Parker McCollum Sticks To His Guns

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Bobby Yancey boasts a cooly stoic, yet soft, demeanor. He is the consummate cowboy, and his horse, a smoky chestnut, seems to mimic his penetrating gaze and firm pose. The cover art for Parker McCollum’s new song “Like a Cowboy,” a sweeping classic country tune, frames his grandfather’s commanding presence from a photograph taken long ago. 

In many ways, the song ─ written by Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson (Tim McGraw, Trisha Yearwood) ─ itself serves as tribute to the late Yancey, who loved country music as much as he loved his family and ranch. Yancey, a big time horse breeder and cattle breeder throughout his career, lived in an A-frame house roughly an hour or two north of Conroe, Texas, McCollum’s hometown (40 minutes outside of Houston), on an expansive ranch estate.

“I grew up in a really cool family,” McCollum tells American Songwriter over a phone call last week. “On my mom’s side, all of us cousins were raised within a mile or two of each other. We spent every day of our lives together.”

When the school year came to a close, they’d all head up to Yancey’s ranch for the summer. “We’d just work cows and be ranch hands all summer long. Looking back now, it’s the one time in my life that I really wish I could go back to,” he says. “If I could have one more day or week to go be somewhere, it would be back on the ranch working with him. Everything I learned about working hard, getting up early, and doing things the right way came from those days.”

Yancey’s compassion for others taught McCollum how to live a good, honest life, as well. “There was a way he had of speaking to people, no matter if they were a homeless person on the side of the road or the governor. He spoke to all of them the same way, always with a smile on this face,” he offers. “I saw countless times when some real good cowboys owed him a lot of money or a ranch hand owed him a lot of money, and he knew they had a family at home to feed. If they didn’t have the money to pay him back, he would just swallow it.”

Yancey was unconcerned about the money. It was always about doing the right thing. “He always leaned forward everywhere he walked. He made a lot of money in his life but that was never the most important thing to him. The most important thing was to always be going and working ─ and keeping his mind right. He’d tell me that all the time, ‘Always keep your mind right. That’s your biggest weapon.’”

He adds, “Everybody says I’m a lot like him and that I remember them of him.”

McCollum has a throwback sensibility about him, evident from the lonesome “Like a Cowboy” to the soft glow of “Pretty Heart,” and he has Yancey to thank. Exposed to such classic trailblazers (and Yancey favorites) as Willie Nelson, Jerry Reed, Porter Wagoner, and Buck Owens, McCollum combs a timely essence into his staunchly contemporary work.

“Four or five years before [my grandfather] passed away, he got every grandkid a ‘Golden Age of Country’ CD set ─ all the big classic hits of country music. It came with like eight or 10 discs. I still have mine,” he says. “I can remember being a little kid riding around in his truck at the ranch. I was eight or nine years old and singing along to ‘The Carroll County Accident’ by Porter Wagoner. I was just obsessed with that song and melody. I think that was actually on a cassette tape, and I’d make him play it over and over and over.”

On more than one occasion, Yancey “told me I could be Elvis. He would say, ‘You can be Elvis if you want to be Elvis.’ I think he was wrong about that, but he saw something.”

McCollum’s talent has been evident since his early days. A song like “Permanent Headphones,” found on his debut EP, 2013’s A Red Town View, hints at a deep well of maturity, and if you spin it back-to-back with “Like a Cowboy,” you witness the full scope of his growth. Now, his buttery and sweet tenor drapes across his lyrics in a way he couldn’t possibly have accomplished even seven years ago.

“My dad and I were actually just talking about [this] last night. He was remembering when I told him I wanted to do this for the rest of my life,” he says. “He remembers thinking one thing, ‘Is he a good enough singer?’ Now, I couldn’t do back then what I can do now, vocally. It was really natural [evolution]. It’s a muscle. The more you work it out, the stronger it gets and the better control you have.”

McCollum remained independent, working the Texas circuit and rising to local prominence, through two albums, 2015’s The Limestone Kid and 2017’s Probably Wrong, the latter proving to be quite emotionally exhausting. “After I wrote that album, I thought, ‘Well, I’m never going to do that again,’ as far as what I did to myself and the situation I put myself in to write that album,” he says of a heartbreak which directly fed into the album’s arc. “I also realized I didn’t have to do that to write those kinds of songs.”

“Now, writing sad, heartbreak songs is probably my greatest strength,” he continues. “It always seems that’s what’s coming out when I’m sitting around writing or trying to come up with a melody.”

As his star began to shine brighter, he caught the attention of nearly every major label in Nashville. “I think we had every major label but Warner offer us a deal,” he admits. “We had labels after us, especially smaller ones, prior to that. Once one made a deal, they all came with deals. I remember being a little kid and wanting to be on a major record label.”

Initially, once Sony offered him a deal, McCollum had aspirations of singing to the same imprint as one of his idols, John Mayer. “He’s always been on Sony/Columbia. I knew the only way I’d sign was if I could be on Columbia,” he recalls. “But that was pretty filled up with new male artists they’d signed, so it wasn’t really an option.”

He then turned to another idol, the legendary George Strait, who had been signed to MCA his entire career. Fortunately, there was a slot open for new male talent, and McCollum found his home. “I tried to play the process right and entertain everybody and take what they had to offer. It came down to be my decision, which was nice. I don’t think everybody gets to do that. It’s definitely something I don’t take for granted. It was surreal having all those labels saying they’d give me this much money or this many points on the backend. It was a learning process, and we were rolling on a whim.”

