A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Parker Millsap makes himself heard
The young Oklahoma singer-songwriter is earning attention with his self-titled national debut album, released Tuesday on his own Okrahoma Records with distribution through Thirty Tigers.
Ask Parker Millsap and his cohorts to get out their instruments – even if it’s just to sit for a photograph – and the next thing you know, they’re liable to be playing and singing and even working up a cover of the old folk song the “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 enough acclaim he’s just gotta figure out the opportunities he wants to do.
Even before it dropped Tuesday on his own Okrahoma Records (with distribution through Thirty Tigers), the Purcell native and his self-titled national debut album already 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.”
He may be young, but 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 guitarist and harmonica, and Rose have been making music together since they were in high school and 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 part 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.” It was definitely a different experience than ‘Palisade.’
“I think the way we recorded it is a little more accessible … to a wider audience.”
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 was raised Pentecostal, which is interesting. … There’s a lot of guilt that can be involved with it, and it’s not necessarily the fault of anybody but myself. It’s capable of putting really high expectations on you like for yourself, and that’s kind of hard to deal with when you’re 11 years old or whatever. So I think it’s kind of caught up with me a little bit on this record,” Millsap said.
“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. … I mean, Travis Linville is a big influence on me; I mean, the fingerpicking thing, I took lessons from him. And then guys like the Red Dirt Rangers and Gene Collier and all those guys have been very helpful. It’s great to be able to sit in a circle with a bunch of guys who all write really good songs and just play one after the other and it’s like ‘Oh, God, I gotta write something that good.’ They definitely pushed me, like my boundaries, of like, ‘No, you can write another song.’ 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 Patti Griffin on tour.
From the look of his schedule and the sound of his music, Millsap isn’t about to hesitate.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: The Blue Door, 2805 N McKinley.
Tickets: Sold out.
Information: 524-0738 or www.bluedoorokc.com.
When: 10 p.m. Feb. 16.
Where: Vanguard Music Hall, 222 N Main, Tulsa.
With: John Moreland.
When: 7 to 9 p.m. every Tuesday.
Where: The Deli, 309 White St., Norman.