A few weeks ago I went on a twenty-six hour road trip with one of my priest buddies. We met up after our morning masses on Sunday and drove four hours south down I-77 to Charleston, West Virginia to hear the great Patty Griffin play a show at NPR’s Mountain Stage. I first saw Griffin as an opening act back in 1997, and I’ve been following her ever since. As a matter of fact, I encountered many of my favorite musicians initially as opening acts: Gillian Welch, Jewel, David Crowder, The Felice Brothers, Twenty One Pilots, Walk the Moon, and Sean Rowe. So I have a rule when I go to see live music – never miss the opening act. Parker Millsap was opening for Patty Griffin that night. He won’t be an opening act for long.
Millsap looks like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, has the swagger of Elvis, and his voice is some unique yet bizarre amalgamation of Rod Stewart, Chris Isaak and Axl Rose. He slides, strums and picks his guitar like a champ while occasionally accompanying himself on harmonica. Millsap is flanked by the only two other members of his band, Michael Rose on stand-up bass and Daniel Foulks on fiddle. These boys can play, but there’s even more to the story.
In addition to his sound and his stage presence, Parker Millsap can write. And his songwriting includes two important elements that Flannery O’Connor believed made for good writing: religion and region. (She admitted, “The two circumstances that have given character to my own writing have been those of being Catholic and Southern.”) O’Connor thought that the best writing always had a universal backdrop, a setting, a context, and this context was a biblical one, whether the writer was a believer or not. In other words, there is reality, a bigger story against which we understand our lives, and that story is the story of salvation history – Creation, the Fall, and Redemption. In addition to that universal element of religion, O’Connor also thought that good writing always needed a particular element of region. Good stories don’t just happen anywhere – they always happen somewhere. O’Connor insisted that the “discovery of being bound through the senses to a particular society and a particular history, to particular sounds and particular idiom, is for the writer the beginning of a recognition that first puts his work into real human perspective for him. . . . He discovers that the imagination is not free but bound.” Millsap has a universal, biblical vision, yet his imagination is particularly bound to Oklahoma, which is a mighty rare and potent combination for a man who just turned twenty years old in February.
Millsap was raised in a devout Pentecostal family in Purcell, Oklahoma, and although he has since left his church, he can’t shake his religious imagination. The opening track on his self-titled album is “Old Time Religion,” a slow, dark number about a troubled believer with a pitiable past: “He took a beating/ His father screamed at the top of his lungs/ And old testament reading/ If you spare the rod you spoil the son.” By the third verse he’s piling up bodies of sinners in his shed, and by verse four he’s strangled his wife with a banjo string, offering a poor interpretation of scripture to justify his sordid actions.
Grotesque may be one way to describe Millsap’s songwriting, but his style is also clever and witty. “Truck Stop Gospel” is about a fanatical truck driver who packs his trailer full of 15,000 bibles to distribute all across the map. Millsap sings, “Eighteen wheels, eighteen miles to Tucumcari/ Just me and Billy Graham and the Bibles that I carry/ Me I’m not just any other Dick or Harry/ Got a big cross painted on the side of my rig/ to remind the devil that he ain’t so scary.” By the time chorus hits, the tempo is already in overdrive yet the truck driving narrator lets the listener know that there is no reason to fear: “I’m Paul the apostle preachin’ truck stop gospel/ I’m not angry, no I’m not hostile/ just want you to love my Jesus/ Gonna make you a true believer/ Just wanna modify your behavior/ I just want you to love my savior.” In the last verse, the missionary trucker encounters temptation in the form of a lot lizard. He resorts to speaking in tongues and slays the demon, and then continues on his mad mission.
One could listen to Parker Millsap and think that he’s poking fun at religious people, but I think such would be a naïve interpretation of his songwriting. Like Flannery O’Connor, Millsap uses his religious characters to expose hypocrisy and spiritual blind-spots, but not as an assault on faith itself. Moreover, it seems that part of Millsap’s project is to expose inauthentic religious practice for what it is, so that an authentic life of faith has room to flourish. Millsap may have left his Pentecostal church, but I’m not convinced that he’s abandoned his faith.
