
homeless and marginalized folks in our town, and an important
role-model for the rest of us. I met Steve when I was working for the
homeless project and have had the utmost respect for him ever since. He
lived the way he talked, and treated the folks we were trying to help
with the same respect and courtesy that he treated local authorities
and neighbors. When I quit my job to play music he kept in touch,
reminding me gently about my obligations to come back and help out now
and again. I’ll miss those calls, I’ll miss knowing that Steve is
there, doing not only his share but a whole lot more than that, I’ll
miss that great smile and the humbling gentleness that flowed from him.
There are so many good folks out there who are doing great work just
because it needs doing, I’ve been very proud to know quite a few, and
I’m very proud to have known Steve and very sad to have to say goodbye.
His work wasn’t done, Lord, he’s probably told you himself by now. But
you sure gave us one hell of an example of how it ought to be done now
that we have to carry on alone.
“There’ll be room for you and room for me …” Thank you, Steve.
Ever have one of those friends who would never hesitate to pull the carburetor out of their car and attempt to rebuild it anytime the notion struck them? Sometimes it might be the alternator or (God forbid) the transmission, but normally you’d drop by and the kitchen table would be covered in greasy pieces of carburetor, a carb kit, some tools, a few empty beer cans and about a thousand cigarette butts most of which were in the carburetor itself. About a month of this would go by, you’d be giving him rides all over town, maneuvering around his ’71 Malibu which was covered in tools, drop-cloths, and more beer cans, and then one day you’d see him riding his bike to the local garage, carrying a Red Owl bag full of carburetor parts. The next month you’d be riding with him and he’d screw up his face at a red light while he gunned the engine and he'd say “listen there, I don't think she’s flowing right … I’m gonna have to rebuild that carb again”.
I had a whole bunch of those friends. The rule in Austin, and maybe all over the country, was to try and do it yourself before you consulted with a professional. Eventually you might have to slink on down to the garage and maybe mumble something about how “damn neighbor kids … mumble mumble … girlfriend … mumble … I almost had it … mumble … ”, but you at least tried it yourself first. I thought I had outgrown that phase, but last week I found myself looking at a kitchen table full of bicycle spokes, a torn-apart coaster hub, and a collection of nuts and washers and tools and greasy rags and I’m here to tell you, don’t ask me to help you rebuild a bike wheel.
Besides that, it’s been a great week. I made it home from
Chicago just in time to take Lu to her first day in the first grade,
and had a blast last weekend celebrating Elijah’s birthday and planning
to quickly swap out the hub on my bike. This week Lane and I are gonna
try something new and play at the Red Star on Thursday with Alpenglow,
and then we’re heading up the range Friday night to play at the 218 in
Virginia with Matt Ray and on Saturday I’m kicking off the Summit
Brewery bash with Mikkel at noon. Monday I’ll probably look for a
grocery bag and head for the bike shop.
Awhile back Lula told me that I smell like bacon and old people. My folks and I used to go visit their friends down near Lyle, who were old, but they smelled like pie and old newspaper. And now looking back I'm sure they weren't old at all, and visiting with my Mom and seeing my Aunt this last week I'm not really convinced anymore that there is such a thing as age, or at least the line moves so much that you can call one person old and another person young when they're the same exact age and you'd be right. I have days now that are like Minnesota weather, where I wake up feeling old and by noon I'm 10 again and around 4 I'm 90 and by suppertime I'm 17 and just before bed I seem to have no age at all. This week has been a flurry of old friends returning, old places coming into focus in my memory, the future nagging constantly at me in 50 different ways, and the present which goes from crystal clear to pea-soup fog in a flash. Elijah and I rode our bikes to the lake and he found the perfect boulder to lay on, warm and shaped to fit my back and I lay down, and I could've slept for hours, right then in the clearest moment I've had all week, and he and I were the same age. So I kind of see about the old people, she must've smelled me about 4:00 that day, but I haven't eaten bacon in years.
It's my last week before leaving for Australia and so I'm
going to play for the Harold's KFAI show and the 331 on Wednesday, and
then the Chapel in Northfield on Thursday, Harriet Brewing for the Food
Truck Festival early on Saturday, Ecker's Apple Farm in Trempealeau WI
later on Saturday and Ed's in Winona on Sunday. Then I have to pack and
work on my faith in modern technology.
