The Profile: How Parker McCollum Leans on Family, Love of Songwriting to Guide Him Through His Breakout Year
McCollum is poised to be country music’s next superstar.
Parker McCollum; Photo by David McClister
Over the course of 2020 — a year when many other artists were laying low, reconfiguring album rollouts and cancelling tours — Parker McCollum saw his career quickly picking up steam. He earned his first chart-topping single with “Pretty Heart,” a song that also earned RIAA gold status, and his November 2020 Hollywood Gold EP became the highest-selling debut EP of the year.
Still, the Texas native jokingly tells Country Now, he didn’t spend too much time celebrating his wins: Instead, he started thinking about how to keep the momentum going. “Really, [when I heard that ‘Pretty Heart’ had gone No. 1,] I was like, ‘Oh no, now I gotta do it again,” he admits with a chuckle.
Despite having had one radio hit, McCollum explains, he doesn’t think of himself as having any particular “spidey sense” about what songs are going to be successful — if anything, the opposite. On more than one occasion, his team or fans have pushed him to cut a song he was dubious about, only to realize as he was recording it that doing so was the right decision.
“I had a song, ‘I Can’t Breathe,’ that was really big for us, and I didn’t wanna cut that one. I didn’t think it was very good!” he says. “And then ‘Pretty Heart’ was like that for a little while, actually. I wasn’t very high on that song until I was in the studio recording it. And that’s when it really won me over. So I don’t have a great track record, I don’t think, with our big songs.”
In other words, whether or not a song has the potential to be a big hit doesn’t enter into McCollum’s songwriting process. The songs that excite him most in the writers’ room are the ones where he feels like he’s successfully conveyed what he wants to say, that he’s done the best possible job with the message. That’s how he felt after he wrote “To Be Loved by You,” which came out on New Year’s Day of 2021.
“I finished that one with my buddy Rhett Akins, and that was one I was really looking forward to coming out,” the singer remembers. “I don’t get too high on anything I write too often, and that was one where I felt like, ‘Ah, I did okay here.’…When we finished it, [the song conveyed] exactly how I think about that. It feels good to see that on paper and hear it. You just feel like you got out of it what you were trying to get out of it.”
Songwriting is an important part of McCollum’s artistry — “I guess it’s what I enjoy the most about what I do,” he says — and he wrote or co-write five out of the six tracks on Hollywood Gold. That’s simply because songwriting and performing typically go hand in hand for the singer, though that’s not a hard and fast rule — especially in the case of “Like a Cowboy,” the song on his EP that he didn’t have a hand in writing. That song was written by guitarist Al Anderson and Chris Stapleton, the latter of whom is one of McCollum’s musical idols.
“He’s all-time,” the younger singer says of Stapleton. “There’s nothing cheesy or fake about what he does, and there’s never a time when you listen to Chris Stapleton that you don’t believe him. I hope that one day someone can say that about my stuff. He’s a phenomenal talent and I really, really hope to be like that one day.”
In the meantime, though, McCollum is building his career step by step: Next month, he’ll tuck another milestone under his belt when he gives his debut performance at the Grand Ole Opry. When he steps on that stage, he says, he’s sure he’ll be thinking about his grandpa, who had an important hand in introducing him to country music, particularly classic artists like Buck Owens and Porter Wagoner.
“I can remember my granddad watching Hee Haw, and buying it on the DVD set in like, the early 2000s, I wanna say,” McCollum remembers. “He passed away in 2017. When they told me I was playing the Opry, I was like, ‘Man, I would just do anything for him to be there.’ Because if he knew one of his grandkids was playing the Opry, it would just be one of the greatest things.”
From his earliest days as a musician, McCollum’s family have been his biggest, loudest cheerleaders. That’s reflected in his music: For example, Hollywood Gold takes its name from a horse once owned by his grandparents. And though his family isn’t a particularly musical one — with the exception of his brother, who taught McCollum his first lessons about songwriting — their approval and excitement is the most special part of every career milestone he hits.
From that standpoint, McCollum goes on to say, his excitement about playing the Grand Ole Opry or having a hit EP is much the same as his excitement about having the No. 1 song on country radio.
“The coolest part was seeing my mom and dad, and my stepmom and grandparents and my brother and sister,” he says. Aside from the realization that he was going to have to work hard to keep momentum going, the most special part of having a No. 1 hit was his family’s response.
“They’ve been pulling for me for a long time, so I just kinda feel like they won, too,” McCollum reflects. “And that was really cool. For them to be like, ‘Damn, kid, you did it.’ That was a cool moment.”