On “Forgive Me” Millsap shows what authentic repentance looks like: “Please forgive me/ For the sinner I am/ Treat me like a child/ Cause I’m half a man/ Please forgive me/ I stepped on the line in the sand/ Now I’m trying just as hard as I can.” This Johnny Cash-like track is a warm-up to Ryan Adams-like “Villain” in which Millsap’s narrator confesses that he has repeatedly hurt someone he loves and experiences remorse: “I don’t wanna be the villain in your dreams anymore/ I don’t wanna be the reason you lose sleep anymore.”
One of the brighter songs on the album is “Disappear” which is topically (but not musically) akin to Springsteen’s anthem, “Born to Run” – it’s a song about leaving home and searching for something new. It’s also the only song on the record in which a woman’s voice appears along side Millsap’s: “I’m going to change my name, hide my face/ Everybody knows us in this place/ You and me momma without a trace/ I’ll hold the map honey if you’ll steer/ Make like we were never here/ You and me momma gonna disappear.” Again, Millsap is barely out of high school, so writing songs about leaving home is expected and appropriate. But I’ll be interested to see if in twenty years he’ll say something similar about “Disappear” as Springsteen said about “Born to Run” – that what he was running from when he was young wasn’t so much a place, but from himself.
Hands down the best songwriting on the record is “Quite Contrary,” a dark commentary on the methamphetamine culture of Millsap’s native Oklahoma. He presents traditional nursery rhyme characters all grown up to some slick Howlin’ Wolf inspired guitar work, but the picture he paints isn’t pretty: “Hansel and Gretel/ Heat up the kettle/ Smells like burnt old tires and metal/ Hansel plays chef Gretel plays dealer/ Guard dog played by and old blue heeler.” Just as O’Connor wrote stories which exposed the social sins of the South, so too does Millsap highlight the social sins of Oklahoma: “Hey diddle diddle the cat’s on the moon/ And the fork’s got a lighter underneath the spoon.”
Millsap continues his imaginative ways on “At the Bar (Emerald City Blues)” as his narrator runs into Wizard of Ozcharacters’ Dorothy and the Tin Man at some depressed tavern where all three discover that they’re in the same melancholy boat. And then it’s back to religion on “When I Leave” as Millsap is no longer writing about leaving his home town, but leaving this world for the next. He sings, “When I leave maybe I’ll go to heaven/ When I leave maybe I’ll go someplace else/ But sister don’t grieve if you believe I’m forgiven/ Sometimes it’s hard to tell.” Millsap tells a sad tale of a gambler who spends his last four dollars on scratch-off lottery tickets on “Yosemite,” which is yet another well crafted narrative of a man in need of redemption, but unfortunately, redemption won’t come until the gambler hits rock-bottom, and he’s not yet there.
The final track on the record brings together Millsap’s special blend of religion and region as he pays tribute to his native Oklahoma, which literally translates, “Land of the Red Man” in Choctaw. Millsap’s fiery slide guitar and aggressive vocals warn listeners that “the devil is alive and well/ and he’s found himself a new home.” And that is where Millsap leaves us – in a rather severe, yet occasionally comical, spiritual battle with the devil. Flannery O’Connor would approve. She wrote, “I think that if writers with a religious view of the world excel these days in the depiction of evil, it is because they have to make its nature unmistakable to their particular audience.”
Parker Millsap not only has a name that sounds like a character from a Flannery O’Connor story, he actually writes similar stories about religion and region, sin and redemption, violence and repentance, light and darkness, Jesus and the devil. And he writes well.
I know that he’s only twenty years old, but this young man is good. So in addition to your summer reading, if you’re interested in some good summer listening, allow me to recommend Mr. Parker Millsap. The kid is going places. And listening to this record, you’ll go places too.