Parker Millsap lost an excuse that's been very useful to his post-show exits when he turned 21 last week. "Sometimes you get some drunk guy who's like, 'Come on. Stick around. I'll buy you a drink and talk your ear off for three hours,' " he explains. "And I can always be like, 'Oh, no, I can't. I'm not 21.' "
The upside is that the Purcell, Okla., singer-songwriter has aged out of eligibility for the hackneyed journalistic observation that he's too young to order a beer at venues he plays. And maybe, just maybe, the impression that he's wise beyond his years won't be the default talking point too much longer.
Says Millsap, "People ask me questions like, 'How did you get this way?' I don't know. I've just been here for as long as I have, doing what I'm doing. ... I'm not that calculated. I didn't set out trying to be, like, an old soul or anything."
The fact is, the kid's got a solid grasp on his swinging Southern gothic storytelling idiom. Up until the third grade or so, his primary musical entertainment was '90s albums by such wily roots stylists as Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo', and a little later on, he began tinkering with songwriting mechanics himself.
The most remarkable thing about the tunes on Millsap's self-titled national debut is what he does with perspective. He's got a vivid imagination that intensifies his clear-eyed vantage point and a curiosity that propels him beyond his experience — a combo that bodes well for his output over the long haul.
The album opens with "Old Time Religion" and "Truck Stop Gospel," character studies of a couple of zealots, and midway through arrives at dystopian, modern reboots of nursery rhymes titled "Quite Contrary" and "At the Bar." The Bible-pushing protagonist in the rollicking country-blues number "Truck Stop Gospel" protests, "I'm not angry / No, I'm not hostile / Just want you to love my Jesus / Gonna make you a true believer." Millsap has him come on way-the-hell too strong, while still allowing for the possibility that his prickly passion is well-intentioned. It makes for a satisfying, as opposed to self-serving, vignette.
Millsap's really just a few years removed from warming the small-town church pew three times a week, but he's not obnoxious about distancing himself from his religious upbringing, like 20-somethings in the throes of lost innocence can be. One of the most oft-repeated details of his bio is that he was raised Pentecostal — as though that, in itself, were self-explanatory. With a bit of prompting, he generously fleshes out the picture.
"This is always a tricky part of the interview," says Millsap. "I don't have anything against the people that I went to church with or anything, but very early on I had really high expectations of myself morally."
Understandably so. First his family attended a Pentecostal-Holiness church, then an Assemblies of God congregation, where the services were charismatic and the theology geared more toward vigilance than comfort. Says Millsap, "Mine was like, 'Any time you sin, you have to ask forgiveness for that sin particularly, or else if you die and you haven't done that, then, sorry, you lose. You're going to hell, because that sin was still in your heart.' Which can be kinda stressful, especially if you kinda have a guilty conscience, which I did, and do."
Somewhere along the way, reading Kurt Vonnegut upended Millsap's worldview, and he started to see darker shadows behind both nursery rhymes (with their sometimes morbid origins) and Bible stories (with the brutal acts some depict). Hence the parallel song pairings on his album.
"When you're a kid," says Millsap, "you learn that Samson was a great man of God and his hair was long. That's where his power was, and then Delilah cut it off and all this stuff. You go read the real version of it, and basically what happens is he loses a bet and goes and kills 30 men. ... I asked a few people [at church] about it, and they were like, 'You've gotta have faith, kid.' "
Millsap the songwriter is not so dismissive. Nor is he finding himself dismissed in the Americana scene. Last March, he was a late addition to a Tin Pan South songwriting round that also featured Shawn Camp and Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua. His performance landed him the opening slot on the string band's hot-ticket New Year's Eve show. Millsap got to cross "play the Ryman" off his list of goals that night, but there's plenty left for him to do.
"Well, I guess the idea would be to get people to come to shows where, you know, I'm headlining — to not have to lean on the crutch of Old Crow."