Parker Millsap Finds His Voice On “The Very Last Day”
When Parker Millsap was starting out, he was really just a kid. In this era when it seems like most of the top emerging talent is coming to prominence in their mid and late 30’s (Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Brandy Clark, etc. etc.) a singer and songwriter cutting records at 19-years-old is darn near a prodigy, especially in the older-trending Americana realm. Consider it on-the-job training for the now 23-year-old Oklahoma native who just released his third full-length record The Very Last Day through Thirty Tigers.
Parker drew a crowd a couple of years ago with his witty and entertaining take on the traveling evangelizer “Truck Stop Gospel.” The song got what passes for wide reception in the Americana world, and it announced Millsap as an emerging talent worth paying attention to. However good Parker was then, you knew the possibility of what he could develop into with such strong songwriting acumen and singing chops could do some real damage when it all came in full bloom. The Very Last Day is the realization of that potential, and a defining of Parker Millsap as an artist.
The Purcell, Oklahoma native has that rich, songwriting blood of the central plains we’ve seen in artists like John Moreland, John Fullbright, Evan Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours, and so many more. And growing up in an evangelical community also imparts that indelible country gospel foundation to his music. But more than anything else Parker Millsap is a blues singer, which may seem a bit of a strange label to stamp on the forehead of the bushy-haired and doe-eyed songwriter … until he opens his mouth.
The success of “Truckstop Gospel” allowed Millsap the ability to tour the country and cut his chops in front of large crowds, and dedicate his time solely to his craft. And what came of this experience was a confidence and control in his singing that is something well beyond his age, his history, and well beyond what many others in the roots world can throw down. In a word, it’s uncanny.
On The Very Last Day there’s a fairly straightforward rendition of the old Mississippi Fred McDowell song, “You Gotta Move” that was famously covered by The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and countless others. You may wonder what value covering such a well-recognized blues standard has for a pasty white kid from Oklahoma whose supposed to be a songwriter. And then you hear it. Parker Millsap puts to shame some of the most dedicated blues hounds formed in the mud of the Mississippi, if for no other reason than the heart and pluck Parker evidences.
In other songs like the opening “Hades Pleads,” or the sweeter “Morning Blues,” Parker almost toys with his newfound ability to hold incredible tension in his notes, and deliver dynamics that squeeze every bit of soul out of a song. His blues voice has emerged so pronounced and rich, one might accuse him of over-singing if it wasn’t so damn effective. And in “Hades Pleads,” and a song like “Hands Up,” Parker pays attention to something that many astute songwriters unfortunately gloss over—giving attention to the entertainment value that must go into a song so it’s not just well-written, but wide reaching with its infectiousness. Parker writes to his vocal strengths, which is a challenge to even some of the best singers.
You almost have to remind yourself to regard Millsap as a songwriter too while listening to The Very Last Day, but that’s not hard to do when he broadsides you with the cutting “Heaven Sent.” Taking a slight detour off the blues trail, Millsap calls upon his experiences in the devout Pentecostal environment to tell the story of a preacher’s son who is in conflict with himself and his father because of his sexual preference.
It’s so often that the sons and daughters of preachers and others who grow up in devoutly religious households become embittered and angst-filled about religion later in life. Sometimes these sentiments go on to define them as people, or artists, and sometimes it does so to their detriment. This was a slightly underlying concern when Parker’s “Truckstop Gospel” took off. Was he trying to tell an entertaining story about a funny character, or was he mocking the church in his own sly manner? “Heaven Sent” convolutes this question even more as Parker is willing to use story to expose hypocrisy on an issue that also carries political implications. It’s a little risky, especially when “Heaven Sent,” just like “Truckstop Gospel,” could be so defining of Parker’s career from the quality of the effort.
Parker Millsap does not come across as the wildly rebellious, angry, and judgemental preacher’s kid in total, though many of his songs, like the title track of this album, draw from his own religious experiences. But will that be how he is defined by religious listeners of a touchy nature, or will they heed the deeper message Parker is trying to convey, or just enjoy the music for its aesthetic value defined by his dynamic blues voice and good storytelling? Will Parker be considered a product of indignation, or of open-mindedness? This is why entering the religious or political realm in music can be perilous.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue against On The Very Last Day as Parker Millsap’s defining moment, at least up to this point. Like Hank Williams did when he cut “Lovesick Blues,” Parker has identified his strengths, honed in on them, refined them, written or selected songs to favor them, and dedicatedly molded his craft until he’s become a master of his discipline. He’s also been helped by staying pat with the same two side players for an extended period—Daniel Foulks on fiddle and Michael Rose on bass—who can keep up and anticipate Parker from the history they’ve shared on stage.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up (8/10)
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March 27, 2016 @ 7:54 pm
Hades Pleads sound like it could be a Jack White song.
March 27, 2016 @ 9:22 pm
Saw him in Nashville Friday night. at The Basement East. Very impressive performer and it was quite a privilege to see him in such a small venue. The album songs he played sound even better live, as you’d probably expect.
