Parker Millsap Paints From a Dark Palette

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Parker Millsap is huddled in the cab of his pickup, sitting in the parking lot of his favorite coffee shop in Guthrie, Okla. The night before, his heat went out in his home right as a cold front hit the state, rendering his home temporarily uninhabitable.

Fortunately, he has his two dogs — a Jack Russell mix and a red heeler mix — to keep him warm.

“They’re both warm and furry, like little fuzzy blankets,” he tells CMT Edge.

As he waits for a call from his electrician, the 20-year-old singer-songwriter talks about his new self-titled album which contains songs about murderers, truckers and even murderous truckers. Occasionally Millsap interrupts himself to give his dog a chew toy or stop one of them (he’s not naming names) from pooping in his truck.

CMT Edge: Tell me about the music scene there in Oklahoma. Besides being cold, what’s it like these days?

Millsap: Oklahoma has always had good music — Leon Russell and Woody Guthrie and J.J. Cale. And right now there are writers like John Fullbright, Samantha Crain and J.D. McPherson coming out of Oklahoma. People ask me what’s in the water, and the first thing I tell them is chromium. But also there’s just not a whole lot to do here, which can be bad in certain ways.

On the other hand, if you’re in high school and you have a guitar, you’re not really obligated to do anything else but sit around and write songs all day. I think what a lot of us have in common is that we didn’t have a lot of friends in high school, so we had time to sit around and play guitar in our rooms.

Most of these songs are grounded in some very colorful characters, like the holy-roller trucker in “Truck Stop Gospel” or the romantic gambler in “Yosemite.”

I’m definitely drawn to characters. I’ve been listening to Robert Earl Keen since I was 2 years old, and he has a line that goes something like, “Words can paint a picture sharper than a photograph.” That’s what I want to do. I want to paint a picture of a person.

A lot of the pieces of my characters are from people that I know, but I couldn’t say that any of the characters are actually a specific person. I’ll usually take a certain personality trait from my dad maybe, then mix it with a personality trait from the pastor in the church where I grew up, then I’ll mix in a little bit of this trucker that I met once. It’s important that you can still relate to the character, that you can see a bit of yourself in him.

But I’m guessing you haven’t killed someone with a banjo string, like the character in “Old Time Religion.” You haven’t, right?

I’m so glad you got that. I don’t think most people catch it.

It took me a few listens to put the pieces together, but then it hit me. That’s a pretty gruesome way to go.

I’m glad it didn’t hit you at first. There’s an old Lyle Lovett song called “L.A. County” that I’ve been listening to since I was 2 or 3. But it took me 15 years to realize it was a murder ballad. At the end of the song, he shoots this girl, but it took forever for me to get that. So I’m glad I’m not the only one who misses things the first time around.

You don’t want a song to spill all of its secrets at once.

A lot of my favorite authors have a similar effect for me. People think of [author John] Steinbeck as pretty one-dimensional, but he’s not at all. Even his shorter books, like Of Mice and Men, every time I read it, I realize something new. That’s what makes good art good art. You can keep coming back to it and get something new out of it.

Given your emphasis on character and story, do you read a lot? Do you find inspiration in literature?

For me, it’s one of those things that once you start doing what you want to do with your life, it takes up a lot more time than you expect. So you don’t have time to do the things you want to do, like read books and write songs. I’ve been on the road a lot, and I’m managing myself at this point, so I haven’t been reading as much as I should. But I definitely take a cue from novels and short stories. Raymond Carver, Steinbeck and Kurt Vonnegut are three of my favorites.

“At the Bar” and “Quite Contrary” are both similarly dark spins on children’s literature and nursery rhymes.

I like finding people in weird situations. If you ran into these innocent nursery rhyme characters in a bar, they might be sad and sloppy drunk, and you’d have this very different perspective on them.

That’s how “At the Bar” and “Quite Contrary” started out. I wanted to write a kids’ song, so I started researching nursery rhymes and where they came from. And they’re all really weird and dark. So I ended up making a kids’ song that adults can listen to. Kids won’t get a line like, “She had a lighter underneath the spoon,” but adults will.

That’s pretty bleak.

You know, I think both of those songs were inspired by growing up in Sunday school. You learn a certain version of a Bible story, then you grow up and read it again and see all this crazy stuff — this immoral and nasty stuff they didn’t tell you about in church.

Like the story of Samson and Delilah. We learn that Samson was a man of God and this mean girl cut his hair off. But really he was a gambler who used his strength to kill people. He would lose a bet and then just kill 30 people out of anger. I think there’s always a dark side to just about anything.

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