Music

Now Hear This!: Parker Millsap - 'Parker Millsap' (album premiere)

PopMatters is pleased to premiere Parker Millsap's self-titled album, the latest from the wise-beyond-his-years 20-year-old Americana songwriter.

 

It would be easy -- and also apt -- to say that 20-year-old Parker Millsap's music belies his age in its careworn tone and themes. But what's astounding about Parker Millsap's upcoming self-titled album is how he's able to channel the spirit of old souls in song, despite his youth in years and as a songwriter. As PopMatters' Taylor Coe writes in a forthcoming review of the album, "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." With the release of Parker Millsap on the horizon, PopMatters caught up with the prolific up-and-comer to find out more about his songwriting process and how growing up with a Pentecostal upbringing in Oklahoma affected it. PopMatters is pleased to premiere Parker Millsap, which is due for release on 4 February via Okrahoma.

 

 

PopMatters: You are only 20 and have come so far so fast in your songwriting and playing. Please tell us about how you got started in music and the process of your musical development.

Parker Millsap: I grew up singing in a Pentecostal church. My mom was in the choir and my dad ran sound, so I was involved in that from a very young age. My dad is a big blues and songwriter fan, though, so when I wasn’t singing hymns at church, I was listening to Taj Mahal or Lyle Lovett or Clarence Gatemouth Brown or Robert Earl Keen. All that combined lends to pretty fertile soil for growing a musician I guess. Then when I was seven or eight, my parents bought me a guitar and now I’m here doing this interview.

PopMatters: Your songwriting tells stories with the compassion and understanding of an "old soul", a good man who’s lived a long, hard life. Where does that come from?

Parker Millsap: I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out what people mean when they say "old soul". I guess it's better than having an old back or old knees. I think it might stem from always wanting to sit at the grown-up table at family functions rather than sitting with my cousins at the kid's table.

PopMatters: Many of your songs center around really dark characters, such as in "Quite Contrary". Are they based on people you've observed in your own life or do they spring from your imagination or both?

Parker Millsap: Both. Everyone knows someone who's done something questionable, but rarely do we try their shoes on for size. A trailer house caught on fire behind my childhood neighborhood when I was six or seven years old. All the neighbors stood in the yard and watched the flames billowing up while police cars and fire trucks sped down Blue Ridge Drive. It wasn't until much later that I learned that it was a meth-lab fire. For "Quite Contrary", I took that moment and just pretended the inhabitants of the house were Mother Goose characters. I tried on their shoes. They fit alright.

PopMatters: You are a superb songwriter with real literary flair. Which writers, not just in music, have been your biggest influences?

Parker Millsap: John Steinbeck and Kurt Vonnegut. My headstone will say it was their fault.

PopMatters: Please tell us about how your Pentacostal upbringing has influenced your songwriting.

Parker Millsap: On a musical level, I think it's pretty obvious. In the Pentecostal church, the music is from the gut; even the ballads. "Turn your large hymnal to number 305 and let your heart bleed while we sing 'The Old Rugged Cross'."

On a personal level, I dealt with a whole lot of guilt growing up. I could write a whole dissertation on this, but here's the short answer: It's hard to live like Jesus, and I was raised to expect that of myself. Some folks become saints, some folks wrestle with their demons every day, and some folks write songs about it all. Most of the people I went to church with are in that saint category. They're the most loving and caring folks you'll ever meet. I've learned that it was my own expectations, not theirs, that made it hard for me. But I also learned that there are two sides to every coin, and that the dark side isn't always as dark as you think, and the light side not always as light.

PopMatters: You show real pride in your home state of Oklahoma in your music. What does Oklahoma mean to you in terms of both inspiration and the form your music has taken?

Parker Millsap: First of all, there's not a whole lot to do in Oklahoma. My hometown doesn't even have a bowling alley, so instead of doing normal kid things in high school, I sat in my room and played guitar. So Oklahoma granted me the opportunity to live with little distraction and focus on things besides my bowling score.

Second, Okies are a strange breed. My great-great grandma's family came to Oklahoma before the Dust Bowl and stayed here through it. It takes a certain kind of people to endure that sort of hardship, and a lot of us still have that mentality of "Just put your head down and do your work for the day and go home and thank the Lord for the bread on the table." In fact, Oklahom'’s state motto (which they're trying to change, don’t get me started) is "Labor Omnia Vincit" -- Latin for "Labor Conquers All" -- and ain't that something to be proud of?

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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