Parker Millsap understands that we all have a soft spot for the underachiever, the lone wolf maverick or the guy on the fringes who just needs one more thing to go wrong. They're the kinds of characters who frequently inhabit his songs, particularly those on his latest album The Very Last Day, recently nominated for an Americana Music Association award. In the sense of creating character-driven narratives, Oklahoma native Millsap, at the still-prodigy age of 21, is following in the footsteps of Kris Kristofferson, John Prine and perhaps even the short-story master Flannery O'Connor.
One only needs to point to the protagonist, if you will, of Millsap's rollicking "Hands Up," a selection from The Very Last Day. The guy is pulling off the ultimate small-town crime, knocking over a convenience store/gas station, but he's not letting it go at that. Millsap takes the tale one step further by having the hapless man relate that he's a war veteran down on his luck, as if this somehow justifies his wayward behavior. "I've been to the desert, man / I served three tours crawlin' in the dirt," the perpetrator tells the clerk, who is likely more interested in self-preservation than analysis. The character may not be sympathetic, but he's certainly memorable.
Millsap maintains he never made acquaintance with such a fellow in real life. But we can practically picture this poor guy who's had it up to here and feels that he has no other recourse. "Hands Up" stands as a wonderful example of how closely Millsap gets inside the individuals he creates.
"That was more of a scenario that I imagined," Millsap says. "Where I was living at the time in Oklahoma, there was this little gas station on my block that I would go to a lot. It was a gas station that wasn't really gross or scary," he adds with a high-pitched laugh, "but maybe just a little bit seedy. I would go in there and think that I wouldn't be surprised if there would be a stick-up one day. And if a guy was going to rob it, who would he be? I just kind of made up this character. It's not somebody I knew. It is kind of strange how he tries to explain his position."
Millsap keeps the action somehow lighthearted, given the narrative, with a jaunty melody and a broad, quirky air that suggests Coen Brothers-type dark humor.
Of a more serious and affecting note, Millsap introduces a quite empathetic character in "Heaven Sent," a young gay man who must face down his judgmental, repressive father. He is neither stereotype nor spokesperson but a true individual of insight and well-earned pride. When he declares, "I ain't some kind of creature from some old double feature," it's a strong stance. But contrast that with the line that pleads to "Daddy," giving the song an achingly sensitive, rather than sensationalist, tone. Not an easy line to tread, as Millsap will relate.
"I didn't want it to be preachy," he says matter-of-factly. "We've been doing that song live for a while now, before the album was out, and people have been overwhelmingly positive about how it sounds. It was interesting at first. Sometimes I'd play it in a room and it wouldn't go over so well. Other times it did. After that happened a few times," he says, "I didn't really worry about it anymore. I just played it and let people make up their own minds."
Finding the right voice for the character proved crucial. "I had to spend a lot of time on that song," Millsap admits earnestly. "It took quite a bit of tweaking. I worked on it for like a month, much longer than most of my songs, and I was just constantly messing with it until it made sense. I was aware that it was a pretty heavy topic, so I wanted to do it justice. I also didn't want the character to sound righteously angry or anything like that," Millsap adds. "I just wanted it to come across as a story."
Millsap lets go a laugh when told that the young man in "Heaven Sent" sounds neither righteous nor angry. Millsap laughs frequently during conversation, a ripe indication that he hardly takes himself overly seriously. But he's quite ardent about the business of storytelling.
"Some people will take my songs as being autobiographical," Millsap says. "I also think that some people get it as being storytelling. I have always been a big fan of the storytelling tradition."
That's plainly evident as he runs through his songwriting heroes. Though Oklahoma born and raised, near the town of Purcell, Millsap finds only a tenuous connection with fellow Oklahomans like Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and Reba McEntire. "Growing up, I didn't listen to a lot of what you might call Oklahoma music," Millsap explains. "A lot of the guys I listened to were singer-songwriters like Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt, John Prine and Robert Earl Keen. They were guys who really did tell stories in their songs. I listened to a lot of folk music as well — for the stories."
More stories are set to come from his prolific and fertile imagination. "Writing for me kind of happens in spurts," Millsap explains. "There will be times when I can have 10 new songs in a few weeks and then at other times, not much will come out. But I can't really tame the muse," he adds, chuckling briefly. "I haven't tamed her yet, anyway."