March 27, 2016 @ 9:44 pm
I’ve listened to it endlessly over the weekend. This, and Wild Feathers, are my 2 ‘best of 16’ contenders.
March 27, 2016 @ 10:19 pm
He opened for Old Crow a few years back on New Years Eve at the Ryman. He had to be 20 years old. Walks out, and your like who is this freakin kid. He hit that first note and I was blown away. Great stage presence and his voice is wonderful. I enjoyed his first album and just ordered this one. Looking forward to it and was pleased to see you reviewed him. Oh, and it was great to hear a couple of his songs tonight on the Showtime tv show Billions.
March 27, 2016 @ 11:53 pm
I had never heard of this guy until Friday when I was checking out new releases on iTunes. After listening to the sound bites I decided to buy it. Have only given a couple listens, but so far I’m enjoying it. Have to see if it stays on my rotation before I make a final judgment.
March 28, 2016 @ 5:47 am
“But will that be how he is defined by religious listeners of a touchy nature, or will they heed the deeper message Parker is trying to convey, or just enjoy the music for its aesthetic value defined by his dynamic blues voice and good storytelling? Will Parker be considered a product of indignation, or of open-mindedness?”
Damn good question I was thinking the sam then I heard him…
He really has a good voice i really like him. And the lyrics for “Heaven Sent” and “Truck Stop Gospel”…I was just Wondering how many Bibles people will send him, because of those lyrics. I know that FAK got some in 2009 when they release the video “Hard Believer”, And back then, (2009), they were just 16 and 18 years old, so I do not think they really understood how controversial such a song can be in at least parts of the US. I also wonder if there are people who will refuse to listening to him because of these songs of his. (That also happened to FAK).
And that strong voice… I’d really like to hear him and Johanna SÃ¶derberg do a cover of “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” 🙂 🙂 🙂
March 28, 2016 @ 8:45 am
As a devout Christian, I don’t have a problem with either song (in fact, I happen to like and appreciate both songs). I like artists to express themselves and be real and I think that is what Parker is doing. I may not agree with him on the issues he sings about, but I do appreciate the songwriting and vocal talent. I hope other Christians see it the same way as preaching at him isn’t going to help his faith, as that is what seems to have led him to where he is.
March 28, 2016 @ 9:54 am
Thanks for that answer. I’m glad to hear it. You seem to have taken the “or will they heed the deeper message” -alternative in Triggers article. So maybe I’m the prejudiced here…
March 28, 2016 @ 7:14 am
Not sure what you’re getting at with the “Lovesick Blues” reference, if anything Hank Williams hit his stride when he released “Cold Cold Heart.”
March 28, 2016 @ 10:04 am
Spot On review! I listened through this record for the 1st time yesterday and it blew my tits off.
What a force this guy is and only 23! Excellent record. Great production work too.
March 28, 2016 @ 11:02 am
Good review. It’s always fascinating to see how the subjects chosen by younger songwriters reflect the key influences of their short years of trying to understand the world. For Milsap, those religious themes are obviously critical to his upbringing in the burned-over district of Pentecostal Oklahoma. They show up in a lot of his songs: the driven to just-short of-insane religious fervor of his neighbors, the internal battles of good an evil that haunt every teenager intensified by Manichean outlook of fundamentalism, the yearning for escape (even if only for a short vacation to a place like Yosemite) of the small town kid. With this rich, if still limited, catalog of experience he has managed to craft some of the most engaging and interesting songs of recent years. Imagine what he will manage after his first big heartache.
March 28, 2016 @ 12:27 pm
Hank didn’t write “Lovesick Blues”
March 28, 2016 @ 1:55 pm
It’s funny you bring this up. I’m re-reading the Hank Williams biography by Colin Escott in preparation for seeing the new Hank Williams movie “I Saw The Light” which opens nationwide of Friday. I just got done reading the 6th chapter, which ends with Hank about to go into the studio in Cincinnati to cut “Lovesick Blues.” Hank is quoted as saying that “he’d written nothing better.”
In the 7th chapter, which I just started reading right before your comment came in, it says about “Lovesick Blues,” “[Hank] almost certainly didn’t know that the song had been kicking around a year longer than he had.” In other words, Hank though he’d taken an arrangement from Rex Griffin, and he had written the song. Obviously later it all came out that Hank’s song was a version of a song that first came out in 1922. But Hank thought he’d written it.
The reason I mentioned this all was because the biography paints Hank singing “Lovesick Blues” as the point where he found his true voice and became a star. Similarly, I think when Parker decided that he was a blues singer first, and a songwriter, or whatever else second, that is when he found his voice as well. As I said in the review,
“Parker has identified his strengths, honed in on them, refined them, written or selected songs to favor them…”
But you’re right, Hank Williams did not write “Lovesick Blues,” as I’m now reading (despite Hank thinking he did).
April 5, 2016 @ 7:42 am
I had forgot about that; I definitely need to read that Escott book again.
May 5, 2016 @ 9:00 am
Glad to see some Okies making it east to the Hoosier state. The Madison, IN River Roots festival lineup looks like a winner!