After listening to Parker Millsap's self-titled 2014 album, it's difficult to believe that he wasn't able to legally drink when he recorded it. The Purcell, Okla. singer has a voice that lands somewhere between Rod Stewart and Jason Isbell, a raspy-but-powerful instrument that makes Millsap sound about 20 to 30 years older and about 70 percent more grizzled than he truly is. But it's not just the voice that fools the listener into thinking they're hearing a man who's seen some things.
Millsap's lyrics are heavy with religious imagery and down-and-out characters who commit crimes both large and small in the name of the Holy Spirit. The album's opening track, "Old Time Religion," is a harrowing tale of a simple man, damaged by parental abuse, who is a devout reader of his Bible but "keeps the bodies in the shed." The darkly intense lyrics are served well by a sparse backing track that mixes acoustic guitar, stand-up bass, and little else. "Old Time Religion" is immediately followed by "Truck Stop Gospel," a chugging rocker that portrays a religious zealot who is driven to save as many souls as possible, no matter how pushy or overpowering he has to be.
"We kind of put those songs together because of the contrast between the characters," Millsap says. "There's one guy who is a Christian and is not going to hurt you, though he does carry a Bible and he is going to get in your face, and then there's the guy in 'Old Time Religion' who ... takes it a little further."
Given the subject matter of those two tracks, perhaps it's not surprising to learn that Millsap grew up in a religious home, attending both Pentecostal-Holiness and Assembly of God churches. These days, Millsap doesn't ascribe to any particular religion. "Anytime you grow up in something, you start asking questions about it," he says. "I think religion in general is a really difficult thing. Religion and love are the two forces that make people do crazy things. These songs are me exploring that idea."
Millsap says that the people he creates in his songs are tools for his own expression. "These songs are just me working out questions through characters, I guess. I think it works almost like science fiction," he says. "In a lot of science fiction, the writers would hide their beliefs about the government or whatever else, and it's the same concept. I can get feelings out that I couldn't really otherwise."
As the album continues, Millsap's characters move away from the church and toward the bedroom (or the barroom), and those songs reveal a gift for romantic balladry that might be Millsap's secret weapon. "Treat me like a child, because I'm half a man," he sings on the swaying, desperate "Forgive Me," which is followed by perhaps the album's best song, the near-solo acoustic "The Villain," in which he almost whispers, "I don't want to be the villain in your dreams anymore."
The more acoustic tracks on the album tend to be the strongest, and that's probably not a coincidence. Millsap played electric guitar in his teens, but a switch to acoustic jump-started his songwriting, even though he didn't necessarily make the change for artistic reasons. "A lot of it has to do with my frustration with my limited guitar-playing abilities," he says with a laugh. "But also, I'm a big rhythm fan. I like all kinds of rhythms in my songs. And when you're in a band setting, the drums tend to take care of that, and the only space left for the guitar to fill is the lead. When I would sit down and write a song, I wanted to write off of a rhythm, and acoustic guitar is something I could use more rhythmically than electric."
Millsap and producer Wes Sharon create an intimate, low-key backdrop for the songs on the album, which was released on Millsap's own Okrahoma Records label. He says he learned a lot about how to make albums while he was an intern at Prairie Sun Recordings, the studio where Tom Waits recorded Bone Machine. "I didn't really work on records or anything," Millsap says. "I basically just made coffee and wrapped cables. But it made me comfortable in the studio, and I learned how the studio worked. I got used to being there and becoming familiar with the pace. And I liked the whole process of creating. It got me used to the idea."
The Parker Millsap album gained critical acclaim from The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, NPR, and American Songwriter magazine, and it garnered Millsap an Americana Music Association award nomination for "Emerging Artist of the Year." Millsap says he's kept the good reviews at arm's length, but they do hold some fascination for him. "I try to just focus on playing music and going on the road," he says. "But it interests me when I get compared to things that I don't expect. It's like, 'Oh, I didn't hear that at all.'"