Parker Millsap is from Oklahoma, where his peers John Moreland and J.D. McPherson honed their craft. It’s where Turnpike Troubadours did the same. It’s a burgeoning scene, not unlike Alabama’s of the past decade. Millsap himself was named one of the Americana Music Association’s Emerging Artists of the Year in 2014 for his eponymous record, and he’s prepared to carve his place into new Nashville’s elite with last month’s The Very Last Day.
“I think it’s chromium,” he laughed. “I think that’s what’s in the water in Oklahoma, a high level of chromium. For real. ”
The new record is really bluesy. It falls into the same, broad spectrum of “Americana,” but it hedges more toward soulful than country. It’s also extremely dependent on storytelling, Milsap’s strongest suit; he includes Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen among his oldest lyrical influences, and says that he grew to discover artists like Townes Van Zandt, John Prine and Bob Dylan.
“It’s definitely what I was around a lot when I was growing up: blues and gospel,” he said. “We didn’t really listen to Top 40 pop or country radio when I was growing up. I was pretty isolated from that whole scene. I was aware of those things, but I liked the music that my parents listened to, so I would seek that out. My dad turned me on to blues music and by the time I was playing guitar on my own at 14 years old, I could just get on the internet and look up who listened to who. I’d just get on Wikipedia and go look up old blues guys and go get the CDs.”
Some of the stories that he tells are dark, especially on the new record. He recently told NPR that tone came from being holed up in his house binge watching The Walking Dead.
“I wrote about half of the record while I was living in Oklahoma,” he said of a transitional moment in his life prior to relocating to Nashville. “It was during the winter. It was very gray and brown and cold. We weren’t touring. I had been on the road all year and all of a sudden, I was holed up in my house in a small town in Oklahoma. And [watching The Walking Dead] was how I spent my time. It kind of fit the mood. I read some apocalyptic books and I listened to some Bruce Springsteen and Arcade Fire.”
He was raised in a Pentecostal church, though he doesn’t particularly consider himself religious today. That upbringing allowed him to find a place within to create tracks like “Heaven Sent,” a powerful, fictitious tale of a preacher’s son coming out.
“I performed in church for a long time before I performed outside of a church,” he said. “Those themes come easily for me; they’re the stories that I was intrigued by growing up. You grow up in this thing and you have questions about it and some of the songs are just that — just trying to sort it out.”
The darkness was easy to find in Louisiana, where he chose to record with Gary Paczosa. Millsap was still Oklahoma-based, and Paczosa lived in Nashville.
“Louisiana was about halfway,” he joked. “It was a really great, spooky old studio. I don’t know if the studio consciously influenced that sound, but I think the ghosts living in the studio may have made it sound that way.”
Millsap is just 23. But it’s a seasoned 23 — he’s been touring since he was 19. And he’s already penned three full-length albums in a field surrounded by artists that often don’t achieve great heights until their 30’s or 40’s after years of hard touring.
“I’ve been the whole time I’ve been here, so I don’t feel shockingly young,” he laughed. “I feel like I’m right at the age I’m supposed to be. I’m just glad to be making music. Can I survive by making music? And so far, it’s working. And I’m grateful for that.”
Parker Milsap comes to Saturn on Thursday, April 14. Doors open at 7 p.m., while the show begins at 8 p.m. Travis Linville opens. Tickets are $12. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.