Mom and I took apart the shed that I’d helped Dad put together nearly 30 years ago. I remembered the aching wrists I had from driving all the sheet metal screws and we agreed that Dad would’ve liked the electric screwdriver we had to take it all apart. We stacked up the pieces in the garage, took old leaky paint cans to the recycling center, got $8 for an old battery, brought up garbage from the basement and Terry and I jumped Mom’s Plymouth and she drove it to the garage on her own. It felt like Dad was there, looking on, griping about my decision to throw away an old coffee can full of bent nails that had rusted into a solid mass, laughing about the decomposing bottom shelf of the bookcase we shouldn’t have put out there in the first place, and I could feel him asking where the hell my shoes are. We are starting over all over again, like we do in the spring (even when it’s so late), like we do each Monday, like we do every morning when we wake up and we are alive and happy to feel the sun on our faces as we walk the dog again. I’d like this year to slow down a little bit, so I could catch my breath, I can’t believe it’s about half gone and there’s so much I want to get to do yet, but I’m grateful for this moment when my world is small but intense and I can see my Dad in my kids and hear him in the voice of my Mom. We’re here again, rehearsing the littlest things because they are the best.
I’m not sure why I unpacked my bag, I’m leaving Duluth in the
morning for Wheaton, MN and the Old Jehovah Hall and then Saturday I’ll
be in Mankato for the Solstice Festival in the afternoon. On Sunday I’m
playing the last show for a bit with Ben Weaver at the Winona Arts
Center, hopefully we’ll be back together again soon, but if you’re
around this is a great place and a great town for a grand finale. On
Monday it’s Madison WI on WPT for the 30 Minute Music Hour which is
live at 5:00, and then back to Duluth for the Chester Creek Summer
Series at 7pm in the hopefully very nice warm and dry evening with the
hula-hoopers and the kids on the swings and blanket picnics and wet
dogs and Brother Dave if he’s not behind the controls of a freight
Who knows what’s real when you’re fifteen? I think I fell in love, but it might have been anything from brain chemicals to the Lord God Almighty. I’d known her for a while, and one time she and her Dad asked me to go along with them to a turtle feed about and hour and a half from Austin and I remember how nervous and excited I was when they picked me up in a Winnebago with an old filing cabinet laying in the aisle. I think that’s where I sat on the way there, and answered her Dad’s questions and tried not to stare at her while she played with the radio and sat crossed-legged in her seat. We finally arrived at a lodge in the woods somewhere and the inside was decorated with turtle shells and had long tables and a lot of people and we ate fried turtle and coleslaw and fruit salad and any flavor Shasta you wanted. There was pie for desert. She and I sat together and talked and then walked around outside and talked and I don’t remember what about or even if I talked at all but I can see her shoes in the pine needles and her hair pushed behind her ear as clear as day. When it was dark her Dad found us and said we’d better go and he handed me the keys and said he needed to lie down. I was fifteen. It was dark, we were 90 miles from home in a 24 foot Winnebago with a broken gas gauge and I hadn’t really been paying attention to how we’d gotten there and never thought I’d have to navigate home. I said I only had a learner’s permit and I’d never driven an RV before. He said I’d be fine and that he was right beside me, in a muffled voice from the bed in the back. But she kind of knew the way, and once I figured out where the key went and she found a good station on the radio we set off. It was like driving a ship, the way it rocked and reeled from side to side and the windows were down and the radio was loud and we had to almost shout at each other and I can’t think of what we said but I was as happy as I’d ever been up to that time and her Dad slept on and about 3 hours later I was disappointed to see the lights of Austin heave into view. When I parked in my driveway her Dad woke up and thanked me and I thanked him and we shook hands and my Dad came outside to say hi and ask if the turtle tasted like chicken, which it had, and suddenly she and her Dad were leaving and I was waving at her. Waving at her when I should have been hugging her. Waving and not kissing, not saying goodbye or can we not say goodbye, waving like a fool when I only wanted to get back in that Winnebago and leave her Dad there and she and I would just go and go and go. But I was fifteen, I wonder why it’s so clear tonight what happened then? My own son will be fifteen in a couple years … I wonder if I’ll remember to tell him that he’ll need to take his joy where and when he finds it?
