by Jane Roser
There’s an old saying that goes “there are three kinds of men. The ones who learn by reading; the few who learn by observation; the rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
Charming, witty and wise beyond his 21 years, Oklahoma singer/songwriter Parker Millsap fits neatly into the first two categories and continues to make new fans along the way with his brilliant self-titled debut album, released February 4th on Okrahoma Records.
Attending a small high school in Purcell (there were approximately 93 students in his graduating class), Millsap spent a lot of time alone reading books and listening to music, which helped shape and inspire his penchant for writing songs featuring unique narratives. “If it’s done right, you can fit a whole book into a song,” he explains.
Growing up in the Pentecostal church, Millsap spent his childhood listening to music that you wouldn’t normally hear on the radio. “I grew up listening to a lot of gospel music,” Millsap says. “I was just immersed in it and the music wasn’t boring. It was very spiritual and what I call ‘full-bodied music’. My dad and I listened to a lot of old blues music, Lyle Lovett and Ry Cooder. We would get in this little Ford Ranger with our fishing poles and he would put on Ry Cooder’s record, Bommer’s Story. I basically knew by the time I was 13 that this was what I was going to do.”
Spending hours each day listening to songwriters who told stories, Millsap is a natural at telling compelling, sometimes twisted stories that hold your attention and make you either feel the stirrings of a fire and brimstone revival or make you squirm in your seat. “Old Time Religion” is a song about a holier-than-thou Bible thumper who nonchalantly murders his wife, which reminded me of so many stories I read growing up of pastors in the South who preached the gospel Sunday mornings and had blood on their hands by the time the moon waxed that evening.
“When people don’t have a lot to hang onto, they’ll immerse themselves in something to make it better,” Millsap says explaining his observations from living in a small conservative town. “It’s just interesting to me. In my hometown there was a drug bust at a funeral home. They were cooking meth in the embalming room and, to me, a funeral home is a spiritual place, so to think that in the basement they were doing this, well, those kinds [of stories] appeal to me.”
Accompanied by long-time friend Michael Rose on bass (“we’ve been playing together since I was 14, before I could even drive”) and fiddler Daniel Foulks, Millsap recorded his debut album with producer Wes Sharon (John Fulbright, Turnpike Troubadours) in Norman, OK. “We’ve made two previous records with Sharon, so it was a pretty comfortable environment. We had recorded most of the record and were almost done when we decided that it just didn’t sound right, so we started over. It wasn’t the record I wanted to make, so we erased everything except for the bare bones and started again. It was a stressful process, but I’m really proud of the record.”
I read Millsap an iTunes review I had found earlier that day where the reviewer noted, “I don’t buy albums often and never listen to them on repeat. For two days straight I’ve been playing this album constantly. I am a heavy metal fan normally. This has me hooked.” Millsap responded that he makes music to connect with people, “so when music causes people to lose their normal barriers, I mean, that’s just the biggest compliment and makes you feel like [what you do] is not in vein.”
Millsap has been accumulating tons of accolades and fabulous reviews, both for his album and live shows (his song “Truck Stop Gospel” was named one of NPR Music’s 50 Favorite Songs of 2014 (So Far)), but he remains firmly grounded, humble and exuding a charming amount of clarity. When I congratulate him on his Americana Music Association’s nomination for Emerging Artist of the Year and ask what he’s most looking forward to at the awards show September 17th, without a beat he says, “meeting Ry Cooder. He’ll be in the house band at the awards show, so after 15 years of listening to him, I’m finally getting to meet him. That’s what I’m looking forward to,” and adds with a laugh, “I could care less who wins.”
Millsap will be at the Tin Angel September 12th (an appropriately named venue considering his songs cover a lot of religious laced themes) and recalls the last time he played Philly, it was at World Cafe Live opening for Patty Griffin. “There was this older lesbian couple there,” he chuckles, “and one of them got really drunk and very flirty with me and my band mates, who are all guys. Her girlfriend apologized saying ‘I’m sorry, she’s not normally like this’ and the drunk girl said, ‘she’s my girlfriend, ain’t she cute?’ It was adorable and hilarious. I hope they come to our next show.”
Next up, Millsap is touring the U.K. with Old Crow Medicine Show and then will be releasing a music video for “Truck Stop Gospel” the week of the Americana Awards. “When we put out the record, we didn’t have any money left over to make a video, so it’s coming out a little late,” Millsap laughs, “then before Christmas we’ll be releasing a single and a B-side of two tunes that we’ve been playing live for awhile and people have been asking for.”
So take the evening off on September 12th and help spread the gospel of Millsap’s fiery, electric brand of old-time religion because, yeah, it’s good enough for me.