Parker Millsap’s “Holy” Music

For Territory Magazine — Photos by Laura Partain

parker and band

Sometimes it’s about how words hit your ears, not just the tone, but also the life that’s behind them. Parker Millsap grew up Pentecostal in Purcell, Oklahoma. That sentence is so weighted with subtexts, it’s hard to unpack.

Imagine growing up as a native English speaker, and then going to a country where they also speak English. Most of the words you need to get by in an average day are already present. What’s missing are the words that help you understand the deeper cultural context. When the natives use those words, you know what they are saying; you may even know all the words; you just don’t know what they mean in a row.

Millsap was in a van on his way to New York when he talked to us. He’s playing the AmericanaFest NYC at The Lincoln Center, and later this year, he’ll be touring with Sarah Jarosz. He’s busy because people are noticing that he is talented in a way that few are. In church, we would have called that gifting; it’s something God gives you. That’s how you talk about things in the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal denomination in which Millsap (and I) grew up.

Whether or not God or the gods gave him the gift of music is a different question. It’s certain that he honed his craft at one of the few venues in the metro still committed to live music seven days a week.

“I played the Deli in Norman every Tuesday for two and a half years,” Millsap said. “It was great practice performing in front of people. There were probably twenty people max at first. The Deli provided a good environment for trying out new songs, too.”

Yes, there will come a point at which we all regret not being at some of those free shows. That point may have been when Millsap made his appearance on Conan on July 14, or possibly when he released “The Very Last Day” on March 25. To be fair, “a prophet is not without honor, except in his own country…” That’s Bible talk, too, a way of saying that we did not recognize whom we had in our midst until outsiders recognized him.

The Conan performance featured the title track to the new album, and listeners who aren’t familiar with the Pentecostal obsession with the last days likely missed the lyrical fun Millsap has with his songwriting. A belief in the context of a religious community often needs something to make it sensible, a real world referent or analog. In the case of Armageddon, how to explain some of the verses in The Revelation—it’s decidedly not “Revelations”—that appear to reference a conflagration on a planetary scale?

Nuclear weapons were the answer to the old Pentecostal question of how the earth would be destroyed, thereby ushering in the final judgment. The congregants in the Assemblies of God and other like denominations grow up with the tension of “knowing” the world is coming to an end, but not really wanting it to happen. My Assembly of God maternal grandmother used to say, “I want to go home, but not today.” At the same time, they are torn by the desire to see the evil that, from their perspective, seems to be increasing come to an end. Everyone wants to go to heaven, right?

So, when Millsap juxtaposes the fiery chariot with an atomic bomb, it’s funny. Really funny for ex-Pentecostals. Come on—the fiddler is using pizzicato during lyrics about a nuclear holocaust! That’s funny! Just like when Millsap sings about the sun (Apollo) stealing his true love on “Jealous Sun.” My ex-Pentecostal sensibility tells me to read that as Jealous Son, because when he sings “I can see how heaven could be lonely/But can’t he find someone who ain’t my only,” I just “know” he’s talking about Jesus.

Every fundamentalist kid, Pentecostal and other, grows up with the sexual tension of normal kids. They experiment, just like Baptists and Episcopalians and Zoroastrians. After those sessions—touching the boobs equals backsliding—the guilt sets in, and many repent. It’s like losing your girlfriend every week or every third day because she recommits to Jesus, the jealous son. See? It’s funny. Millsap found a way to integrate the language of Pentecostalism into lyrics that draw from the tradition and pay homage to it even as they gently mock it. It’s lyrical satire, and like all satire, it works best for those baptized in the language of the tradition.

Guthrie—not the whole town—a place steeped in musical tradition and populated with the ex-religious, recognized the “prophet” when he showed up, and they understood the language, but Millsap said he wasn’t there very often. “Guthrie was a really quiet place to write a record,” he said. “I toured a lot when I lived there, so I didn’t really get to know a lot of people, but it was peaceful and small. I gained peace of mind there so I could write.”

Purcell is small, too. Millsap said the town left him little to do except practice playing guitar, so now we are all indebted to Purcell, Oklahoma’s boring quotient. It was there he started singing in church.

“I watched the guitar player and bass player on Sunday morning and night until I knew enough chords to play, too,” he said. The “too” means that in addition to singing, he started playing guitar in church.

And this is the point that we get into the language of the natives. Millsap learned music in a Pentecostal church in a small town just south of Norman, Okla. Sometimes you say something and the words are so full of subtexts that they need unpacking, so here we go.

