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Oklahoma’s Parker Millsap winning friends in cool places with tuneful character studies

Bassist Michael Rose, left, singer-guitarist-songwriter Parker Millsap and fiddler Daniel Foulks will perform on July 15 at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, the day after an appearance on "Conan."
(Laura Partain)

For an unassuming-looking kid out of tiny Purcell, Okla., population 6,300, singer and songwriter Parker Millsap has attracted some pretty impressive friends in cool places since the 2014 release of his debut album.

Earlier this year, pop superstar and musical tastemaker Elton John dropped Millsap’s name when asked about contemporary musicians he admires, and in March, Millsap scored a slot at Nashville’s venerated Grand Ole Opry on the same night that country queen Loretta Lynn was on stage.

He’s been tapped as an opening act for Americana stalwarts including Patty Griffin, Jason Isbell and Old Crow Medicine Show, among others.

His sophomore album, “The Very Last Day,” is a raw and bluesy musical excursion that could provide the Coen brothers with subject matter for a half dozen of their noir-ish, character-rich comedy-dramas. The March release has also earned the 23-year-old a coveted album-of-the-year nomination at the 2016 American Music Assn. Awards to be handed out in September.

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Millsap plays July 11 at the Casbah in San Diego, July 12 at Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach and July 15 at the fabled Troubadour in West Hollywood, the day after he makes his debut appearance on “Conan.”

“I’m so pumped about playing the Troubadour,” he said. “There are just so many people that you listen to that have played there, people who once worked the door there. It’s great to get to play that room. I’ve driven by a few times when I happen to be in L.A.”

In one of his most striking songs on the new album, “Heaven Sent,” he sings from the perspective of the gay son of a preacher who yearns for his father’s acceptance. The new album’s opening number, “Hades Pleads,” also showcases the young artist’s songwriting skill.

Parker Millsap performs at the Grand Ole Opry.
Parker Millsap performs at the Grand Ole Opry.
(Chris Hollo )

Millsap dives deep into mythological themes in a tune built on gritty slide electric guitar, thumping drums and ragged-edged fiddling behind his octave-hopping vocal. He punctuates each observation with disorienting breathy interjections and barbed-war blues inflections.

“That was the first song I wrote for this record,” Millsap said via phone while riding shotgun as his girlfriend piloted their car back to Nashville from a quick vacation jaunt to Florida’s Gulf Coast.

“I had been reading about Greek mythology as I was starting to work on this record, and thought about doing some kind of a musical production about the story of Orpheus,” he said. “I wanted to read up more on Greek mythology, and the more I started learning about the story of Hades and Persephone, the more creepy and awful I realized it was.

“As a songwriter, I thought I’d try to see if I can relate to that in any way,” he said with a laugh.

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Although “The Very Last Day” is just the second Millsap album most pop music fans have had access to, the young artist says he has quite the back catalog.

“This is really like my fifth record,” he said. “This is just the second one that’s had any press. I’ve been writing songs since I was 13 or 14, and made my first record when I was about 16, with my high school band, which Michael [Rose] also was part of.”

As much as he was immersed in music growing up in small-town Oklahoma, he said, “I wasn’t really aware of Oklahoma music history until maybe when I was in high school. Before that I was just listening to what my parents listened to, and what we sang in church.”

Opening his ears to the music from his native state made him aware of folk-protest music hero Woody Guthrie, rocker-pianist Leon Russell (whose music he was introduced to by fellow Oklahoma troubadour John Fullbright), and one of his biggest musical heroes, singer-songwriter J.J. Cale, writer of Eric Clapton hits including “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” as well as “They Call Me the Breeze.”

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Cale’s influence surfaces in the the laid-back bluesiness and tasteful acoustic guitar accompaniment of Millsap’s song “Morning Blues,” while his version of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move” gets to the existential angst at the heart of that lament. The song also reflects the vocal role models he’s cited such as Howlin’ Wolf, Tom Waits and even Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and Freddie Mercury.

The new album delivers a stronger portrait of his concerts because much of it was recorded live in the studio with his touring band, which spotlights fiddle player Daniel Foulks and bassist Michael Rose, with whom he has been friends and playing music since they were in high school.

“We’ve been touring a lot and I love live music, and I just wanted to capture that on record,” he said. “It’s fun to use the studio like an instrument, but you can just tell with a record when it’s made by a bunch of people playing at the same time.

“Even when the Beach Boys were making those records with the really complex rhythm tracks,” he said, “you could tell there were people singing together over that. You can just tell — it’s a feel you can’t fake. I think our ears are smarter than maybe we think they are.”

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As for seeing his latest album nominated by the Americana group for top album honors alongside Chris Stapleton’s runaway hit “Traveller,” Lucinda Williams’ “The Ghosts of Highway 20” and Jason Isbell’s “Something More Than Free,” Millsap chuckles.

“On a professional level it’s great,” he said. “On a personal level, that’s not what I’m in it for. It’s always an honor and I’m always grateful to be recognized.

“But,” he added, expressing his admiration for the other nominees, “there’s no way I’m going to win and I’m not really worried about it. It’s kind of wild – my manager texted me [when nominations were announced], and I saw the list of the other names and thought, ‘Wait a minute — somebody must have messed up.’”

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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