The end of the world

Americana newcomer Parker Millsap gets apocalyptic on his new album

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Parker Millsap took a lonely time in his life and created an album that tackles a tough subject — the end of the world — with optimism.
Courtesy of publicist/Laura Partain

An upbeat love song might be a strange choice for the lead single from an album about the apocalypse. But not if you’re Parker Millsap.

The 23-year-old’s 2016 album The Very Last Day is full of these apparent contradictions — singing in the face of death and welcoming suffering with open arms.

I noticed a similar dissonance when we spoke in preparation for this story. For someone so interested in the end of the world, Millsap was unexpectedly cheerful and funny. But these paradoxical qualities began to make sense when he explained the album’s origin.

After moving to Guthrie, Oklahoma, a new and unfamiliar town, Millsap wrote the majority of the album’s music under what some would consider dismal conditions.

“I was living alone. I didn’t really know anybody, but I got a good deal on a house,” Millsap says. “It was the depth of winter time, I wasn’t touring, and I happened to read a bunch of apocalyptic books right in a row.”

It’s not surprising that an album set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland originated this way, but why the accompanying optimism?

Millsap was able to create something worthwhile out of a less-than-ideal situation. And he did it by accepting his circumstances. This idea became one of the central motifs of The Very Last Day, illustrated prominently in the title track’s chorus: “You know there ain’t no reason being so afraid/You can try to hide but it’s gonna get you anyway/When I see that cloud, gonna sing out loud/Lift my hands and say, ‘Praise the Lord — it’s the very, very, very last day.”

Millsap’s apocalypse connection goes deeper than just that Oklahoma winter. He also owes his Judgement Day fascination to his church-going days.

“I was raised in a church environment, and so I perceived the end of times as a real threat,” Millsap says. “I’ve had those kinds of things on my mind for a long time. And they’ve found their home on this record a little bit.”

At home, his parents exposed him to genres that would influence his musical styling — blues from his dad and classic rock from his mom.

“It was pretty interesting listening to church music first and then such a wide variety at home,” Millsap says.

Millsap first played in bands in high school, initially sticking to guitar. Eventually starting his own band and taking on vocal duties, Millsap honed his skills by performing incessantly in the extended Oklahoma City area.

“I played a lot of shows. I never wanted to have a real job, so I just played a lot to make money,” he says. “And with that comes a lot of practice.”

In the past few months, his hard work has paid off. Not only has turnout been more consistent, but he’s recently made several television appearances with his band, including performances on Conan and the Grand Ole Opry.

“Up until about six months ago it was kind of a crapshoot whether anybody was going to show up or not. We played a lot of strange places, a lot of house concerts, played a lot of coffee houses,” Millsap says. “The last two or three tours people have been showing up. That’s the most rewarding thing to me.”

Part of Millsap’s widespread appeal likely comes from his ability to make accessible a wide range of sounds from a distant past.

And despite its weighty subject matter, The Very Last Day doesn’t come off as morbid or overly serious. Of the album’s 11 songs, nearly half are up-tempo. On several songs, Millsap takes a note from classic bluegrass, using fiddles and banjos to deliver what some might consider dire subject matter over a toe-tapping melody. These tracks contribute a free-wheeling quality to Millsap’s already energetic performance.

On The Very Last Day, Millsap doesn’t just polish up the historic sounds of the delta blues or update them to a more modern, Americana style (although he does do both of these things). He transforms them completely, in the same way Dick Dale borrowed traditional Middle Eastern sounds to create surf music in the early ’60s. The lonely, desolate sounds of the early 20th century Mississippi Delta are repurposed to evoke an apocalyptic Oklahoma wasteland. And it works.

While Millsap could have milked the apocalyptic-country-blues theme for all it was worth, he uses it instead as a backdrop on which to tell stories. Millsap’s characters and their mythological struggles are the heart of the album. His characters deal not with unfamiliar, apocalyptic issues but with real-life ones — loneliness, yearning, death and grief.

The stories aren’t of overcoming but of enduring. In nearly every song Millsap’s message comes across loud and clear: Even the end of the world isn’t the end of the world.

See Folks Fest schedule for more details on Parker Millsap’s performance.