Makin' Tracks: Parker McCollum Puts ‘Heart’ 
Out Front in MCA Debut

Parker McCollum
Carlos Ruiz

Parker McCollum

On the first listen to Parker McCollum’s “Pretty Heart,” it’s easy to get hung up on the hook. Maybe even the first four or five listens.

The chorus ends with him stretching the one-syllable word “heart” out across 11 notes, letting it wind and curve until it ends unusually on the hard “rt” sound. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘No way,’ ” says McCollum, remembering the moment he created that line in 2018. “I mean, that’s just goofy.”

Songwriter-producer Jon Randall (Dierks Bentley, Jack Ingram) agrees. “It’s the wrong vowel,” he says.

But that quirk eventually emerges as one of the characteristics that sets “Pretty Heart” apart, along with its swamp-rock slide guitar and the jumble of torment and bravado embedded in McCollum’s vocal performance. The singer had the same evolving relationship with the song that listeners might.

“It wasn’t actually until I was in the vocal booth singing my takes that I was like, ‘Man, I really do like this song,’ ” he says.

The first line of the chorus was the starting place for “Pretty Heart.” The Texas-bred McCollum was playing music at his brother’s house in 2014 when he developed a couple of lines — “What does that say about me/That I could love somebody like you” — and he was so excited about that passage that he posted a clip on Instagram in which he sang it repeatedly. And then he moved on.

In 2018, shortly after signing a publishing deal with Warner Chappell Nashville, McCollum ran across the clip again, and he took that shred into a cowriting session with songwriter Randy Montana (“Beer Never Broke My Heart,” “I Hope You’re Happy Now”). That original line evolved into “What does that say about me/I could do you like I did,” and the song became one of guilt and self-flagellation for treating an angel like dirt.

“Sometimes in other genres it’s not that way where the guy’s kind of down on himself,” notes Montana. “And that’s what I love so much about the song is that I feel like it’s a real thing. It’s a guy kind of being vulnerable, and that’s why I love Parker and where he comes from writing-wise. He’s cool with going there.”

They wrote the chorus first, changing those opening lines and letting the guy beat up on himself about the breakup: “I stood there like a fence post/As you drove off in your car.” Then Montana delivered the final lines for the section, “What does that say about me that I broke/Your pretty heart,” clipping that last word and leaving some empty space. That was the moment McCollum turned “heart” into an 11-note journey, which registered with Montana, even if McCollum thought little of it at the time. “ ‘Heart’ is not the word where you kind of do the move,” allows Montana, “but he’s just a little left of center, and it really works for his voice and, I think, for his style.”

Once that stanza was completed, they turned their focus to the opening verse, setting up the protagonist’s admission that he was “the one who dropped the ball.” In verse two, he paints himself as an out-of-control victim of his own poor decision-making, “drinking like a drunkard/In these Austin neon lights.” The reference paid a nod to the Texas town in which McCollum came to Lone Star prominence as a live act, though he says that in reality, he would not over-imbibe among the same people who buy tickets to his shows. “I’ve never really drank in bars,” he says. “I like to be at home where I could play guitar while I was drinking.”

McCollum mostly forgot about “Pretty Heart” when it was done, though after he signed with MCA Nashville, the label found it in his catalog and encouraged him to consider recording it. His first session for MCA Nashville was a test; the company had budgeted enough to cut four songs at Sound Stage as a trial for Randall as the producer. McCollum didn’t make it easy — he didn’t send the songs to Randall until the night before recording — but the crew was ready. Randall had assembled a group designed to mimic the instrumentation and feel of McCollum’s live shows. Thus, “Pretty Heart” found its groove.

“He fell right in,” recalls Randall of McCollum’s first Nashville session. “He was very trusting, but he’s also not scared about saying, ‘Hey, man, I’d like that to rock a little more.’ And so we did. We kicked it up a notch because he wanted it to hit a little harder.”

That approach boosted the chorus in particular. Both that and the verses are in a similar melodic range. Bolstering the chorus with power chords was one way to beef up the section that listeners are most likely to sing along with.
“It’s just kind of rock 'n’ roll, to be honest,” says Randall. “If you listen on headphones, there’s a little bit of ear candy here or there, but mostly it was straight up, you know, just played like a rock tune. You’re kind of following his vocal, just the way he sings and the way he delivers the song.”

Rob McNelley layered in a Joe Walsh-like slide guitar solo: lots of long, fiery notes against Jerry Roe’s crashing cymbals before the section winds down on a dark, low piano note from Jimmy Wallace. McNelley also supplied an intro for “Pretty Heart,” playing an eight-note version of that quirky 11-note signature on slide, while Jedd Hughes shaded him on a National resonator guitar. Hughes likewise played that instrument underneath McCollum’s vocal turn on that lick.

“Pretty Heart” received the biggest attention at streaming outlets once McCollum released his first material for MCA in 2019, and it attracted attention among radio programmers, too, hitting the Country Airplay chart more than two months before the label officially released it via PlayMPE on March 30. It’s currently at No. 29 on that list and No. 45 in its third week on Hot Country Songs.

“Pretty Heart” is not the song he thought would introduce him when he unwound that 11-note hook, but he doesn’t argue with the results. “I think what it really just came down to is it’s probably the catchiest,” says McCollum.

Sometimes the wrong vowel is the right move.

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