In the months leading up to sealing a deal with Universal Music Group, McCollum had already been cobbling together a new record. “I mean, I’m always writing for songs to put on an album. I knew I needed songs in the back. I didn’t want to go in there, sign a deal, and then go, ‘What now?’ I wanted to have ammunition ready to fire and make them sit back and say, ‘Oh, we’ve signed somebody who knows what he’s doing and who he wants to be.’ Any label will tell you that makes their job a million times easier when the artist knows their direction.”

McCollum has always been one to know exactly what he wants and how he wants it, often plotting an ambitious trajectory from point A to point B. His Texas roots firmly planted, following in his older brother’s footsteps in red-dirt country, he knew he “wanted to take Texas head-on and do it rather quickly,” he notes. “That was my goal ─ to do all this in as fast a pace as I could ─ while still not sacrificing integrity, songwriting, or work ethic. I was hellbent on doing it the right way. I knew from the very beginning that it was about going to the biggest level and trying to win ─ in life, competing with myself. I needed that validation: am I good enough to play on that next level?”

McCollum is already reaping some of the benefits. “Pretty Heart” closes in on nine million streams on Spotify, while “Like a Cowboy” recently crossed one million.

Naturally fitting into his catalog, “Like a Cowboy” is a surprising anomaly for him: it is his first outside cut. “It really was a no-brainer [to record this]. It wasn’t something I was opposed to entirely. I just enjoy writing songs and getting out what I have to say,” he says. “When the label sent me that song, I remember thinking, ‘Man, I feel like I could have written this song!’ When I was singing it in the truck, driving down the road, I just loved singing it. It was an easy call.”

He did, however, tinker with the original demo to find his own unique spin. Alongside producer Jon Randall (Dierks Benley), McCollum “wanted to slow it down a little bit,” he explains. “They had sent me the demo of Stapleton singing it. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad thing, but a lot of my songs are in this tempo range ─ ballady, slower tempo songs. It fit right into the realm of what I do. It felt right.”

“There was no pressure in cutting this song. I enjoyed that. I’m really hard on myself. I know I’m my own worst critic. I didn’t have to worry about this song being good enough or if it was finished. I just got to go in and work on the production with Jon. It was like taking a vacation while still being in the office.”

From songs like “Galveston Bay” to “Blue Eyed Sally” to “Like a Cowboy,” there is a direct, unmistakable thread line. McCollum understands his strengths, and he rarely veers too far outside his Americana-tinted songwriting. But that wasn’t always the case. During his late high school days into his first years of college, he went through a phase of not only mimicking other artists’ musicality but dressing up like them.

“I went through a phase when I was obsessed with Shooter Jennings. So, I had long hair and wore these big sunglasses. I thought I could be Shooter Jennings. I would always put my own style on it, I guess,” he remembers, “and always remained myself, but I was so heavily influenced by their records. I loved his album ‘Put the ‘O’ Back in Country,’ and I wanted to look like that.”

In another instance, he discovered Band of Heathens and began molding himself after bandmate Gordy Quist, who happens to now be a good friend. “I talk to him all the time. I grew my hair out like him and started wearing big sunglasses like him and trying to sing his songs. I was so influenced by those guys, I don’t think I could help but dress like them.”

Later, with his song “High Above the Water,” he confesses to “looking in the mirror trying to write a song like John Mayer. Over time, I noticed I had the most success and people connected the most when I was completely true to myself,” he says. “That’s hard to do sometimes. People will make comments about what you’re doing.”

Early on, his then-manager Randy Rogers, pushed him to go to Nashville for a publishing deal and to start co-writing as a way to branch out and evolve. “I got some good songs. I didn’t want to do it, and I didn’t like it at first. Randy kept telling me to keep going and doing it, and I’d understand why it was so important to do.”

McCollum’s go-to collaborators include Randy Montana, a co-writer on “Pretty Heart,” which blends classic tones and contemporary shimmer. “Randy helps me walk that line between my style, which is real Americana/singer-songwriter, and making it a bit more marketable. I needed that if I was trying to do this on that level, without sacrificing integrity or singing about backroads and beer or any of that stuff.”

With “Pretty Heart” and “Like a Cowboy,” he eyes a new record that he promises will surprise people. “I see people on the internet saying, ‘Oh, he’s going to Nashville. It’s commercial.’ ‘Pretty Heart’ is the closest thing on the album to commercial. The rest of the album I’ve written pretty much on my own. The album just sounds like the guy who wrote the other two records got better.”

McCollum then teases a song called “To Be Loved by You,” a song even his label dubs “a smash hit,” he says. “I think that’ll be the staple of the whole album. I told the label when I was wanting to sign with them, ‘I’m trying to make Luke Bryan money singing Chris Knight-caliber songs.’”

The Texas native teeters on the edge of next-level superstardom, taking cues from rule breakers like Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves, and 2020 might be his long-overdue breakout. “[Those artists] have had massive success without anything goofy or [about] Friday night. They’re really just talented songwriters and selling out arenas. That’s the goal for me.”

Photo Credit: Carlos Ruiz

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