Every so many years, a sensation comes out of Texas—Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, George Strait, Pat Green—who threatens to beat mainstream country by being himself. Parker McCollum, the latest ride-or-die Lone Star, has been compared to Justin Bieber for the hysteria he generates, yet his country’s closer to classic Strait, Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney, with a red-dirt twist.

He’s threading a needle that weaves songwriter-driven country into radio fare. Following a traditional strategy—play gigs, write songs, make indie records, repeat—McCollum has been on an old-school build since he self-released The Limestone Kid in 2015 and two years later put out Probably Wrong, produced by Texas legend Lloyd Green.

Gold Chain Cowboy, the 28-year-old artist’s first LP since joining Universal Nashville’s House of Dungan/Mabe in 2019, may be the most radical merger of opposing dynamics since Clint Black hit paydirt with his #1, platinum-selling debut album, Killin’ Time, way back in 1989. With his eye on the prize, Grammy-winning songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Jon Randall at the helm and a pocketful of songs offering the antihero’s tortured-romantic appeal, McCollum brings the struggle of good and getting by to his platinum #1 single, “Pretty Heart.”

You’re attempting the trickiest move of them all: Texas vs. Nashville.
[Laughs] I was aware of that when I was 12. I had older brothers; we watched Pat Green and Jack Ingram try it. They’d been so big in Texas, and then…

And then...
I’m so confident, I feel like I could do Texas and never leave, or I could come to Nashville and do the pop-country thing like Luke Bryan. My goal is to ride that middle.

What’s your plan?
I met Jon Randall through mutual friends. We got together to write, didn’t get a song and talked for three hours. He’s done it all, knows the business. He has a real sense of musicianship, plus he’s written how many Songs of the Year?

So it’s about songs?
I love songs too much. My goal is to make it, then stay there as long as possible. I wanna make it with integrity as a songwriter and an artist.

You’re not red-dirt.
I’ve seen Heartworn Highways and Be Here to Love Me a bunch, so Townes is part of it. But it was really Rodney Crowell of that group. The Houston Kid—the title alone, growing up around Houston, songs like “Highway 17” and “Telephone Road.” It was a game-changer for how I think about songs and writing.

I hear George Strait too.
He was the artist of my childhood. He’s the man in our house, no higher, no better. “Amarillo by Morning” was the first I ever remember turning up in my grandpa’s truck. “Baby’s Gotten Good at Goodbye.” He’s the king.

So your family was an influence.
My older brother was into Todd Snider, James McMurtry, Chris Knight, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett. He got me a Traveling Wilburys album when I was 11. Who buys that for an 11-year-old? I was sucked into those melodies and harmonies.

Was he in a band?
He and two older cousins and I worked for my grandfather, who had a ranch. At night, they’d play guitars and sing. I remember the first night my cousin Braden played “South of Heaven” by Ryan Bingham. My thinking changed: It was so simple—and stayed so simple. Sophomore and junior year of high school, Ryan Bingham put out two of the best records. To hear two records that good back-to-back showed me it could be done.

What about you? What’s your deal?
Slow, sad country love songs about things going terribly wrong.

Are you a romantic?
A hopeless romantic. Take those heartbreak moments: They come from real places, not always mine. Boil ’em down, put ’em in a song—that’s my deal.

“Pretty Heart” is startling in how raw its description of breaking that girl’s heart is.
After the gold, the platinum and the #1, I’m proud I didn’t say “truck” or “beer” or “party”—any of it. It seems like all the young artists have to have that. I just couldn’t.

I hear your album’s gonna be called Gold Chain Cowboy.
I know I may get killed for it—but my family’s super-blue-collar. My dad’s side is all in the car business, and they work hard. My mom’s family is ranching, big rodeo people out there in the elements, working all day. Dad’s a little more slick; Mom’s more rough around the edges. But they’re both exactly the same kind of hard-working, give-it-all people. A gold chain and a cowboy—put it together, it’s me.