Putting Down Roots:
Parker Millsap & Meg Morgan grow a home in Madison
By Andrew Leahey
Photos by Jeff Fasano
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Meg Morgan and Parker Millsap are pumped. During a recent hike in Ashland City, the two nature-buffs - an award-winning environmentalist and her chart-topping singer/songwriter husband - identified more than 30 species of birds in a matter of hours. For a pair of Oklahoma natives who grew up in the monocultural flatlands and moved east in 2014, it's still hard not to geek out over displays of Tennessee's wildlife.
Several days later, over cups of morning coffee at a café close to their Madison home, they continue to talk excitedly about the natural world around them. Appreciating the oft-ignored things - like the birdlife thriving several feet above our tunnel-visioned view of day-to-day life - is one of the countless lessons they picked up during the past 18 months.
"Once quarantine hit, one of the few things you could still safely do was go on a hike, go kayaking, or just get out in the sun," explains Parker, who talks about cherry trees, regenerative agriculture, and other green-thumbed topics with the enthusiasm his folk-singing contemporaries might reserve for, say, Levon Helm.
"I learned that the little things, like learning how to identify a few birds, can make it so much more exciting to go on a hike. It's like when you name a pet, and you immediately grow attached to it. The same thing happens when you see a bird and are able to say, 'That's a mockingbird,' or, 'That's the mockingbird that comes to this power line every day at noon and sings.' You start to become connected and attached to the living world around you. To me, that's been one of the most powerful, unexpected things about quarantine: just becoming aware of that relationship and learning to nurture it."
Lately, Parker and Meg have been spending a lot of time outdoors. As the campaign manager of Root Nashville - an initiative led by the Cumberland River Compact, with the goal of planting 500,000 trees in Davidson County by 2050 - Meg has turned her own interest in environmentalism into a thriving career, often bringing her husband along for the ride. It's a "small but mighty" operation, she says, and its success relies on a small army of volunteers, partners, and neighborhood captains. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Nashville hard in March 2020, though, it threw the last month of Root Nashville's annual planting season into upheaval. Amassing a group of volunteers just didn't make sense anymore. Instead, Meg took matters into her own hands, recruiting Parker for a 36-hour whirlwind of DIY planting across the city.
"There are tangible things we can all do to combat climate change, and that's what drew me to this job in the first place," she says. "Root Nashville is partnership-driven, and I think that's the only way we can actually make progress on big issues. We need to work together. It's very much a 'we're all in this together' mentality. That said, when Nashville started to go into lockdown last spring, it didn't make sense to try and get volunteers out."
Parker, who happened to be home during a break in his touring schedule, remembers that week. "It was less than a month after the tornado, and Root Nashville had planned a big planting," he recalls. "Then the lockdown was announced, and there were all these trees in people's yards, waiting to be planted. People were starting to work from home, and no one knew how long it was going to last. So Meg said, 'Let's go plant some trees,' and we just did it ourselves. We planted 60 trees in a day and a half."
Parker didn't mind the work. As a songwriter, he had grown used to dealing with the ephemeral. Trees, on the other hand, represented something tangible. They were an opportunity to improve the climate and leave a permanent record.
"If it's properly taken care of, a tree can last hundreds of years, depending on what kind it is," he says. "Planting a tree is a similar feeling as walking offstage after a really good show. You plant it and think, 'I did something good today. I added something to the
universe.' With a self-deprecating smile, he adds, "As a guitar player, it also makes you feel better about owning multiple wooden instruments."
As the year progressed, many afternoons were spent in a similar way: working outside, their hands in the dirt, expanding the city's tree canopy one trunk at a time. All across town, volunteers masked up and joined the effort. Nashville's planting season typically runs from mid-October through late March, but people worked year-round this time, paying special attention to neighborhoods that had been hit hard by the tornado. By the time New Year's Eve arrived, 2020 had become the most successful year of tree-planting in the city's history.
"I think people were spending a lot of time at home, looking out the window at their immediate surroundings and truly noticing the environment," says Meg, who won a Nashville Emerging Leader Award earlier this summer for her work with Root Nashville. "We noticed a big surge in people reaching out, wanting to help. Because of that, we were able to plant 8,000 trees last year."