Anyway, I’m lucky and grateful to still be here right now,
camping in the yard with my kids and packing my stuff for a visit to
Minocqua WI where I get to pick a few tunes with the Rucksack
Revolution and then head for the Nippersink Festival on Friday and
Grand Rapids MN on Saturday for the Forest Jam and then the Catfish
River Music Festival in Stoughton WI (a little zig-zagging, I know) and
next Wednesday I get to reunite with Christian and Dave for a Devil’s
Flying Machine show at the Red Herring in Duluth. Enjoy the sun,
When I was little, I ran away from home. Probably nearly everyone ran away when we were about 6, right? Something just made you snap and you threw some things in a bag and you were gone, outta there, they-won’t-have-Dick-Nixon-to-kick-around-anymore style. Do you wish you still had that bag? Do you remember what you took? I had a little portable record player with a lid and a handle and I stuffed it full of underwear and that was gonna do me, I guess. I remember not getting too far away, it was dark and the bats were out and the corn makes this really creepy sound at night when there’s nothing else to drown it out. It got the best of me and I turned for the warm lights of home. What really ticked me off, though, is that no one apparently realized I was gone. It was a big deal to me, checking out, never gonna see any of you all again, and I expected a big homecoming and some tears and apologizing and some sincere promises of ways that are gonna be changed, but there was none of that. The folks were playing cards, someone glanced up and said “gonna play some records, son?”. Well, I did, but not for them.
It’s a big weekend coming up, I’m running away again,
packing some extra clothes, Boats and Bluegrass in Winona is this
weekend, and I play Thursday with some folks I don’t normally get to
play with. Then Friday it’s the beautiful Orpheum Theatre in Hancock MI
and on Saturday the Richardson Nature Center is throwing a party with
Raptors and music and all kinds of stuff, you can see about it here
https://www.facebook.com/events/1523585931188682/ and stop by if you
In 1987 or thereabouts I stayed in a rooming house behind the Mixed Blood Theatre on the West Bank of Minneapolis where I paid $60 a month for a room and shared bath and kitchen plus an amazing mob of neighbors that included the dude upstairs growing weed in 5 gallon barrels with grow lights and a Dr. Seuss inspired irrigation system that leaked down into my little room and my schedule looked like this: occasionally attend philosophy classes, work sometimes, play guitar every night, Fridays cram myself into the corner by the jukebox in the 400 bar to hear (and kind of see) Willie Murphy play piano, Saturdays drink coffee at the New Riverside while hopefully Pete Rykhus played delta blues or someone who was almost as good, Sundays at the Viking with Spider John Koerner and Thursdays downtown at the Times sitting as close as I could to Dave Ray and Tony Glover without freaking them out too much. I’m honored that Red House asked me to participate in Dave’s legacy show at the MN History Center, I never got to talk to Dave much, I was shy and a little awe-struck, but if I could say something it would be thanks. I don’t know what songs I’ll play at the concert, but the thing I learned from Dave Ray is the best song to play is the one you feel at that moment, the one you want to play, and I'm eternally grateful.
I’m glad to be home now, listening to the Legacy set, amazing
Dave Ray, while I’m trying to clean the basement. So far I’ve replaced
the pedals on my Sting-Ray with some really cool old waffle pedals Judd
gave me in Wichita, I’ve partially disassembled a 12-string Gibson that
I want to rebuild, started a small fire in the yard because it’s chilly
out, made some coffee, played fetch with Reuben, ran away from a minor
toy avalanche and started looking for a broom which brought me upstairs
here to you. Some days I’m a flying kite, some days I’m a sinking stone.
It was fifteen degrees below zero this morning, the only
had time to move my records from the basement into a storage unit
across town. So I warmed the little car up and backed it as far as I
could to the basement door and transferred what felt like brittle
heirloom crystal or a fragile masterpiece by
name-some-important-painter to the back seat of my vulnerable little
car. My record collection is tiny by collectors standards, but each
record means something to me, each record brings it's own special spark
to the table. It's a weird mixture, Doc Watson lives with Bill Orcutt,
and Charley Patton and Lightnin' Hopkins are next to Captain Beefheart
and that Endless Boogie record that John Lee Hooker did that I love so
much. There are friends in there, Phil Cook, Spider John Koerner, Jack
Rose, and there are icons and ciphers (read the same list again).
Anyway, I thought a lot about stuff as I drove across town, driving
almost as slow as I did when we brought our son home from the hospital,
about how I shouldn't be so attached to a few hundred records when
there's a lot of really heavy stuff to be worried about, or how my
cousin once told me I'd be happy to just lock myself away and listen to
music for the rest of my life, and how right she was, how these weren't
just records, and music is so much more than we know, it's a kind of
eternal life, whenever you drop the needle. Or, I suppose, poke that
little thumbs-up sign with your finger. I'm a fool, locking a few moldy
scratched up records away with a padlock, as if they're made of gold …
The Fat Chance Jug Band used to meet down at the Viking Bar
every Wednesday evening. They don’t meet there anymore because the poor
old Viking Bar is closed now, and I do miss it, even though I‘m in a
different town now. Mikkel and I found out they were playing jug band
music down there and made it our business to be there nearly every
Wednesday for a time, soaking it up and sometimes playing a little, but
it was enough for me just to be there, the experience of folk music on
those nights was profound for me, they didn’t play on the stage, you
couldn’t tell who was there to play and who was there to listen,
sometimes you’d find yourself having a conversation with the banjo
player while he was playing and he’d say “excuse me for a sec…” and
he’d throw his break in and then turn back and pick up the conversation
where you left off, playing all the while. It was everything I thought
folk music should be, messy and real and above all available for
everybody in there, player or not, the sound that brings us all along.
