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Charlie Parr uses injury to reassess and record

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A man with glasses stands in front of a bookshelf.
Guitarist Charlie Parr at the Historic Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, Minn. on Sept. 20, 2019. Parr is about to launch a national tour in support of his new album "Charlie Parr."
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Duluth guitarist Charlie Parr has had a tough couple of years. A freak accident injured him so badly it almost ended his career. But now he's back with a new recording, a new tour — and a new understanding of the music he plays.

Charlie Parr said he skateboarded as a kid, just around town. He's in his 50s now but when his pre-teen daughter asked if he wanted to go skateboarding, he did.

"Grabbed any skateboard and away we went," he said. "Forty-five minutes later I was lying on the Lakewalk waiting for the ambulance to come."

It was bad. Really bad.

"And I have fallen down a bunch," he said. "But this time I fell and landed on the top of my shoulder, and just destroyed it."

Parr has no problem listing the gruesome details, including the possibility one of the bones was so badly damaged it would have to be replaced entirely. As a guitar player, Parr wryly said the diagnosis was “not ideal.”

"The surgeon, after he found out what I did for a living, said, 'Oooh, I can't imagine you doing this again for at least three to six months but that is optimistic.' And he said 'I would say six months to a year to 18 months is much more realistic for an injury like this.'"

Parr freaked out. It wasn’t that he'd have to find another job. He could see himself doing other things. What worried him was simply the possibility he'd lose his ability just to play guitar.

"I thought, ‘When's the last day of my life that I did not play the guitar?’ And I couldn't remember it. And that, of course, led to the whole problem of ‘What else do I have? What if I can never do it again?’ And just a bunch of terrible things crossed my mind, including suicide."

Parr has long struggled with clinical depression. His last album "Dog" confronted the issue full on.

But when he came round after five hours of surgery, he found he could lay his guitar flat on his lap, pick with one hand and use a metal slide to fret the notes with the other. It was a huge relief.

On a recent morning Charlie Parr looked great. He's still working on getting full range of motion in his shoulder.

But fresh off a European tour, he was resting up for a U.S. tour beginning Friday at the Winona Boats and Bluegrass Festival.

Sitting in the amusement room in the basement of the historic Glensheen mansion in Duluth, he points to where he's performed in recent years.

A man with glasses stands in front of a gold mirror and side table
Guitarist Charlie Parr worried he might never play again after badly injuring his shoulder. However after a spectacular recovery from surgery he was performing just seven weeks later.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"I play right in front of the fireplace here without any plugs or wires or speakers, and people sit in chairs around you and you just play. And it's brilliant."

Parr played his first gig just seven weeks after surgery. He says now the surgeon was right when he said it was two weeks too early. The first few concerts were very painful. But he did his physical therapy and he kept practicing. He also listened to music — all day every day.

"And I listened to music I hadn't listened to since I was a kid, and just thought about it," he said.

Especially the songs in his set, and what he might play in an upcoming recording session. 

The original idea was to play in front of a small audience at the Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minn. Parr says he was inspired by the final Koerner Ray & Glover album “One Foot in the Groove,” which was recorded that way. The live idea didn’t pan out, but he still had the studio time.

A pencil drawing of a man with a guitar.
Cover art for "Charlie Parr" the self-titled album by the Duluth guitarist.
Image courtesy Red House Records

The resulting self-titled album, "Charlie Parr," features 11 tunes he and friends recorded in one day. They include his own songs such as "Cheap Wine" and "Love is an unraveling birds nest." There are also covers such as Willie Murphy and Spider John Koerner’s "Running Jumping Standing Still" and Grant Hart's "Twenty-Five Forty-One."

Parr had recorded some of these songs before, but said they are all songs he's still exploring. He describes the process of performing them as akin to rewriting them in a way, and as he puts it, they “still have something to be wrung out of them.”

He's feeling revitalized and excited about plans for doing that live album, more collaborations, the tour running through Christmas and then his now-annual residency at the Turf Club in St Paul in the new year.

"I'm just taking it a day at a time," he said. "And who knows, my daughter might ask me to go skateboarding again later and it will all be over with," he chuckled.