Before he was even out of his mid-20s, Parker McCollum had established himself as one of the preeminent artists on the Texas music circuit — the sort of singer-songwriter with a country twang who could sell out arenas and amphitheaters across the Lone Star State, was as “Red Dirt” as they come, and had done it all independently. But McCollum didn’t want that.
The baseball-cap-wearing singer-songwriter with a sensitive heart — he unabashedly declares his love for John Mayer and professes to be born to write sad country love songs — wanted to start back at the bottom. He wanted to prove himself all over again. He needed to move to Nashville and see if could carry his weight where it mattered most.
After all, George Strait, the man that McCollum idolized his entire life, had done something similar, signing with MCA Nashville and cranking out a record-breaking 60 Number One singles in his career. McCollum needed to know if he could even reach halfway to the heights of “The King.”
“It really has nothing to do with proving it to anyone else. It’s really just about proving it to myself,” McCollum, 29, says as he looks back on his decision three years ago to leave the incubating Texas scene and sign his own major-label deal with MCA Nashville. “I lay awake in bed night after night thinking, ‘Am I good enough to be on that level? Do I have what it takes to get there and stay there?’
“Is what I do that worked as an independent artist, does it work on the big stage?” he continues. “I’ll die on that hill if it doesn’t. Yes, the ultimate goal is to be as successful as I can possibly be — and just shove it up the fucking asses of the people that said I couldn’t do it.”
McCollum’s biggest step toward that goal is the release of his Nashville debut, Gold Chain Cowboy. Released in late July, the Jon Randall-produced album blends the Texas grit he perfected in clubs throughout Austin, Fort Worth, and Houston with a current country sound. McCollum co-wrote all 10 songs, some with Texas stalwarts like Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers, others with Nashville mainstreamers like Rhett Akins and Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley, and one with Miranda Lambert, who, like McCollum, bridges the two worlds.
For McCollum, signing a major-label deal was above all about asserting his point of view, his creative control, and his sense of self. It was hardly about the money — though there was a lot to go around. That’s because McCollum, by his own account, had already earned millions on the road as a touring act in the half-decade since he independently released his critically acclaimed debut, 2015’s The Limestone Kid.
According to the Conroe, Texas, native, he declined up-front money during negotiations with the label, instead asking for creative control. “You can’t call me a sellout because I passed on the money,” he says. “The only thing that matters now is can I get to where I wanna go without sacrificing the integrity of the music? That is the only thing on my mind and the only thing that matters. If I can’t do that, then I have failed.”
But McCollum has limits. He won’t drastically change his style in pursuit of fame.
“I can’t go out there and start singing beer songs and pop-country songs now that I’m on a major label ’cause that’s not me…. I also like to think I’m at least somewhat of a decent songwriter,” he says. “I haven’t said ‘beer’ or ‘truck’ or ‘backroad’ or ‘sundress’ one time on my last EP or this full album. Which I think is a win in itself.”
Industry observers like to label what McCollum is undergoing as something of a “transition” — a gambit of moving from the Texas circuit to the national stage He recognizes that what he’s doing with Gold Chain Cowboy is certainly an expansion of scope, but he pushes back on the idea that he this wasn’t always in the cards.
“From the time I was 14, 15 years old, the goal was to go sign a major record deal,” McCollum says. “All my favorite artists are just huge successful artists on a major label: Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Strait. Those are all major-label country music legends. And I just didn’t feel like I would ever have a true shot at reaching that level if I never signed a deal, never came to Nashville. Every single country artist that people call ‘Texas Country’ or ‘Red Dirt,’ or they say is so much better than Nashville… every one of those people told me to come here and get in these rooms and write songs and try to get a record deal and that I had the potential to do it. Randy Rogers and Pat Green and Wade Bowen, Cody Canada, they all told me, ‘You’re the one that’s going to actually go there and do it.’ A lot of people have tried and not been able to really sustain the success once they got on the level.”
Rogers, in particular, says seeing his friend McCollum — who for years has referred to Rogers as “Dad” on account of his mentorship — make it on the national level is supremely gratifying. “Parker could be a case study, really,” says Rogers, who with his Randy Rogers Band released a series of albums on a Nashville major label. “We’ve all had our shots at it. I could list off the names, the artists that have come before Parker and before me that have tried their hand at making it big on the national level.”
Rogers admits that Texas artists have long turned up their noses at Nashville. But McCollum and others are coming around to the idea that Music Row is where they can elevate their career.
“Fifteen years ago, if you signed a record deal in Nashville, in Texas it was frowned upon. It was an us-versus-them type scenario. A lot of kids were reluctant to do it. Quite frankly, a lot of people just said, ‘Fuck you’ to Nashville,” he says. “I always saw a bigger picture. I always saw music and your songs and your songwriting as needing to get the greatest audience. Parker has the unique ability to make a transition from solely being a Texas artist to becoming the national act that he is now… purely because of timing and the opportunities that lay there that are perfect for the stage of career he’s at.”
Despite what appears to be definitive forward motion in McCollum’s life, ask the singer-songwriter how he feels about where he’s currently at and he’ll shoot it to you straight: He’s nowhere near where he should be. That goes for Gold Chain Cowboy, too. While most artists will rave about how their new project is their best, McCollum says the LP didn’t entirely hit the mark.
“I’m just not really sure what the end-all goal was with this record,” he says. “I was just trying to figure out what this process was on a major label. What does it look like when you put a record out with this kind of promotion? It’s kind of like a trial-run with a guaranteed membership. I know I’m going to get three more records on this deal. This is maybe kind of like the practice swing and we’re going to try and hit a home run next time? I know what we’ve done is great and it’s been an absolutely insane ride, but it’s just nowhere close to enough.”
Rogers laughs when hearing this, but says that from his time knowing McCollum these are hardly surprising sentiments. “He’s always so hard on himself,” he says. “Part of my job as his friend and his mentor is to tell him to stop and smell the damn roses, man. Like, it’s OK to enjoy commercial success. It’s OK to enjoy what you have worked so hard for. And it’s OK to not be so hard on yourself.”
If McCollum hears that message, it hasn’t yet gotten through. The songwriter sold-out the 20,000-seat Dos Equis Pavilion in Dallas this past July, but he remains underwhelmed. “It’s just not good enough,” he says of a milestone that many young artists would kill for. “Maybe that’s just the way I’m wired.”