[5 February 2014]
Hailing from Purcell—the self-proclaimed “Heart of Oklahoma”—Parker Millsap has set himself up as the next great hope of the Red Dirt music movement. If you’ve never heard of the movement, there’s good reason. While Oklahoma acts like Jason Boland and John Fullbright have gotten some more mainstream attention in the past few years, Red Dirt music has mostly stayed more or less where it was born—within a 200 mile radius of Stillwater, OK. But Millsap, with this second and self-titled album, has a chance of bringing the movement into the spotlight. I’m not saying that he’ll be busting down the front door of the Grand Ole Opry—but who knows what will happen, especially given the turmoil in mainstream country over the past couple of years.
With Millsap, what hits you first is the voice: soulful, gravelly, whiskey-laced, and wielded like a world-weary prophet. But it’s not just raw talent. He also demonstrates a deep affinity for the Texan school of singer-songwriters like Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, meaning that the songs are just as impressive as the performances, especially “Forgive Me”, a slice of neo-Memphis soul worthy of Justin Townes Earle, and “Truck Stop Gospel”, a weird trucker manifesto worthy of Lowell George.
Anyway, comparisons are beyond the point. Millsap’s triumph here is that it never sounds like he’s riffing off anyone, though that’s not to say that this music sounds new. To the contrary, it sounds old, not unlike Joe Pug or Lucinda Williams (falling back on more comparisons, you’ll notice), another contemporary musician tapping into something very old. Not sure what I mean? Take a listen to the brilliant “At The Bar (Emerald City Blues)”, which carries a melody that might have been borrowed from an old Merle Travis LP. To boot, it manages the neat trick of also being a philosophical inquiry into the journey at the heart of The Wizard of Oz.
One of the album’s more striking elements is its limited instrumental palette. The busiest anything gets is either “Forgive Me”, the latter half of which swoons with a horn section, or “Quite Contrary”, which drops a few guitars and a harmonica into the mix, but that is relatively piling it on compared to the other tracks here. For most of the album Millsap restricts himself to not much more than acoustic guitar, bass, and shuffling percussion. Of course, there are flourishes of pedal steel, fiddle, banjo, harmonica, strings, and the aforementioned horns, but they are merely incidental details, coloring in the more or less complete tunes that Millsap has sketched out. And unlike, say, the misfires that can happen with accompaniment on songs that don’t need it, everything here, even (especially!) the brief and daring horn solo on “Old Time Religion”, is spot-on.
Good luck picking out highlights—not only will you find no filler, you’ll have trouble putting one song above any of the others. Perhaps the only odd one out is “Yosemite”, a love song that never quite hits its stride, on which Millsap makes the weird but forgivable mistake of trying to rhyme “sequoia” with “annoy ya”. Personally, I have a soft spot for “Truck Stop Gospel”, on which Millsap walks a fine line between empathy and pity for the narrator, a truck-driving, “God-fearing Christian on fire”, a man so caught up in the power of his belief that he has seemingly lost sight of what it means to be good. I’m also a sucker for the get-the-hell-outta-here spirit of “Disappear”, which packs a frustrated life into an easygoing suitcase, and the similarly oriented leave-taking tune “When I Leave”, on which Millsap plays with the law of unintended consequences: “I just try to do the right thing / Pray for rain but not the lightning.”
Road tunes and leave-takings are a fitting metaphorical trope for this album, because Millsap is clearly going places. With his voice and his rich, suggestive songwriting, it might not be long before Red Dirt isn’t just a bandwagon that people recognize, but one that they might be willing to jump onto.