That was awhile ago now, and Mikkel and I have been playing together
regular ever since, and I don’t think either one of us has forgotten
the experience of that shared space, of music that includes everybody,
of the feeling of deep deep history that goes along with those songs.
I’ve been lucky in both music and friends, my Dad gave me a big
appreciation of folk music and told me that if I had one good friend
then my life would be as bright as I could hope for. I’ve been blessed
with many friends, but Mikkel’s been among the best of them and I’m
grateful for him. Well, this haitus I’m taking here has been hard for
me, a lot of life changes that as a lazy and easily startled man I’m
not super comfortable with, and I started to pine after a Wednesday
night down at the Viking with Mikkel. We can’t have that, but this
Saturday evening he and I are going to play some old folk songs
together like we always have, at the Dubliner over in St. Paul, and it
won’t be a big deal but I can’t wait to play these old songs again and
here that rattle-trap washboard stomping along with me.
From about the age of thirteen I wanted a National guitar. I
had a record with a picture of Son House holding one on the cover and
I’d never seen anything like and had probably never heard anything like
it either and it would obsess my mind until I had one of my own. Over
the next few years I managed to obtain an older Dobro with a National
style cone, and a very poor copy of a National, but never the real
thing. In about 1989 I was lurking in Willie’s Guitars, staring at the
vintage National they had that I couldn’t afford, and Nate told me the
company was back in business and he pulled a beautiful green guitar out
and let me play it and that was that, I was gonna either own one or
quit trying to play the stupid guitar altogether. A few years later he
sold me one, kindly taking a couple very rough guitars and a handful of
bills and change and probably some washers and Halls cough drops in
trade on a copper colored Delphi that has been a faithful companion
ever since. I got to know Don Young, one of the co-founders of the
revived National Reso-Phonic company, and he became a great friend and
supporter, always patient and kind, and generous with both his amazing
guitars and his talents as a luthier and musician. I’ve had quite a few
National guitars now thanks to Don, he repaired my poor old Delphi many
times and would call me on the phone to play a song on it for me before
he shipped it home, he sat on the phone with me while I was in
Australia with a broken guitar and talked me through the repairs that
I’d need to finish my tour, and his influence on my career and my
approach to the guitar has been huge. I was shocked when Brother Dave
told me that he’d passed, I still am in shock, but also blessed to have
known such a person. Thank you, Don, for your kindness and for your
friendship, and for this incredible guitar.
One of the best times of my entire life was a Fourth of July in the
early eighties when my Dad decided not to go watch the fireworks so I
stayed home with him while everyone else went to the park. He and I
built a little campfire at the edge of the soybean field behind our
house and sat in lawn chairs and talked while the day faded away and
made the fields look like they had no end. He told me stories about his
younger days and we talked about my days and the trouble I'd run into
lately and he was kind and patient about it all and our talking slowly
ebbed away and I felt solid and connected to him and even to my times
which I had come to feel alienated by. When it was fully dusk he
pointed out across the field and I looked and saw faint fireworks on
the horizon and he said "Adams", indicating a small town a ways from
our own, then he pointed a bit to his right where more fireworks were
rising from the field and he said "Rose Creek", and then "Lyle" and
finally back to our left where we could only see the tops of the large
bursts over the trees of the neighbor's yards, "Austin". It got dark,
and we didn't say another word until the fire had died into a few
glowing bits and the family was coming home and then we went inside and
said goodnight. If I could ever cause my children to feel the amount of
peace that I felt with my Dad that night even just once I would be
eternally grateful. So often as a Dad I feel like a raccoon washing a
piece of ice in warm water, wondering just what the hell I'm doing.
On Father's Day I have the pleasure of playing a solo set at the Dakota in Minneapolis, my Dad always told me to try and do what I love, not to let any time go to waste, and I'm privileged and extremely grateful to be able to do just that again today, thanks in no small part to him.