A grounded Anders Parker remains on the road.

Key to the Highway 

A grounded Anders Parker remains on the road.

It's Tuesday, September 11. Outside Flagstaff, Arizona, just before noon PDT, Anders Parker is watching a dog cross the street and head toward him. "There's a really cute puppy coming over here," he says. Parker, who records under the band name Varnaline (rhymes with "gasoline"), doesn't write warm, fuzzy, puppyish songs. Like his current tourmate, the intense song-poet Richard Buckner, Parker makes music that could make Neil Young cry. His new disc, Songs in a Northern Key, climaxes with a churning waltz ("Difference") that asks What difference could it make? But it's Tuesday, September 11, and, removed three time zones from the day's devastation and with little human contact, a puppy is the closest to normal that Parker's going to get, a sight that makes a difference.

"I couldn't sleep last night at all," Parker says. He and Buckner had finished their concert, each playing a one-man set. Parker did what most musicians do when left alone after a show: He waited for sleep in the accommodating glow of a television. "I was still awake after four," Parker recalls. "I must have fallen asleep only a little before it happened.

"A friend of mine called and left a message on my cell phone," Parker says. "Honestly, we're just absorbing it right now. Like everybody, we're in a state of shock. It changes your perspective on everything. We're supposed to play New York and the Northeast in a week and a half. I don't know what's going to happen."

If, like the work of most musicians in the wake of last Tuesday's terrorist attack, Parker's music hangs in entertainment limbo, it won't be because his songs are inappropriately cheery or political. Varnaline's new disc, issued on Steve Earle's E-Squared label July 31 to warm reviews, is the kind of resonant, deep-blue recording that sounds equally at home in an old bar with wooden plank floors or a lonely dorm room. Think side two of R.E.M.'s rainy 1985 disc Fables of the Reconstruction, minus some of that band's quirks. Singing like a less-stoic Jay Farrar (with whom Parker will release a split vinyl single next month) and playing most of the instruments himself, Parker blurs the lines between solo act and bandleader, Americana act and sad singer-songwriter.

"Initially, I used the name Varnaline for two reasons," Parker says. "I wanted to have a band, and in my mind there was a band even if there wasn't a band. And second, I didn't want it to be just my name, just this singer-songwriter name." At one time, the band included two other musicians. Jud Ehrbar, a member of the late alt-prog group Space Needle, recruited Parker for that outfit's second disc after contributing to Varnaline's sophomore album. When Ehrbar took a break from music (he drums on two of Northern Key's tracks and is back in business himself under the name Reservoir), Parker again recorded alone. "For the next record, I'll have people come back in and play. I'll pick and choose musicians for certain songs."

Those musicians will likely be from Raleigh, North Carolina, where Parker has lived the last few years. "Sometimes I want to write for the specific group I'm playing with," he says. "I've been playing with new guys in Raleigh recently, writing things. I'm not sure what form this bunch of new songs will take or who will play on them."

Neither is Parker certain where he'll record the follow-up to Northern Key now that he has Earle's official support. (E-Squared has the option to pick up Varnaline's next disc.) The two have been acquainted since a girlfriend of Earle's who'd heard an advance of the first Varnaline disc introduced them in 1997 on a Lollapalooza date. "He's always expressed interest in doing something," Parker says. "I gave him a copy of the working mixes for this disc and he asked me to come down [to Nashville] and remix them at his studio."

Though Parker says he wasn't surprised when time ran out at his now-defunct former label, Zero Hour, he's relieved at his arrangement with Earle and that he retained ownership of his previous recordings' masters. (Copies of previous Varnaline albums are scarce -- and worth finding.)

It was Parker's "complicated and messy life" that led him from upstate New York to Brooklyn to Portland, Oregon, to Raleigh. He feels settled there now, but admits, "There's a lot of places I'd love to live." Not your typical rocker, he names Tucson, Arizona, which he and Buckner just passed, as a city he'd consider calling home. "I don't feel like a community has an effect on my writing," Parker says. "I knew there was a scene in Raleigh, but I didn't move there for it or know much about it. In some ways, I wanted to avoid the music scene. But even if I lived in the middle of nowhere, I'd be exploring and listening to different things."

Today, riding through the middle of nowhere, Parker knows he's listening to the same thing as everyone else.

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