Ask Parker Millsap and his cohorts to get out their instruments — even if it's just for a photograph — and the next thing you know, they're liable to be playing and singing and even working up a cover of an old folk song like “Hesitation Blues.”
“Well, if the river was whiskey, and I was a duck/ You know I'd dive down to the bottom/ Lord, and never come up/ Tell me how long do I have to wait?/ Can I get you now, Lord, must I hesitate?” Millsap croons in his astonishingly mature voice while his close-knit bandmates, bassist Michael Rose and fiddler Daniel Foulks, play along.
“There's like a million verses to it. I just gotta figure out the ones I want to do,” Millsap says.
Millsap may not yet be old enough to drink at many of the establishments he plays — he'll turn 21 on Feb. 26 — but the Oklahoma singer-songwriter already has earned sizable acclaim. Even before his self-titled national debut album dropped Tuesday on his own Okrahoma Records (with distribution through Thirty Tigers), the Purcell native had been featured on CMT, American Songwriter and PopMatters.com. But the Guthrie resident seems determined not to let the early attention go to his head.
“It's just like this,” Millsap said with a laugh during a chat in the OPUBCO video studios. “For the CMT thing, it was like we just showed up, and they were like, ‘Oh, come back here, and we're gonna shoot a little video and see you later.' I mean, it feels good. But I don't know, I don't feel like it's changing me or anything. It's just nice to be recognized.”
Millsap started singing in church when he was about 4 years old, and he's been writing seriously for about four years. Millsap, who plays guitar and harmonica, and Rose have been making music together since they were in high school. They released their stripped-down first album “Palisade” locally two years ago.
Although he again worked with producer West Sharon at 115 Recording in Norman, Millsap said crafting his eponymous new album was a more complicated undertaking.
“It was a lot harder. With ‘Palisade,' you know, we went in, and it was just me and Mike, and we tracked it in, I think, 17 hours. It was just guitar, bass and vocal, essentially. And then within like two or three months, we had it out in the world,” Millsap said.
“This one took about two weeks to record. We had a whole lot of other musicians come in, and we had horn parts and string parts that we had to arrange. We recorded basically the whole record in a week and then we decided we didn't really like it. So we kind of scrapped about 75 percent of it and started over and spent another week rebuilding it. So that was a lot harder.”
Listeners can hear the influence of his Pentecostal upbringing in the 10 new tracks Millsap penned, including the single “Truck Stop Gospel,” about a Bible-selling trucker attempting to cast demons out of a parking lot prostitute.
“I think the whole experience of, like, growing up in church ... has a lot to do with this record and a lot to do with how I make music in general. Because in church, the music is very much from, like, here,” he added, indicating his gut. “A lot of the lyrics are beautiful in church music, but when you're singing church music, you're like singing from somewhere else. You're not singing from your head, and I think that has a lot to do with what I do.”
His other musical influences range from the blues and Motown to Texas storytellers like Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett. But his sound definitely sprouted from Oklahoma red dirt.
“I'm proud of this place, and I definitely think it's hard to escape where you're from when you're making art,” he said.
“A lot of, like, Oklahoma red dirt I didn't really even know existed until I started playing music, and then all those guys kind of took me under their wing, and they've been extremely positive influences. … And then I really look up to guys like John Fullbright and John Moreland, who are the next up-and-comers from this area.”
He probably should add himself to the list: Millsap accompanied Fullbright on a West Coast trek last March, and he started 2014 with the “surreal” experience of opening for Old Crow Medicine Show's sold-out New Year's Eve show at Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium.
His Oklahoma City album release show Saturday at the Blue Door is sold out, and Moreland will join Millsap for the Tulsa drop party Feb. 16 at Vanguard Music Hall.
Millsap and his bandmates have a standing Tuesday night gig at The Deli in Norman, but they will be missing a few of those shows in April when they open for promising duo Shovels & Rope and again in June when they join folk icon Patty Griffin on tour.
From the look of his schedule and the sound of his music, Millsap isn't about to hesitate.
A lot of the lyrics are beautiful in church music, but when you're singing church music, you're like singing from somewhere else. You're not singing from your head, and I think that has a lot to do with what I do.”