Parker Millsap is a classic case of a voice not fitting the person from whom it emerges. Slight, squeaky-clean and still somewhat baby-faced, Millsap is a sharp dresser — often sporting a bow tie, button-down shirt and cardigan — and near-constantly shadowed by his rambunctious, black-and-white mutt, Mavis.
It’s the sort of dapper wholesomeness of Buddy Holly if he had lived to see the 21st century and got Lasik to lose the black frames. Not surprisingly, Millsap notes that his voice once bore a resemblance to Holly’s: back in that certain special time in every young man’s life.
Now, a few years later, his voice sounds like that of a grizzled, rough-and-tumble outlaw, not a polite 19-year-old hailing from Purcell. As luck would have it, it’s that wholly unexpected voice that has found Millsap hailed as one of the best and brightest emerging talents Oklahoma has to offer.
“The gravelly thing … I’m not sure where it comes from. That’s just my voice,” he said. “I have a theory that it came from growing up in a Pentecostal church, watching those fervent preachers whoop and holler. Somewhere in my brain, I might have held onto that. It’s serving me well.”
No doubt, that voice and the way Millsap carries it are indebted to the steady diet of gospel hymns he imbibed each Sunday and Wednesday. But from as early as he can remember, the time in between was filled with classic songwriters like Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, and the swampy blues of Howlin’ Wolf and Mississippi John Hurt.
While other kids who grow up with that ilk might eventually drop it in favor of passing fads, Millsap recognized the greatness and stuck with it.
“I went through a punk phase for a month and a mainstream-country phase for a while as a preteen. Maybe it’s just because it’s what I know, but I think it’s because it’s real,” he said. “It’s like reading Newsweek all your life and then being given a copy of Tiger Beat: That isn’t real, and it isn’t what matters. Obviously you go back to reading your old paper.”
Millsap eventually decided to emulate those he grew up worshiping, getting a guitar at age 9 and taking lessons from Oklahoma stalwarts including Travis Linville and Terry Buffalo Ware. Fancying himself a blues guitarist, Millsap formed a cover group, The Psydewalk, with some friends before opting to give songwriting a try.
“I got tired of trying to show off on the guitar. I got to where I could do that really well, but it bored me pretty quickly,” he said. “It didn’t make people react in the way that I wanted people to react.”
By the time Millsap graduated high school in 2011, he knew a career in music was the only way, so he talked his parents into letting him forgo college in hopes of working as a full-time musician.
He struck out to California for a few months to work in a recording studio for hands-on learning. It turned out to have more of an impact than he imagined.
“I wasn’t into Tom Waits until I moved to that studio. It’s where he recorded Bone Machine and Mule Variations. I thought I might as well study up on who this guy was,” Millsap said. “It took me a while to understand and get into it, because there’s this edge about him … but when you get underneath all that, he’s just a songwriter, and I latched onto that.”
Finding Waits’ voice uncannily similar to his own was like being given a road map of how to best utilize this God-given trait. While finishing up in Cali, he began booking a slew of shows back home, and a last-minute fill-in for Camille Harp at The Deli led to Millsap getting his own residency at the hallowed Norman dive each Tuesday night, winning over new fans on a weekly basis.
He then took his first batch of songs into Wes Sharon’s 115 Recording studio in Norman. The result became his full-length debut album, Palisade, released last summer, with musical partner Michael Rose. The humble, sparse folk recording became a local favorite, not to mention Oklahoma Gazette’s pick for album of the year.
“I’m proud of the silence on that record, the space on that record, the moments when we let it breathe. It’s tempting to fill everything up, but that was the best service to the songs,” he said. “That record is us building our fort, saying, ‘This is what we do.’”
The months since have brought about a great sense of kinship with his fellow songwriters, with Linville, John Fullbright, Tom Skinner and the like taking Millsap under their wing.
“I don’t think any of them have given me direct advice. It’s more leading by example. I see what they are doing and try to measure up,” Millsap said. “It’s not competition, but everyone fuels the fire below everyone else. When Fullbright got nominated for a Grammy, you could get jealous, but what you think is that this is good for all of us. There’s a magnifying glass over our area.”
Recently adding violinist Daniel Foulks to his band, he hopes to take advantage of the bright-burning spotlight with a follow-up release, already in the works, again at 115 Recording.
“They aren’t more pop, but they are more accessible, catchier choruses and such,” Millsap said. “There’s some pretty straightforward rock songs on there, but also the same sad-sack-songwriter songs I like to play.”
He noted that he’s gaining more control over his most formidable weapon, increasing the range and texture of his vocals.
It’s not just Millsap’s voice that surprises, but also his actions and the way he carries himself. Whereas most teenage musicians might take this time to coast and make excuses for any lack of achievement later on, Millsap is wholly committed to being the best songwriter he can be, studying the art daily and proving that his voice is not the only thing beyond his years.
“I look at it less like magic. I read this book by Stephen King, and he basically says that writing isn’t as elusive as you think it is. It’s just work. You write more and you get better, just like anything,” Millsap said. “For a long time, I thought of songwriting as waiting for something magic to happen, and then writing it down. There’s waiting involved, but in the meantime, just write a song. You have to practice, that way when you get an idea, you can write it down effectively. There’s waiting involved, but in the meantime, just write a song. Even if it’s bad, you just got a little better … and I’m always getting a little better.”