With a brilliant new album just out, the Okie from Purcell—thought we’d say “Muskogee,” didn’t ya?—is proving that all that critical acclaim for his debut breakout wasn’t a fluke.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Parker Millsap is only in his early 20s, but listening to his music, you’d swear he was a peer of John Prine or Woody Guthrie or hell, even Mississippi John Hurt with access to better recording equipment. There is a timelessness to his records that so few can claim nowadays.
His self-titled debut was a fantastic introduction for the Oklahoma native, an album brimming with stories of old time religion, redemption and confliction, passing through the genres of Blues, Americana and Folk. His latest, The Very Last Days, still carries over a few of those themes (growing up Pentecostal, those ideas are hard to shake), but it’s a far broader record musically paying off on the promises of greatness that were hinted at with his first one.
The subject matter on The Very Last Days strums some strong emotional chords, from “Heaven Sent,” about a gay son trying to get acceptance from his religious father, to “Hands Up,” a fast tempo track told from the point of view of a criminal.
Millsap, packing for yet another trip to South By Southwest, spoke with Blurt recently about the influences that shaped his music, recording in a studio that may or may not have been haunted and finally getting to quit his day job before he was old enough to legally drink.
BLURT: When you were pulling together this album, you guys recorded in Louisiana. You’re live in Nashville now with access to some pretty fantastic studios. Why go all the way to Louisiana?
MILLSAP: I was living in Oklahoma at the time and Gary (Paczosa) was in Tennessee and we had the budget to go and spend a little time in a nice commercial studio, which was a nice change. So he sent me a few links and I chose the one that seemed the vibe-iest from the pictures on the website. It was spooky down there. It was great and it happened to be between Oklahoma and Tennessee, so it was equal driving distance for all of us.
What do you mean spooky? Just the vibe of the place?
Yeah, yeah, it was just spooky. My bass player is just a little more attuned to that kind of thing and he was kind of spooked, so that made me spooked. But it was a good thing, kind of exciting.
So going into this album, you had mentioned having a little more money to record with. What else was different this time around?
It didn’t have a whole lot to do with money, but the difference was working with Gary (John Prine, Dierks Bentley, etc.). We recorded “You Gotta Move” prior to the rest of the record, to work with him for a day and that worked out really well, so we we’re already comfortable and we knew each other and how we worked before we got into the studio (to record the rest of the album). It was very low pressure. The songs were already written and we had already rehearsed them for about a month leading into the recording, so it was really easy.
“You Gotta Move” is obviously a cover. A very cool song, but not one many people know or have covered before. What was it about that song that made you want to take a stab at it?
Well, we’ve been doing it live for a while and people always ask “where can we buy this song?” They were watching You Tube versions recorded from an iPhone, so there was a financial incentive to record that song and also it seemed to fit the theme of the record.
This record sounds a lot more expansive compared to the first – there’s a lot more instruments, the sound is bigger. Was that a conscious decision?
I think so. With the way the songs were written, they lend themselves to that – the big choruses – they lend themselves to that. And also Gary is really good at making acoustic instruments blast out of the speakers and sound huge. Which is not an easy thing to do if you’ve ever tried to make an acoustic guitar sound big. And also having a drummer who added a lot to the record. It covers a lot of space.
Is it pretty easy for you to write on the road when you’re touring or do you have to really make an effort to set aside time to work on new songs?
It kind of depends. Sometimes they just happen and you think “this is really easy” and other times you’ve got a draft with you for two months just trying to get it right. I wish I had a more consistent work ethic when it comes to that, but it just happens; it’s not necessarily a whole process for me.
I know a lot of your band members have been with you for a long time. How do you go about writing songs and the music that goes underneath it? Do you usually bring in the lyrics and you guys work it out together?
I write the melody and the lyrics… and I bring it to the band and I sometimes have an idea of the tempo or the grove and we just play through it and if they have ideas it’s just “hell yeah.” That’s what we’re here for. They make up their own parts and I really like that. It’s very much a band situation when we’re recording and when we’re on the road.
Are there any songs in particular you really like off of The Very Last Day?
I like playing “Morning Blues.” It’s probably my favorite song to play live, just because it feel like a rock and roll song.
The first album was kind of a slow build. It took a while for critics and writers to pick up on it but you ultimately got a lot of really positive attention for it. Were you nervous at all going into this record knowing that people would be paying attention once it came out?
Not really. You try not to pay attention to that. I’m aware of it, but I take comfort in the fact that the news cycle is really short. If you do something and no one likes it, nobody’s going to remember tomorrow anyways.
You and John Fullbright (another Oklahoma native) both have a sound that is pretty timeless – it could have come out when John Prine first started recording or, well, now. What did you grow up listening to?
A lot of Gospel music. And a lot of Blues and pre-Rock-influenced music, if that makes sense. Stuff like Taj Mahal, Howlin’ Wolf and songwriters like John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, John Prine, I could just list a billion people. Old Blues cats for sure. Mississippi John Hurt is my spirit animal. When I first started playing guitar, he’s what really got me into it and from there I got into folk and songwriting.
Is there anything you listen to now that would surprise people?
Right before you called I was listening to the new Kendrick Lamar album. I’m an omnivore.
Obviously a lot has happened to you since the last record came out. Any highlights of the last couple of years that really stand out?
I’m just really amazed that I’m able to survive just doing my kind of music. I’m grateful for that. Most of my heroes are dead so I’m not going to meet them.
Do you remember the moment when you were finally able to focus on this full time and quit whatever day job you had?
Yeah, I was 19, 20 and my bass player started playing a lot of house concerts. He hooked up with the Folk Alliance and through some of their conferences – it’s sort of like South By Southwest but it takes place in a hotel and you might see a polka band in a hotel room or a singer songwriter in a hotel room – but we got into that scene and we were doing that for a few years. It’s a blast.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been telling everyone I hope this record brings world peace. I’m optimistic about it.
Well, you must be if you’ve been following the presidential campaign.
(Laughs) It’s exciting, right? It’s like watching a movie. It’s hairy out there. I watch it, but I try and treat it like I’m watching a movie.
It’s got to be great fodder for new songs though, right?
I don’t know. It seems a little too easy.
I guess you’re right. Save it for the punk rockers.