Deciding who should perform at our 50th anniversary celebration in Charleston, South Carolina this weekend seemed an intimidating task at first. With so many incredible Southern artists to pick from, it was like deciding which potato salad to bring to a family reunion. (Or is that just a problem for us?) But one name kept coming up around the office: Parker Millsap.
The 23-year-old Purcell, Oklahoma-born singer not only has a booming, bluesy voice that belies his youth and is at times reminiscent of an early Elvis Presley, he also has a knack for Southern Gothic-style writing that reminds us of Jason Isbell or Barry Hannah. His characters are more multidimensional than most Americana fodder; they’re a convenience store robber who happens to be a veteran or even Hades, King of the Underworld, trying to convince Persephone to hop in his black limousine.
Before his performance at our Southern Living Live Biscuits and Jam Concert on June 11th with two of our other favorite artists The Secret Sisters (Hurry! There’s still tickets left.), we talked with Parker about his latest album, The Very Last Day, small towns, and his newfound love for chocolate beignets.
SL: Your songs have those Gothic qualities where the protagonists are flawed and the situations are often bizarre or tragicomedy. What material influenced your storytelling on this album?
PM: I was watching a lot of Walking Dead (laughs). I also read a Stephen King novel called The Stand, which is sort of about a government virus that gets out and wipes out everything except .02 percent of the population. And I also read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is also about the end of the world so I was reading a lot of apocalyptic stuff, but the flip side of that is you’ve got to find a way to laugh through it.
I’m always frustrated when stories are too perfect and when the protagonist is more than human. In some cases I love that idealistic view, but that’s not really my personal view. I think even the greatest people are still people, and I find that I relate to characters a bit more when they’re a little messed up.
You wrote this album while you were living in Oklahoma. Did that inform these songs too?
That’s where I was born and raised, and it’s also really cheap to live there (laughs). I’m living in Nashville now, but I really like small town America. It’s home. I think wherever you’re at when you’re making things has to influence what you’re creating. The street that I lived on was pretty interesting. There were a lot of working class folks and these small town archetypal people. Most small towns have their streetwalkers and these people who you see walking around all the time and you’re like ‘Who’s that guy?’ that you see everywhere. So you might make up stories about him because you might be afraid to ask him what he’s actually doing.
You said that your parents record collection gave you a lot of inspiration growing up. When you think back on it, can you point out 5 standout albums that made a big impact on you?
Absolutely. There’s a record by Ry Cooder called Boomer’s Story. It was the first record I fell in love with and I was probably 6-years-old. My dad would play it all the time in his truck, and it had this song called “Crow Black Chicken.” I just thought it was the coolest. That whole record kind of made me want to play guitar.
Then there’s a John Hiatt record called Bring the Family that was like the cleaning-the-house-on-Saturday-afternoon record. And there’s a Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown record called Long Way Home, and funny enough it was recorded where we recorded our album, but I didn’t know that till we got there and there’s this big picture on the wall of that record cover, and I was like “Oh my God!”
There’s also a Robert Earle Keen record that was recorded live from the Sons of Hermann Hall that was a really big early influence. There’s great story telling, and it’s live so you can hear him interact with the audience. I love that because he’s really funny, but then he’ll turn around and sing a heartbreaking song.
Your live performances have incredible energy that’s almost like a church revival. Did your background singing in church as a kid ultimately inform the way you perform live as an adult?
Yeah, I think so. Most of my live music experience for a good chunk of my life was in church because I was there Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night playing guitar in the church band and singing. And when you spend that much time steeped in something it has to influence the way you end up doing it — especially learning to sing and not be self-conscious about it. A lot of singers are really self conscious, but in church everyone just sings, and you know, a lot of the worst singers sing the loudest and the people who clap the loudest clap off time, but it’s real. You learn not to judge a performance based on how good it is, but the spirit of it.
When you tour in the South, do you have some favorite places you make a point to visit?
I always love New Orleans. I love how old and strange the city is, and you can drink on the street (laughs). The first time I went there was this past New Year’s Eve, and within a month we were back and played another show and then we played another show a month after that so it’s become my new favorite place. I’m trying to think of where we stayed next to the place with the chocolate beignets.
New Orleans Coffee and Beignet Co.?
Yes! That place. I’m going back there.
To purchase tickets for our Southern Living Live event in Charleston, South Carolina featuring Parker Millsap and the Secret Sisters, click here.