Twenty-year-old Parker Millsap is the latest in a string of surprisingly bluesy, literary songwriters rising from the small towns of Oklahoma. Despite his youth, Millsap’s insight into the characters that populate his songs is fierce. Whether he’s singing about deeply troubling heartbreak in “The Villain” or the desperate evangelism of a street preacher in “Truck Stop Gospel”, Millsap’s songs seem to understand things about the world that belie his two-decades of life thus far.
Then again, his heroes include giants like Tom Waits and John Steinbeck – no slouches in the world of storytelling and unpacking the motivation of heavily-nuanced characters. Speaking of good company, he has plans in the works to tour with Shovels + Rope this spring, and is working out some dates with Patty Griffin for the summer. Chances are you’ll hear a lot more about him as the year goes on. His first nationally distributed disc dropped Feb. 4, and recently he was nice enough to hop on the phone with me and talk a little about the source from which it all springs.
Kim Ruehl: I’m curious about the art inside of the CD – the trucker with the Bible. It follows along with one of the songs, but is that a central image to you, for this album?
Parker Millsap: The artist who did all the artwork is named Tessa Raven, she’s from Oklahoma. I basically asked her to do a picture for the album cover. When she did that, I was like wow we should just get her to do all the art. She came up with it on her own. I had an idea for a picture of a guy leaning out of the truck with the bible. I [told her to] do whatever she wanted with that idea and that’s what she came up with. I was very pleased. I don’t know if that’s a central idea, but I think it’s one of the stronger songs on the record and that makes it interesting to look at.
KR: It’s one of my favorite songs on the record. It’s difficult to tell if you’re sympathizing with the truck stop gospel guy, or if it’s a satire. Do you want to say where you sit on that?
PM: I let people think what they want. People are going to interpret it how they want to anyway. It’s fun for me to let them take it. I’m real big on perspective. A lot of the songs on the record are first-person narratives but not from my perspective. I had to get in their heads and be [the characters] to write the song. When I was writing that song, it started out as kind of a funny idea. But … there are many things about him that at first I didn’t think I’d be able to relate to, but by the end of the song I realized there’s a lot I could relate to about that guy. It’s up to people to decide what they think I mean by it. I’ve had people come up to me after the show and say “I’m glad you’re poking fun at the religious establishment with that song.” Other people say, “Praise the Lord! Thanks for doing the Lord’s work.” [laughs] I like that people interpret it in different ways. I’m never going to say if it’s one way or another.
KR: You’re a young guy but you have all these insightful songs. What did you grow up listening to and what kind of books and music are you into these days that have given you this sense of storytelling?
PM: When I was growing up, I listened to a whole lot of church music, a lot of gospel music. That was at church and then at home, my dad’s a big blues music fan so I listened to a lot of blues and a lot of songwriters like Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett. Then there was this one John Hiatt record that I listened to a lot called Bring the Family. That record and then a bunch of Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Ry Cooder, and that sort of thing is what I grew up listening to. Then when I got older and started writing songs, I discovered Townes Van Zandt and John Prine. I’m also a big Springsteen and Waits fan, so it’s kind of all over the map. I think the thread through all of those is solid songs that paint a picture. As far as books go, I’m a big Steinbeck fan and a big Vonnegut fan. Those are my favorite authors.
KR: That makes sense. The last few years, we’ve been hearing great stuff, between you and John Fullbright, Samantha Crain, JD McPherson… there seems to be this big Oklahoma boom going on. Do you have any thoughts on why?
PM: There’s nothing else to do here. [laughs] Most small towns don’t even have a bowling alley. You’ve got to find something else to do. Some kids get someone to buy them some Keystone, then they drive around in a field and get drunk. Others sit around and write songs.
KR: What were you listening to when you wrote this record?
PM: A lot of Tom Waits. I don’t remember what else I was listening to. I’m always listening to a lot of Tom Waits, so I can say that in confidence. I was also just starting to get into Motown. You can hear it in [some parts] that sound like Motown to me. So I guess Tom Waits and Motown, which might not make sense because it doesn’t’ necessarily sound like either of those things, but that’s what I’ve been listening to.
KR: Is being on the road inspiring, or do you find it stifling? Do you have time to write when you’re traveling?
PM: I’m still new to trying to balance touring and writing and that sort of thing. I haven’t written a whole lot since we recorded this record because I’ve basically been self-managing and this is our first national record release. I’ve had the whole business side of things to do, which is good because I’m learning how it all works. I can protect myself now. I know what to look for, but at the same time it’s consuming a lot of my time and energy. I do like being on the road for finding characters. I’ve never successfully written on the road, but I definitely collect ideas and fragments of ideas.
KR: Is there anything else you’d like folks to know about you or this record?
PM: Buy it. Buy the record so I can eat a hamburger tomorrow.