“A lot of my musical influence is related to those Pentecostal services,” Millsap said. “They aren’t afraid to get rowdy, and there is so much congregational singing.”

This is a really important point. Singing in a large crowd of people who are singing loud is perfect training for letting go with your voice. If you’ve heard him let go, you know what kind of quality this adds to a voice, that genuine, raspy, spirit-y, “I don’t give a shit who is listening because this is for God” kind of singing. When critics call his voice soulful, this is partly what they mean.

God is that thing that is big enough for us to love. Please understand that in the abstract, as some of us don’t believe in that kind of God or any god, but most things and people are too small to love fully. They betray our love because they are human, or if they are things, because they don’t really satisfy. When you grow up in a Pentecostal church, God is big enough for the most love you can muster, and the worship service is a demonstration of the congregation’s gratitude.

That rowdy quality Millsap talks about is the expectation that God will do something in every service. Growing up in that environment, there is a palpable tension as you wait for “the Spirit to move.” There it is. The words you know but don’t know what they mean in a group. For Pentecostals that means speaking in tongues or being “slain in the Spirit,” or prophesying or speaking a word of knowledge. See? So many words in a row without coherent context if you didn’t grow up that way.

“The Pentecostal experience is all encompassing,” Millsap said.

He likely meant that the experience of being Pentecostal governs every domain of living: childhood, adolescence, sexuality, marriage, hobbies, habits, language, etc. The list is endless because the experience is all encompassing. This is difficult for non-Pentecostals to grasp, and they haven’t had much help in communicating with Pentecostals, as the tongues-talkers are a collection of denominations that are fundamentalist in the truest sense of the word: sectarian, separatist, primitivist.

Leaving that culture can require a near-catastrophic cognitive dissonance. Many leave and have no way of talking to those who remain. Millsap’s parents remain Pentecostal, though, and it’s easier not to dismiss a movement if people you love are part of it.

“The more I’ve learned, the more I’ve been able to deal with leaving,” Millsap said, in reference to no longer being a part of the movement. “Some people who leave are angry, but I think many of them are angry people anyway.”

It is hard to leave the movement unscathed. All the talk of antichrist, mark of the beast, end times, tribulation, hell, the death of loved ones and the expectation of the soon-coming end of the world leads to an insular community. (Southern Baptists understand some of that part of the Pentecostal experience.) It also leads to a nebulous sense of impermanence and fear. Being “backslidden” into sin might mean getting “left behind” when Jesus returns.

Getting away from the toxic elements of the faith doesn’t mean shedding all of it, though. This is especially true of the music. Give me your “Doxology,” and I’ll raise you “I’ll Fly Away.” Give me your rational aesthetic, and I’ll raise you a visceral, emotional response to God in our midst. One offers a museum quality experience—isn’t that lovely?—while the other offers a spiritual rave with writhing bodies, hands raised, voices open to the heavens, and the expectation that God will, does, can, wants to perform miracles.

“I feel like I can’t get away from that,” Millsap said of the Pentecostal music experience. “Music is tied up with spirituality, and even though that’s not my thing anymore, I have no malice for those who are still in it.”

Try to explain to the non-Pentecostal how music brings God down to us and you’ll be met with consternation. In Pentecostal churches, they sing because God responds to praise. In non-Pentecostal churches, they aren’t sure why they sing, but they like the music. It’s called praise or praise and worship, but there is no expectation that God will speak or move or miracle, and that is all the difference.

Millsap’s musical context growing up wasn’t just “songs and hymns and spiritual songs.” There was blues, classic rock, and what he called interesting music.

“My parents didn’t listen to top 40 music,” he said. “There was church music, of course, but they liked interesting music of many kinds.”

In the van these days, Millsap said he and the band mix it up; Sly & The Family Stone was the first band he mentioned. As for modern influences, the names were Alabama Shakes (“tasteful and artful,” he called them) and Arcade Fire—we agreed the latter is way overdue for a new album. His touring band consists of…

Parker Millsap is in a long line of musicians who have come from Oklahoma and wowed the country, and while they have largely been country artists, our musical tradition is more complex than that. Millsap has had success in Americana and popular music circles, in addition to country. NPR and “Rolling Stone,” have interviewed and written about him, and as is often the case, the question of what makes Oklahoma special in terms of our musical heritage comes up. We had to ask the question, too.

“People have all sorts of theories,” he said, “but, it’s chromium in the water supply.”