New saplings weren't the only thing taking root in 2020. Performing live has been Parker's bread and butter since his teenage years in Oklahoma, where he sang hymns at a Pentecostal church in Purcell before moving to Norman and landing a Tuesday night residency at one of the city's longest-running musical institutions, The Deli. But faced with the grim reality that live shows weren't coming back anytime soon, the songwriter began working on his piano chops, learning to use Garageband, and bulking up on music theory.
An album's worth of new material had already started taking shape before the pandemic, and it truly came to fruition during this new housebound period. The goal, he says, was "to break my own songwriting rules."
Not that there was anything wrong with his writing. Since making his national debut with 2014's self-titled Parker Millsap, he'd become one of the most acclaimed names in American roots music, topping the Americana Albums chart two times and regularly crisscrossing the country on tour. His early releases - eclectic exercises in folk, mid-century rock & roll, and gospel-blues, all wrapped around the old-time flutter of his vibrato - had earned him a spot at the same table occupied by Old Crow Medicine Show, JD McPherson, and other vintage-minded modern acts. Things began to shift with 2018's Other Arrangements, a modern album that traded his acoustic roots for amplified, guitar-driven grit. And things shifted again in 2020, with Parker maintaining regular work hours in the basement, rehearsing his new songs - most of which now fill his fifth album, Be Here Instead - with help from a four-piece backing band.
"It's a two-level house, so we each have our own floors," Meg says of the pair's Madison home, which they share with one dog, two cats, a bearded dragon, nearly a dozen newly planted trees, and a football field's worth of acreage. "There's the noisy floor with loud music," she clarifies, "and then there's the office floor with Zoom calls and email. I always go to as many of Parker's shows as I can, but usually, our professional lives are kept pretty separate. That changed when we were both at home throughout 2020."
"This is the most time we've ever spent within 100 yards of each other!" Parker adds with a laugh. "When we moved to Nashville, I was spending more than a third of every year on tour. It took a long time before I even felt like a Nashvillian. We got married in June 2019, so we were six months into it when COVID happened. Then it was like, 'Ok, now we're really married,' but in the best way possible. We got to share a life in a way we haven't before, even though we've been sharing our lives for eight or nine years at this point. We were able to be together 24/7. For some couples, it wasn't easy to make that jump. But for us, we just got along - and we had the room to make it work."
While Meg worked upstairs, Parker's music drifted through the floorboards and filled the house. The songs sounded different than his earlier material. He'd taken up painting when the couple first moved to Nashville, inspired by the watercolor artwork of Meg's grandfather, and he took a similar approach to the creation of Be Here Instead. He wasn't afraid to get messy - to roll up his sleeves, mix sounds together, and let creativity lead the way. The sole focus wasn't on the product; it was on the process, too. "Scooting the brush around the page is worth more than the finished painting," he says, "and the feeling of the guitar resonating in the belly is worth more than the recording of the same performance."
That said, Be Here Instead is one hell of a finished painting. If albums like 2016's The Very Last Day seemed to evoke the earth-toned color palette that's become so common in Americana music, then Be Here Instead traffics in more vivid, kaleidoscopic shades. "Vulnerable" is a woozy soul standout with psychedelic overtones, while "If It Was You" blends the stained-glass shimmer of gospel music - a sound that remains near and dear to Parker's heart, even if his Pentecostal days are behind him - with the hip hues of R&B. Produced by John Agnello and recorded in a series of live takes, the album is primal one minute and polished the next, often blending seemingly disparate sounds - say, the gauzy synthesizers, folksy violin, and U2-sized uplift that reverberate throughout "In Your Eyes" - into the same track.
For Meg, witnessing the creation of another Parker Millsap album wasn't necessarily a new thing. She was around when he created The Very Last Day, whose songs - including "Heaven Sent," a stunning piece of fiction involving a gay man, his strait-laced, God-fearing father, and a heartbreaking request for acceptance - earned Millsap a nomination for "Album of the Year" at the 2016 Americana Music Honors & Awards. Likewise, she was there in 2018, when her partner went electric with Other Arrangements. Never before had she witnessed the process from a front-row seat, however.
