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Don't try labeling Parker Millsap

By Dan MacIntosh, July 2014

If you move in alt.-country/Americana circles, you simply cannot get away from the name Parker Millsap. He's certainly one of the biggest buzz artists of 2014. Better still, his self-titled album lives up to all the hype.

He's a smart songwriter and a passionate singer and is essential listening for anybody looking for high quality contemporary music.

Millsap also creates music appealing to a wide variety of musical tastes. You can make a case that he's a country guy, but you can also hear a lot of blues and folk. And if you attempt to put a label on him, he'll quickly tear it right off.

"When people ask what kind of music I play, I always tell ‘em pop music," he explains, "which not everybody agrees with. But if it's not classical, orchestral or movie music, it's pop music. I'm drawing from a bunch of different places. If you wanna call it folk, that's fine. But as soon as you do that, I'm going to prove to you that I can also play rock and roll. I don't really care what it's called."

Parker Millsap sings "Truck Stop Country" at WAMU in Washington

When pressed to name his songwriting influences, two eclectic artists come immediately to mind. "Tom Waits is up there because he just paints really great pictures," he says. "He paints great pictures that tell really great stories. And Bruce Springsteen because when I listen to Bruce Springsteen I feel, like, a kindred spirit thing. I feel like he understands people in a big way."

Millsap also looks up to some songwriters that may surprise you.

"Also Smokey Robinson," he adds. "For a while I turned my nose up at anything that was even remotely accessible, but now I'm a big fan of Motown and Smokey Robinson and all the stuff that he did. And if you break those songs down, you can cover most Motown songs with just an acoustic guitar and one voice, and it's still gonna stand on its own. It doesn't need the Motown production in order to be a good song. I think that's a testament to Smokey Robinson's songwriting and that whole crew of songwriters."

Millsap feels he's connected to country music more by his stylistic similarities to it, rather than any enthusiastic passion for the genre. "I'm from Oklahoma, and I play acoustic guitar," he says, "but I didn't really grow up listening to a lot of country music, and I don't now listen to a lot of country music. But I feel like the places where country music came from, I kind of come from that same place; kind of rooted in the blues format and the folk format."

"I like Sturgill Simpson," he continues, "and I like a lot of older country music, like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and Willie – things like that. I don't listen to a whole lot of modern country, but I do like ‘People Are Crazy' by Billy Currington. I like that song."

In a few places on the new album, Millsap draws from familiar stories in order to create wholly new tales. This happens with "Quite Contrary," which incorporates nursery rhymes, and on "At the Bar (Emerald City Blues)," where The Wizard of Oz is significantly referenced.

"Some people call it the folk tradition, and some people call it theft," Millsap says of this tactic. "I prefer to call it the folk tradition. I think that stories and characters are always a good jumping off point to tell other stories of other characters."

Millsap was raised in Oklahoma and born into a religious home. Much of that old time religion (there's even a new song titled "Old Time Religion") finds its way into his songs. Furthermore, "Truck Stop Gospel" mixes two big country music themes together: Jesus and trucking.

"In Oklahoma, I grew up not too far from I-35, and only about 30 minutes from the intersection of I-35 and I-40, which in the trucking industry…I-40 goes from, basically, Nashville to L.A., and then I-35 goes from the border of Mexico, on up into Canada" he explains. "There's just a whole lot of trucking there. I know a little bit about trucking culture, and I've been around a lot of truckers."

"Truck Stop Gospel" is also a religious song, which finds its main character preaching the gospel to his fellow truckers while all the while trying to drive the straight and narrow. Millsap's Pentecostal upbringing certainly plays into its lyrics.

"For me, it's a very intense spirituality," says Millsap of Pentecostalism. "It's a very black and white version of Christianity. You can say that's a good thing because some people need a whole lot of structure. But it can also lend to maybe unnecessary guilt and conviction."

Although Millsap may not follow the Pentecostal traditions the way he did during his youth, he still finds a lot of truth in his religious upbringing.

"I still consider myself a Christian," he says, "to the extent that if you read what Jesus had to say. The Sermon on the Mount is a great article about how you should treat other people. And, of course, The Golden Rule. That's a common thread with all religions. Just be nice to each other, and don't be an asshole. I try to live that way. That's a very boiled down version of it.

One song called "Disappear" talks about a restless spirit who believes that getting up and leaving town for good will somehow solve all his problems. Traveling performers, like Millsap, actually get to experience a little of that mobile ability to disappear for a while whenever they go on tour. It's not so easy for folks with 9 to 5 jobs, though.

"I get to escape while I'm on the road, but as soon as I get back home it's pretty similar to others' lives, except that, maybe, I don't have to wake up as early as other people," he responds. "Home is always there, though. The things that come with that are always there. You can get away for the length of the tour, but as soon as I'm back, I'm back in this regular role. That song is about escapism. Everybody wants to go somewhere. But even when you go somewhere and you're settle in, if you're there too long you want to go somewhere else."

Being a recording and touring artist has taken Millsap from the highs down to the lows of the road. While opening for Patty Griffin recently, he performed at some of the most beautiful theaters in the country. But there have also been some low points.

"We played a house show," he recalls, "but it was at this guy's house in the middle of nowhere Texas. It wasn't his house, though, but at an RV park. He owns the RV park and in the fitness room, where all the fitness equipment is, he moves all the fitness equipment to the side and sets up a little PA and has house shows."

But it's places like truck stops and RV fitness rooms that comprise the guts of America. And you can't sing about America unless you seen it, both the good and the bad.