With his release of Other Arrangements last year, Oklahoma native Parker Millsap seems to have purged himself of the religious guilt that comes with having been raised in a Pentecostal household. He went electric and allowed himself to have fun. “I just wanted to write songs that are really fun to play live, and on that front I think I’ve succeeded. I’ve been having a blast playing these songs live! Sometimes you just don’t want to sing about sad or heavy shit all night.”
This doesn’t mean that the songwriter has left behind his acoustic guitar or powerfully worded storytelling style; instead he is finding his place in both realms of songs. “There’s something powerful about a balance of those things. Honestly, happy or positive songs are more of a challenge to write, I like that challenge.” He explains, “Really great gospel songs are the ones that are sad. Tearjerkers like "The Old Rugged Cross", when I hear that song I cry. Then there are songs like "I Fly Away", that are joyful, and they are just as powerful so I’ve been trying to explore that.”
Millsap has been playing music since he was a kid, and in addition to his Pentecostal roots, was raised on a steady diet of blues and Texas singer songwriters. “You put on a blues record from before 1970 and I’m gonna be dancing!” His parents supported his interest in music while he was growing up in Prucell, Oklahoma and even helped him convert their garage into a rehearsal space. Millsap remembers, “At a certain point I realized that sports were not my thing and I had lots of free time to play music and to get into what I wanted to get into.”
Being raised inside the church, Millsap began to cut his teeth during services. “We did go to church Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. A lot of my formative musical experience has happened at those church services. As soon as I could play four or five chords and figure out how to operate a capo, they put me down front and let me play along to the songs. I learned how to make music with people and I learned about the spiritual power of music from steady exposure to that.”
Millsap continued to play any chance he got all around his hometown at pizza joints, backyard parties, and county fairs with his longtime friend and bassist Michael Rose. “I got thick skin. Those are the places that were available to play and make at least 200 bucks and split it between two guys.”
Now when Millsap returns to his home state he plays for much larger audiences, “Last time we played we did the Sooner Theater. We did two nights, which is awesome. If I could do that everywhere I’d probably live in a bigger house.” he laughs.
Millsap has always garnered attention for his deep, gritty voice juxtaposed with his young age and baby face. “I’ve always been the age that I am at that moment. I never understood why that was a big deal.” When discussing his vocal style he says, “I listened to a lot of blues music growing up and I’ve always been attracted to voices that were distinctly their own. Part of that is growing up in church, I mean everybody is singing, whether you can sing or not, so you hear people with really unique voices just singing their hearts out. I love that, I love it.”
Millsap describes his approach to songwriting: “The main thing is showing up and being ready for it. I’ve learned to keep a little notepad and pen on me most of the time or at least nearby. It doesn’t take that much space to write a song.”
His songs often contain language reminiscent of fables and old English, “Sometimes that’s just cause I need a rhyme.” jokes the artist. He continues, “There is something about more ancient language that’s compelling. We seem kinda hard wired for it, maybe I’m just hard wired for it because I was raised in a church.”
Millsap will be opening up for Norah Jones later on in this tour as well as playing the famous Newport Folk Festival. When asked what he takes away from a milestone moment like meeting a musical hero Millsap says, “I just try to be grateful and take it for what it is. When you meet these people, get to play with these people or get to peek into their world its kinda surreal but the main thing I’ve taken away is that they are people too.”
He describes what stuck him most about meeting larger than life legend Elton John, “What’s always inspiring for me is how pumped he is about music still. He’s been playing music for his entire life and still he’s always listening to new music, finding new music that he likes, collecting records and putting out new music. It’s still what he loves to do and that’s inspiring to me, that you can be a pop star for 40 plus years straight and still have a genuine interest and love and respect for the craft.”
Millsap left Oklahoma to live in the music-centered city of Nashville, “I like Nashville. It took me a minute to get up to speed but I’m starting to figure it out. There’s a whole lot of the music business here, which I’m finding the more I learn about it the less I’m interested in it.” He explains, “I just want to play music, you have to run a business to do that, but there’s a lot of shenaniganry involved that I’ve become privy to.”
The artist understands the importance and power of having knowledge related to the music business side of his career. He is currently with 30 Tigers, a Nashville based Entertainment Company, and appreciates the level of support they provide. “This is my third record that I’ve put out with them helping me find publicity and distribution. When I talk to my friends who are in regular record deals, I just have so much more control over my life.”
“The fact that I get to make a living, pay my bills, feed my dog and buy a box of wine for my girlfriend, that’s the best.” he chuckles.
Millsap is looking forward to visiting Houston again and rejoining his band for the tour, “I’m pretty excited to get to play with my dudes again its been a few months since I’ve gotten to play with a full band and I’m kinda itching.” He continues, “The reason I love Houston is because Lighting Hopkins is from there so every time we pull up to Houston I pull up a Lighting record.”
Parker Millsap will be performing with Anthony Da Costa, May 4 at the Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th, doors at 7 p.m. $28-41.