An interview with Parker Millsap, an emerging voice in Americana
Kelly McGarry | Friday, April 1, 2016
I was already looking forward to the Old Crow Medicine Show’s concert at the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend on Friday (look out for our coverage of the event in Monday’s paper), but recently, I discovered a new reason to be excited for the show: an opening performance by Parker Millsap, an emerging folk musician from Oklahoma.
A focus on mature themes and raspy vocals have gained the 23-year-old singer-songwriter a reputation for being “beyond his years.” Yet, in a telephone interview with the Observer from his home in Nashville, Tennessee, Millsap spoke with a youthful, honest-sounding demeanor, as he prepared for South by Southwest.
This is an exciting time for the young musician, as he anticipated the release of his apocalyptic sophomore album “The Very Last Day.” He compared the album to his previous work candidly.
“It’s different. I don’t know if ‘heavier’ is the right word, it sounds so pretentious,” he laughed. “There’s more electric guitar, there’s more percussion. It’s a little more layered than the last record.” His distinctions became clear with the album’s release on March 25.
A humble, laid-back style underlies the album’s production.
“It was just me and my friends hanging out in Louisiana for two weeks,” Millsap said. “We lived in the studio, we ate good food. It was like vacation. We played music all day.” Still, the weighty subjects on the album come across with intensity.
Millsap remembers church as his first outlet for playing music with other people, and later helped him blend influences.
“I was exposed to a lot of blues early on, and then really quickly drew the line between gospel music, like the hymnals that we sang in church, and blues music; there’s something similar about those,” he recalled. The hymnals left their mark on his style of music, but he looks at religious themes with clear eyes. “I was raised in a Pentecostal home. I wouldn’t call it strictly religious. We didn’t have cable TV but that was more of a financial decision than a moral one,” he said, once again with a laugh.
His background fostered a love of folk and Americana, but it also contrasts with his current lifestyle.
“There are things I miss about Oklahoma; Oklahoma moves at a slower pace,” he said. “Nashville — while not Los Angeles or New York City — it is a city. I’m from a town of about 75 hundred [people]. Things move faster [in Nashville] — that takes getting used to. But I also love how green it is here. Plants have an easier time growing here than they do in Oklahoma.” His career has had an easier time growing there, too.
When asked about his recent sources of inspiration, Millsap spoke admirably of Bob Dylan.
“He put out these two records in the 90s that are these old folk songs,” he said. “The story is he recorded them in his garage. He had two records left on his contract and he wanted to get out of the contract, so he just did ‘em in his garage over a few days. But they’re great.” Millsap’s inspiration from this style is evident in his covers of folk songs, such as “You Gotta Move,” on the new record.
The upcoming show at the Morris Performing Arts Center will be another in a string of shows in which Millsap has opened for Old Crow Medicine Show. He previously accompanied the group on their European tour.
“It was our first experience really with a tour manager. We sound kind of high class,” he joked. “Just everything about it. You drive on the wrong side of the road. So much of touring life is about where are the good restaurants and that kind of thing and having a tour manager who can manage that. Also, just being in Europe where it’s a little more diverse as far as food goes. A lot of it’s more healthy, or locally grown at least. The crowds were hilarious.” He shied away from describing the wildest crowds with a “You don’t wanna know.”
In addition to their tours with Old Crow Medicine Show, Millsap and his band have toured the United States playing at many diverse shows.
“I like playing at all different kinds of venues,” he said. “That’s kind of the fun of touring. We played at anything from a weight room to an RV park, but then we’ve also played to 15 thousand people in Jackson Hole Wyoming on the Fourth of July. We’ve done a bunch of weird gigs, I like ‘em all.”
After visiting many different places, Millsap cites his favorite as New Orleans, along with the surprising choice of Missoula, Montana.
“People show up to gigs and they’re pumped about it,” he said.”It’s also kind of a cowboy town, like a Western movie. We pulled up to a gig the last time we played there — it’s like three o’clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday, and these six cowboys come barreling out of this bar [and] the cops wheel around the corner with their lights on. Feels like a Western movie.” The story sounds like it could have come out of one of Millsap’s own songs.
Having supported notable artists of widely varying styles, such as Houndmouth and Patty Griffin, Millsap identified Alabama Shakes as the one band he would love to tour with in the future.
“I love their new record,” he gushed, citing “Gimme All Your Love” and “Gemini” as favorite tracks. In the festival scene, Millsap said that he hopes to perform at Telluride Festival in Colorado, noting his focus toward bluegrass.
At the upcoming show, Millsap will be joined by upright bassist Michael Rose, who he has played with since they were in junior high, and fiddle player Daniel Foulks. Playing a mix of old and new tracks, the trio hopes to win over the Old Crow Medicine Show crowd, and, as Millsap joked, “steal their business.”