Big decisions happen when high school ends. Questions about what to do with your life top the list. Parker Millsap heard his friends’ plans, and he wasn’t impressed.
“Everybody I knew that was going to college was like, I’m going to get a degree in management or business so I can get a good paying job,” Millsap remembered. “That just wasn’t a motivator for me.”
When it came time to apply for college, Millsap said, he “just didn’t. And I didn’t tell my parents that I hadn’t turned in the paperwork or anything. And they were like, what? What? What? What?”
It’s not even time for his 10-year reunion, but already things are turning out well for Millsap. The 26-year-old guitar player is scheduled for a show on Friday at Jefferson Center’s Fostek Hall. It’s already sold out, part of a string of dates across the country that includes a July 26 set at the venerable Newport Folk Festival. He’s had two successful albums, “The Very Last Day” and “Other Arrangements,” along with a 7-inch record with Sarah Jarosz, and their performance of his song, “Your Water,” got the rapt attention of Elton John, who has become a big supporter.
Millsap is still floored by John’s interest.
“I think most musicians would say that’s not why you do it,” he said. “There’s a certain self-satisfaction, [and] that’s why most artists create. But I’m always grateful for things like that, those surreal moments of life where I like look around and pinch myself. Am I dreaming?”
Millsap is from Purcell, Oklahoma, about a half-hour south of Oklahoma City. He grew up going to a Pentecostal church, where he got his first experiences playing music.
“As soon as I could operate a capo and play 6 chords, haha, they let me sit down front with my acoustic, not plugged into the PA, and let me play with the other guitar player there,” he said.
That happened every Sunday morning and every Wednesday night when he was growing up.
“I think I wouldn’t have become a musician if I hadn’t had that experience of playing live music with other people and having kind of otherworldly experiences with music, consistently, from an early age – having spiritual, mystical experiences with the context of music specifically,” Millsap said. “I was really drawn to that. I don’t know why. It was just fulfilling to me to play music with other people. It’s like some sort of weird communion, some universal language. It just made me really love that power, not power over other people, but power with other people.”
It wasn’t until he got into high school that he began to discover Oklahoma’s rich musical history. J.J. Cale and Leon Russell became a part of his musical experience.
“And I’m still finding gems,” he said. “The older I get, the more it influences me.”
By the time he hit 13, he was putting bands together, looking to play back-to-school bashes and county fairs. One of the bands was called The Funkhouse Fevers, and it covered Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and a couple of vintage blues numbers. He started writing songs then.
“It was actually not awful,” Millsap recalled. “The lyrics are bad, but the structure of the songs was fine. We even wrote a couple of funk instrumental things that were really fun.”
When he got into high school, he leveled up, after his parents bought him an acoustic guitar. His dad was big into singer/songwriters Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, and bluesmen Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and Keb’ Mo,’ and they become staples of Millsap’s childhood. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Bob Dylan were in the mix, too, along with “other, harsher things,” he said, laughing.
“I think I got that acoustic guitar at exactly the right time, because I was an emotional teenager,” he said. “I had someplace to go to get my weird, pubescent stuff out. I made that connection, oh, this is a real outlet. This is something that’s important to me. I learn about myself when I do this, but also, I can just tell stories. I can just write a jam. There are all kinds of things I can do with a song.”
After he broke the news to his parents that he wasn’t interested in college, they insisted he get an internship at a recording studio. A local studio engineer suggested a contact at Prairie Sun Recording Studios, north of San Francisco.
He wound up spending seven days a week there for three months after high school graduation, making coffee and weedeating – and getting to know a guy who worked there with Tom Waits on his Grammy Award-winning albums, “Bone Machine” and “Mule Variations.”
“When I heard [Waits] had recorded there, I hadn’t heard much of his stuff, and then I listened and was like, this is amazing,” Millsap said. “Getting to know Tom’s catalog, and specifically the records he made with Oz, while hanging with Oz, was really cool.”
Then it was time to go home, and Millsap was certain that he still wanted to do music, but he was much more interested in playing and singing than engineering and producing. His parents let him come back and stay, provided he get a day job, and Millsap spent the rest of his time trying to get bookings all over Oklahoma.
He built connections that led him to the Folk Alliance, then to the distribution and label services business, Thirty Tigers, which is a home to Jason Isbell, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, Josh Ritter, Galactic and Lupe Fiasco, among others.
“It’s very fair and friendly to artists, especially in the digital age,” he said. “The way the old labels work doesn’t make sense any more. The game has changed in a lot of ways. Access to radio is very different.
“They have created a platform for artists. If you’re willing to go tour and work to build your thing, you can make a living as an artist. I think it’s pretty awesome.”