“That was a big reason, and part of the reason I signed there, especially on MCA,” McCollum tells Billboard over the phone from his home in Austin, Texas, while reminiscing of the first time he heard Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning” in his grandfather’s truck as a kid. “That was the imprint he has been on his whole career. That was a big deal for me. When I got to Nashville and met with Universal, it was pretty instant that I knew that's where I wanted to be.”
McCollum got to meet his hero last year at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena where Strait was on hand for a performance at Loretta Lynn’s All-Star Birthday Celebration Concert on April 1. As he recalls, UMG Nashville’s EVP A&R Brian Wright asked if he wanted to meet Strait and McCollum politely declined. Wright insisted, and brought him over to the King of Country.
“He said, ‘Hey Parker, you’re killing it,’ and then he walked on stage and sang ‘Amarillo By Morning’ all in one motion," he says. “That is still, to this day, one of my favorite songs, favorite melodies of all time.”
McCollum is just beginning his career on MCA, but looks up to artists like Strait for his high caliber of songs. His debut single, “Pretty Heart,” charted at No. 41 this week on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. Meanwhile, brand new song “Like a Cowboy,” penned by Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, is out today. Both aching country ballads showcase McCollum’s ability at writing and releasing unique story songs that leave a lasting mark on the listener.
Below, McCollum shares his backstory as an artist and his decision to record “Like a Cowboy.”
When was the moment you knew you wanted to be an artist?
It was probably eighth grade or freshman year of high school where I started to realize I didn't have any friends that could do this as well as I could, especially with songwriting. Singing came in much more gradually.
Me and my buddies, we all played football. We all played basketball, we all played baseball, and I wouldn't stand out in any of that. Playing guitar and writing songs, I could do it better than everybody else. At some point, I was like, “I can do this a lot better than them.” I don't know if I can do it better than anybody outside of my 20 friends, but it was still one thing that nobody else could do as well as I could. And that's when I was like, “Maybe I should never stop doing this.”
What was the first song you ever wrote?
The first full song I wrote was called “A Hole in My Heart Where the Wind Blows Through.” That was sixth or seventh grade. It was a heartbreak song -- surprise, coming from me.
When was your first public appearance?
That would’ve have been an open mic night in eighth grade at a place called Puffabelly’s in Spring, Texas. My older brother took me. I had written a song called “Permanent Headphones.” It was on the very first EP I ever put out. My older brother's a phenomenal songwriter. He was the one who really was the reason I wanted to even try to play guitar and write songs in the first place. I wrote “Permanent Headphones,” and he was like, “That's unbelievable you wrote that at 14 years old.” I think he took me to the open mic night because of that. I played that [and] probably a Chris Knight song.
Whose career do you admire most, and would like to pattern yours after?
I would have to say my top two favorites of all time are John Mayer and George Strait. I've always kind of said, if I can walk that line between those two in some way, that's not a bad place to land when it’s all said and done. I also told my record label when I signed with Universal, “I want to make Luke Bryan money while singing Chris Knight-caliber songs,” and they really liked that.
Who is your dream collaborator?
If I had to pick one collaboration, I’d pick George Strait. I don't know if John Mayer would dig my stuff. I feel like George would dig it before John Mayer. I've ripped him off so many times. I've stolen some of him and George Strait's mannerisms on stage, guitar playing, all of it. I'm just extremely influenced by really, really good songs. The level of which they get to me, it's surprising still to this day. If I go listen to George Strait for a whole entire day and try to write song that night, that stuff's going to bleed out into it.
What’s the story behind your single “Pretty Heart”?
A couple years ago I was scrolling through my Instagram and I found this video from 2014 of me playing a little hook. The hook was, “What does that say about me that I could love somebody like you?” I just scrolled past it and listened to it and I was like, “Golly, how did I forget about that?” So I started messing with it a little bit.
I was going to Nashville co-writing a whole lot. I signed publishing with Warner Chappell there and I had a write with Randy Montana, and we needed an idea. I was like, “Man, I've got this one that I just would love to finish, I think it has so much potential.” In a couple hours we cranked out “Pretty Heart” and I didn't think much of it. Then the girl that the song is actually about had come around again. I remember playing that acoustic demo me and Randy had written, and she started crying. She was like, “That's so good. It’s a hit song.”
You write all of your songs. Why did you decide to record “Like a Cowboy?”
I remember I was driving out to the ranch one day here in Texas and Brian Wright at the label sent me a voice memo recording. He says, “Check this out. I think you’ll dig it.” I probably listened to it six or seven times in a row. I felt like I wrote it while I was listening to it. The song chose me. I just knew instantly: I want to sing that song. And so I did.
[My grandpa] was such a fan of country music. He was one of the greatest cowboys to ever live. I remember just listening to that song [thinking], “I have to cut this song. He would love this.” It reminded me of how I grew up. He basically raised us in the summertime working for him at the ranch … He was really one of my best friends and when he passed way, I was only 24, 25 years old. He has been just such an influence in my life, even since he passed away.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about your career?
Randy Rogers from the Randy Rogers Band managed me for two-and-a-half years. I grew up idolizing him and that band. So it was really, really neat when he started a management company and took me on. He always had this quote, whether it's show or interview or on the road or anything: “Be great and be gone.” Don't be hanging around, getting into trouble. Go play your show, be great, be gone. Go do your interview, be great, be gone. Always put on the gas, leaning forward, headed down the road.
Listen to "Like a Cowboy" below.