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Cuts The Deepest: Parker McCollum

By Helen M Jerome

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Parker McCollum is raring to go. He’s 29 years old, and after a couple of self-released records, the proud Texan has just released his major-label debut, Gold Chain Cowboy. Now based in Nashville, he’s never happier than when he’s out on tour, exploding into life in front of his growing fanbase, all while getting a real kick from confounding the expectations of everyone else.

Talking to Holler between gigs and across time zones, he’s “up early and rolling” to chat about the new album, the music that floats his boat, being pigeonholed and being Texan.

McCollum doesn’t care how he’s categorised but knows that when people see how he looks – he really is the Gold Chain Cowboy – they think his songs will be pop-country; “then they hear the music and they don’t know what to think!” When he signed his deal, he knew a lot of people thought he’d start putting out beer songs and his songwriting would take a backseat. But, his ultimate goal was to be on a major label and continue to be himself. “I’m still staying up late, trying to write sad country love songs about everything going terribly wrong.”

One thing you quickly grasp is his love for his home state. “Not being cliché or blowing smoke, but Texas is everything to me. Texas is where I want to grow old, it’s where I cut my teeth as a young touring musician. It’s something I’ll never take for granted. It’s incredible to have a home like that, that’s so supportive of me, my music and chasing my dreams”.

Being back on the road after an agonising year away has been thrilling, but also nerve-racking. “I never get nervous, but I got the jitters little bit, I was so excited – when it was taken away from me, it was terrible for my mental health”. McCollum never imagined a possible scenario where he wouldn’t tour and play shows, but admits it did force him to slow down for the first time. He lived at that pace for little while and thought about what’s important. So, there were definitely some good parts to it.

Meanwhile, his Gold Chain Cowboy album is out. He refused to have “some crazy artistic concept” for the artwork - he wanted it simple, marketable, recognisable and different. Some people might see it, think “this guy probably sucks”, and write him off. “Then they listen to record and think; I didn’t expect that. I want to have the marketability and success of those country guys, but with songs that have integrity, are really well-written and come from the right place.”

Key tracks on the album include previous hit ‘Pretty Heart’ and follow-up single ‘To Be Loved By You’. The latter was initially too slow and not quite working, until a light-bulb moment occurred - he channelled the energy of the music he was listening to at the time, The Rolling Stones. There’s also a duet with Danielle Bradbery, ‘Dallas’, that came in the wake of their cover of ‘Shallow’ from A Star Is Born. “She’s such a phenomenal talent, she kind of threw me a bone with that one. My producer Jon Randall said ‘you ought to throw her a bone back and let her be on ‘Dallas’’, she agreed, so it was a no-brainer”.

McCollum is a keen student of other artists and often makes new musical discoveries by listening to soundtracks, most recently stumbling across ‘This Year’s Love’ by 2000s British songwriter David Gray, while watching the movie The Girl Next Door. Since then, he’s been going through Gray’s entire catalogue, reading his Wikipedia page and bio while listening to the songs. His philosophy is that “a good song is a good song if you always remember that and not think too much about it”.

Leaning in for Cuts The Deepest, Parker McCollum talks about the six records that have influenced him and his music to date.

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George Strait – ‘Amarillo By Morning’

This was one of the first country songs I fell in love with, and it’s still one of my all-time favourites. I saw George Strait play live a couple of times and now we are on the same record label. That was a big reason why I signed with Universal/MCA; he’s been on MCA his whole career. I’ve been covering his song, ‘Carrying Your Love With Me’ during the set lately, it’s gone over really well.

Willie Nelson (with Merle Haggard) – ‘Pancho and Lefty’

I’m really infatuated with melody, and when melody meets the perfect lyrics, that’s what gets me the most excited. This song introduced me to Townes Van Zandt, and when I hear something like this, I can’t shake the way it makes me feel, it controls me. When I fall in love with something, I just wear it out on repeat. It’s such a wonderfully written song with a crazy story behind it. The first time I ever heard it was by Willie Nelson; I saw the music video when I was six and was obsessed with it.

John Mayer – ‘Your Body Is a Wonderland’

I’d always known who John Mayer was, but Continuum was the album that really set me off; then he came out with Born and Raised and The Search For Everything. He’s just a phenomenal talent. I cover his songs ‘Who Says’ and ‘Perfectly Lonely’. John Mayer and George Strait are two of my favourite artists of all time, but I don’t enjoy singing their songs as much as I enjoy listening to them. If you watch a lot of my ticks and my movements on stage, I’ve watched so many John Mayer videos that I almost subconsciously mimic his body language, so much so that I sometimes notice it on stage myself and realise. I don’t know if he’ll ever be a fan of mine, but I’m most certainly a massive fan of his.

Steve Earle – ‘Guitar Town’

Steve Earle is another one that you can only hope to be as close to that level as a songwriter one day. It’s probably unattainable, but if you get halfway there, that’s pretty good. I saw him a couple of summers ago at Whitewater Amphitheatre down in Texas, playing with Ryan Bingham – if there’s room, he would be on my list as well with ‘Southside of Heaven’. I’ve got such a long list and I hate to leave people out.

Robert Earl Keen – ‘The Road Goes on Forever’

Another phenomenal writer. I was really young when I fell in love with that song, working with my granddad every summer at his ranch. That song seemed to be on every day, wherever we were. So when I hear it, it just takes me right back to those hot summer days of being there, 12 years old again with my older brother and cousins. We would be working cows pretty much all day, every day, penning cows, working cows, separating calves, dehorning steers. A lot of the time I’d be on a tractor mowing, slinging seed or spraying chemical. I do pretty well on a horse, though I haven’t been on one as much in the last several years as when I was a kid. I shot a music video recently on a ranch where I rode pretty much the whole day. It felt like I hadn’t missed a step, but yes, I was saddle sore the next day!

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Parker McCollum's debut album, Gold Chain Cowboy, is out now via MCA Nashville / UMG.