"He'd spent 10 hours on one thing," she remembers. "I heard the same parts over and over, with a layer of floors and stairs between us. I already knew a little bit about what it took to write a song, but this past year showed me how much more goes into it."
"Being in the same space allowed us to experience each other's work in a detailed way that we hadn't seen before," Parker adds. "And luckily, we're both into what the other one does. Meg apparently likes my music, and I love planting trees! I'm so down with the mission of Root Nashville and giving back to the natural world."
Back at the coffeehouse in Madison, the morning rush has given way to a pre-lunch lull. For Parker and Meg, it's places like this - locally-owned destinations that deliver good value without the overcrowded hustle-and-bustle of their Nashville counterparts - that help make the area feel like home. Garden Fresh Food Market, Green Chili Indian Restaurant, and Thai Phooket are also on the couple's list of Madison go-to's, along with outdoor areas like Peeler Park on Neely's Bend. As they finish their cups of coffee, the conversation ends the same way it began: with enthusiasm for the local environment and dedication to its improvement. Maybe it's the caffeine's doing, but they start to finish each other's sentences, unconsciously demonstrating the simpatico lockstep they've developed after 18 months in the same home.
"We're getting ready to start another season of planting in mid-October," Meg says, "and Madison is one of three impact areas that we're targeting. The way we get trees onto private property is by working with neighborhood leaders, whom we call 'neighborhood planting captains.' You can apply to become a captain, and if you're admitted into the program, you get a certain number of free trees, which you can take around to your neighbors. We're moving toward more of a grassroots, hyper-local, neighbor-to-neighbor feel with the campaign, and we are always looking for more captains in impact areas. We'd love to have more in Madison, specifically."
"Places like Madison, North Nashville, and parts of South Nashville are impact areas because they either suffered from a lack of codes, or they were built by developers who weren't held to the codes," Parker chimes in. "When you cut down trees and build properties, you're supposed to plant new trees. It's written into the law. With a lot of places, that just didn't happen - especially in places that are impoverished, places where people of color live, and places that were formerly redlined."
"There are public health consequences to that," adds Meg. "Those areas have fewer trees, so they're hotter. Heat kills more people than all other natural disasters combined. When neighborhoods are hotter, people's health suffers, and you'll see things like much higher rates of asthma."
"One of the challenges with this campaign," Parker says, "is that 94 percent of the land in Davidson County is privately owned. In order to plant a lot of trees, you have to talk to a lot of individual property owners. It's a very involved process ..."
"... so we need more people to get involved," Meg says.
"Because the more people who get involved," Parker continues, "the better it goes. People are like, 'Free trees?! What's the catch?' And there's no catch."
"We're just making sure that everyone has access to green space and shade," explains Meg. "This work has made us even more attached to Nashville. There are parts of Madison where we've personally planted a lot, like Madison Park. I now feel like that's the best park in the world. We've become bonded to it."
"Remember what I was saying about birds, and being able to identify them?" Parker asks. "The same thing applies to trees. Like, did you know there's a tree that puts a chemical into the ground, to keep other trees of different kinds from growing near it?"
"That's a walnut tree," Meg points out.
"Knowing some things about the natural world around you - it not only makes you feel more interested in the natural world, but it makes you feel part of it, too," says Parker. "It's not, 'They're doing their thing, and I'm doing my thing.' We're part of the same system. They make the oxygen that we breathe. I only recently started to see those connections - the circle of life, essentially - and it's changed the way I view the world. Now, when I see a new strip mall being built somewhere, I think, 'Ok, do we need another vape shop? That could be something else. That could be wildflowers.'"
For Meg Morgan and Parker Millsap, it's been a busy year and a half. But there's always time to smell the wildflowers.
Meg Morgan is the campaign manager of Root Nashville, which is a public-private campaign, led by Metro Nashville and the Cumberland River Compact, to plant 500,000 trees across Davidson County by 2050.
Parker Millsap's latest album, Be Here Instead, is available now via The Orchard at parkermillsap.com. He plays The Basement East on Saturday, Oct. 15 at 9 p.m. Tickets are available here.