Parker Millsap Moves From Small Town To Big Time

Jan 8, 2019

Now in his mid-20s, Oklahoma native Parker Millsap has four albums to his credit, including the acclaimed 2016 release, The Very Last Day, and his latest, Other Arrangements. Blending elements of traditional American songwriting with soul, gospel and garage rock, Millsap's music remains incredibly cohesive despite the disparate styles he draws from.

Raised in Purcell, Oklahoma, Millsap has become one of the brightest stars in the fertile Oklahoma music scene, alongside John Fullbright, Turnpike Troubadours, John Moreland, Samantha Crain and others.

Millsap performs at Wave on Wednesday, Jan. 9, with Justin Logan.

Interview Highlights

Tell me a little bit about how this record, Other Arrangements, differed from the ones that you'd done before.

A lot of the songs were more based around the guitar. On previous records, I wrote the songs on the guitar, but I was more focused on telling a story, specifically. A lot of the ideas started as musical guitar ideas rather than an idea for a character or a chorus. [Laughs.]

The record never does the expected things. If there's a soul song, it never develops in the way one might typically expect a soul song to. Were you conscious of that in the writing process?

Maybe a little bit, but a lot of that stuff actually happens when you go to record the song. I record with my dudes that I've recorded with for a long time, have been playing with for a long time. They kind of know what I like to hear, and they also have great taste. They lean away from … like you were saying, if it's a soul song, we all would probably shy away from [saying], "Let's put horns on it! And B3 organ!" We're more, like, "Let's fill that space with guitar and violin."

You're from Purcell, Oklahoma. Tell me a little bit about growing up there and starting to make music there because that maybe would not be the first place somebody would think of as a hotbed for music in Oklahoma.

[Laughs.] It's really not! It's a small town. You're in Wichita. Any town 30 minutes outside of Wichita probably feels about like Purcell does, 30 minutes outside of Oklahoma City. There wasn't a lot to do unless you played sports. After a certain point, I realized that that wasn't my bag. So, I had lots of free time to play guitar, and I just happened to find another kindred spirit in high school named Mike Rose, who still plays with me today. We've been playing together for over 10 years now. Really, me and him started gigging as much as we could as high schoolers. I started writing more and more songs; we tried to book more and more shows. We've grown at a pretty steady pace since I was about 19 or so.

Where were some of the first places that you started playing? Did you do a lot of Norman and Stillwater shows?

Yeah, but most of my first musical experiences were actually in church. I grew up in a Pentecostal church, so Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night I was hearing gospel music. As soon as I could play four chords and work a capo, they let me go down front and play along with the other guitar players in church. Most of my musical experience, prior to age 14, was in church.

Was there ever any sort of family conflict over leaving the church and going to play in bars?

Not really at all. My parents are really supportive. They're big music fans. They don't only listen to Christian music [laughs] by any stretch of the imagination. They have a wide variety of tastes, and my whole childhood they were feeding me really cool records. Looking back now, I just thought, "Well, these are the records that people listen to." But, looking back, not many 6-year-olds got to listen to Ry Cooder or John Lee Hooker! [Laughs.]

We were talking a little bit about the early days of gigging. As that was happening, were you aware of people like Turnpike Troubadours, John Moreland, people who were also coming out of the state? Did you cross paths with those people a lot?

Absolutely. Oklahoma is kind of a small scene. Everybody knows each other. All the weirdos found each other. [Laughs.] I was aware of [John] Fullbright, Moreland, the Troubadours, Travis Linville, Samantha Crain, JD McPherson. For me, that was a big … "this is possible" [moment]. Once I met people who were playing music and didn't have to work at driving a forklift or something on top of that, those folks helped me realize that it's possible to make a living doing this and to be a musician from Oklahoma. [Laughs.] Because I didn't really know any growing up.

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.