Parker McCollum is riding high as a rising country music star.

Parker McCollum has worn cowboy hats off and on for much of his life. He’s a true Texan, after all, coming from a family of cattle ranchers. But when he tried one on as stage wear, it didn’t quite fit. “It’s overdone,” he says. “So many people wear them that it’s really hard to stand out.”

He’s talking about his fellow country music artists, from his number-one hero George Strait on down, and he stands apart from them in other ways, too. His music leans more toward Americana or Red Dirt than glossy pop country, and his lyrics are unflinchingly honest and personal. He works hard, he says, to avoid gimmicky, trendy catchphrases, but he’s savvy enough to realize that image is a critical component. The one he’s chosen isn’t complicated. When you go see McCollum in concert, don’t expect to see him in a glittering rhinestone jacket or even a pressed button-down like Strait’s. With his starched Wranglers and broken-in boots, McCollum wears a tucked-in t-shirt, either white or black, with a matching flat-bill cap that promotes a friend’s company that breeds and trains rodeo bulls.

“I’ve got a million of these shirts, so it makes touring very easy,” he says. “I typically only wear the all-white in Texas, and I typically wear the all-black out of state, but I’ll mix it up every now and then. I just think white looks so crisp and clean that I like to save it for being home.”

A couple of other accessories hang from his neck, adding a shiny touch of extravagance to his stripped-down ensemble. Those two heavy gold chains have become something of a trademark. They’re what prompted a memorable comment from a stranger in an airport that became the title of his breakout album on Universal Music Group’s MCA Nashville label.

“This guy said, ‘What are you, some kind of Gold Chain Cowboy?’” McCollum chuckled and replied, “Yeah, I guess I kinda am right now.” He mentally filed the quip away as a song idea, but a storyline never came. Later, he figured Gold Chain Cowboy was an appropriate description for someone who had worked for years building a strong following regionally and was making his splashy national debut on a major label. “I had this thing in my mind that I wanted to look like all the guys that everybody complained about in Nashville but sound like the guys I grew up loving and idolizing,” he says. “I thought that was the ultimate marketing tool. You know, you look like Wal-Mart but you sound handmade, if that makes sense.”

HIS BANNER YEAR

That impromptu nickname may also describe McCollum’s career ambitions. He’s a smart, down-to-earth fellow with a strong work ethic who readily admits to materialistic aspirations. On the cusp of 30, he’s achieving musical and personal success that most musicians only dream about. No matter what happens to McCollum down the road, he can always look back at the first half of 2022 as the time when things really took off, and in many different ways.

For starters, he scored his second number-one single, “To Be Loved By You,” from an album on the world’s biggest record label. He also played to a sellout crowd at one of Texas’ largest venues— NRG Stadium in Houston—which was a touchstone of his youth. About the same time he was named the ACM’s New Male Artist of the Year and picked up a CMT award for “Breakthrough Video of the Year.” At the end of March, he married his girlfriend of three years, Hallie Ray. “It’s unbelievable what my career and life have done since she and I got serious,” he says. “A lot of people marry the wrong person, but I have no doubt in my mind I married the right one, and it feels good to get that right.”

Back to that big show that he’ll never forget—to a capacity crowd of just over 73,000 people—at the NRG Stadium in Houston, home of the annual Rodeo and Livestock Show and about an hour’s drive from his hometown of Conroe. As a 10-year-old kid, he saw Pat Green there with his mother and brother, and he’d wanted to perform there himself ever since. And how did this dream-come-true measure up? “It’s a feeling that’s certainly difficult to describe,” he starts. He thinks for a moment, then offers this assessment: “It was everything that I ever dreamed that it could be. It was perfect. The feeling in my chest when they said my name as I was standing on the little stairs that go up to the stage and the crowd erupted … I hope everybody at some point in their life gets a chance to experience that feeling and emotion because it was absolutely the biggest rush of satisfying adrenaline I could ever imagine.”

A LOVE FOR SAD SONGS

If you’re looking for happy tunes about sharing the carefree good times with your best bros or that one special gal, McCollum may not be the singer for you. He mines internal territory that’s much deeper emotionally. “Since I was a little kid, I’ve loved sad country songs,” he says. “I always wanted to write those, and I felt like I sang those the best.” He finds inspiration from Texas’ long line of poetic songsters who have preceded him. For that, he thanks his older brother, Tyler, who is also an accomplished musician. “Tyler was studying singer-songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, and Guy Clark when he was 15, 16 years old. He’s six years older than me, so I was exposed to it at such a young age and fell in love with songs like that.”

Summoning painful memories night after night in song can wear a fellow down, so McCollum keeps some of them as upbeat as possible. “I try to write songs I can put on a record and play at these arenas and be entertaining without, you know, singing about drinking beer and driving down a dirt road,” he says. Though it’s not his particular style, he doesn’t blame his country cohorts for following a more commercial path. “If you’re making $50 million a year singing those beer songs, I’m a fan—and I think you’re an idiot for not taking advantage of that, if you aren’t. We’re talking about money that can change your grandkids’ and your great-grandkids’ lives and take care of your family for decades to come.”

ONE MORE DREAM

McCollum’s bride, Hallie Ray, is from Oklahoma, and they have homes in Austin and Nashville. With his career taking off like it is, he’s usually way too busy to indulge in the outdoor activities he’s loved all his life. But he knows things will slow down at some point, and by that time maybe that cowboy hat will be more fitting.

“My main goal in life, personally, is to buy a ranch close to my family’s ranch in Texas,” he says. “Bow hunting white-tail is really what I truly love, and I love to bass-fish more than I can explain. I want to be able to sit in my bow stand or throw a line in the water when I’m home off the road,” McCollum says. “I think about it every single day.”

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