Hooks, Lines, and Singers on the Florida Panhandle
It took until the middle of the final day at 30A Songwriters Festival, as Caroline Spence was singing in a dark tent about watered-down whiskey, for me to remember that not everyone in the audience was a songwriter. For many people who attend this festival, songwriting is a mysterious talent that only some possess. Despite the fact that literally anyone can write a song, most of the folks here never will. Most folks in America, in general, are more content to get their music from other people. Music is something that’s gifted to them rather than a power they themselves wield.
Sitting with this little epiphany as Spence wended her way through her beautifully clever tune, I became acutely aware that this is a completely different festival for non-songwriters.
This seems like such a small and obvious detail now. Obviously most people at most festivals are not songwriters, but at a festival that has “songwriters” in its name, I had come with certain assumptions. I had come with the intention of breaking old festival habits and sitting for entire sets. My mode of discovery was to be not just to pop in and get a quick taste of a songwriter’s schtick, but rather to stay put and absorb their entire approach to the job of singer-songwritering. After all, I started my adult life with the intention of making a living as a singer-songwriter. I know well that just writing one (or three) good songs is not the whole gig. Anyone can do that, so aiming for that low-hanging goal is equivalent to half-assing it. As Spence noted ahead of her “Whiskey Watered Down” tune, this festival is full of artists who are whole-assing it.
This brings me to Parker Millsap, who was second in a line of four artists on the mainstage for the final day. Amy Lavere was ahead of him and a couple of old-hat masters — Shawn Colvin and John Prine — were to follow.
Millsap, at a mere 23, delivered the very best set of the festival, of those I witnessed. (And again, with 175 artists, chances are quite high that there were 20 other “best of fest” performances.) What he did was the embodiment of singer-songwritering, whether you’re gazing in from the perspective of a recovering songwriter or whether you’re just a casual fan who has recognized that most of the music you dig is of the singer-songwriter type.
Millsap is just a kid, and he has a great deal to learn about his craft, but his range is impressive and the fearlessness with which he traverses that range is the thing. His crack band doesn’t hurt, but his songs could stand up without them. He carries the Tulsa sound in his bones, but that’s not everything either. Most of his songs toy with an A/A/A/B rhyme scheme, switching to AA/BB or A/B/A/B on the choruses. The effect of this is that his verses, depending how he sings them, can either feel rushed and manic or stumbling-drunk, with the more predictably structured choruses contrasting the pace. His choruses are like the voice of reason or the narrator or a conscience or maybe even god.
Thematically, his lyrics are thick with sin and redemption. His characters struggle and falter, whether they’re cooking methamphetamines or driving big rigs or trying to reckon their gayness with their pentacostal upbringings. Thus, the rhyme and rhythm contrast between verse (story) and chorus (moral) are perfectly aligned. When he breaks for an instrumental solo, it comes either when you get the impression that his character could use a breather, or when he’s sung the hell out of something and there’s nothing more to say. Into that space, music can come to move the song along.
There are so many moving parts in a song, and every one of them can either show up as filler, distract from the premise, or stand for something. Millsap has said that his heroes include John Steinbeck and Tom Waits, and the lessons they’ve taught him about characterization and narrative and story structure and voice come through in his work. In some songs, all those elements are present and milling about, in others they lock together and zoom. But for a 23-year-old songwriter to have the kind of grip on all those things that Parker Millsap seems to have, is just a treat to watch.
Of course, even if you don’t know or care about any of those things, the songs rock and swing, the rhythm grabs your feet and hips, and his showmanship flows. It’s equal parts folksinger and rock and roll, which is to say cooler than you, but somehow also so down-to-earth.
After he left the stage, Shawn Colvin came out with her incredibly sad songs about breakups and loss. “Trouble” and “Polaroids” and “Sunny Came Home” and so on. Colvin is a completely different kind of songwriter, who long ago figured out how her approach to first- and third-person narrative can be used to convey a range of emotions and ideas. Her songs are novel-like in their nuance and characters, and I studied them closely back when I was figuring out how to write my own songs. I guess even back then I should’ve taken the hint that my allegiance to narrative structure and voice were better suited for the page than the microphone, but in some small way singing Shawn Colvin’s songs eventually got me there.
Enter John Prine — a formulaic narrative songwriter if ever there was one, and I mean that as a compliment. All the songwriters in Nashville that have figured out how to focus their talent into a money-making machine would be well-advised to study Prine’s formula; the good ones already know it by heart — and know they’ll never master it.
The beauty of a John Prine song is that it doesn’t matter what chords you play, or what mandolin or guitar solo he throws in to give the crowd a show. The songs are like jackets that anyone can wear. If you put them on a big muscly guy, they’re going to look different than if you put them on, say, me. But they’ll fit us both and keep us both warm and carry us both through whatever comes.
Whatever voodoo magic he employs to pull off his kind of songwriting, I don’t want to know the trick. On this warm, partly cloudy winter day in Florida — slight breeze off the ocean, something called a Beetlejuicemosa (whateverthehell) in my hand — it was enough to just be in the same moment as him and his behemoth talent.
Indeed, even for the non-songwriters, that’s kind of the whole point of this or any other festival. Just to be together, in a shared space, when someone in the room is willing to share with strangers their insight and struggle and the beautiful way they’ve survived it — not to prove anything, but just because we’re all in this together. Let’s do more of that, everywhere, all the time.