“To make Luke Bryan money playing Chris Knight-caliber songs.” That’s been his goal from the beginning, says 27-year-old Parker McCollum, and the Conroe, Texas, native has never been shy about it. “You don’t have to go out there and sing goofy songs to be able to make good money playing country music,” McCollum says. “You can be true to yourself if you work hard at it.”

And if McCollum’s packed schedule is any indication, he’s been working quite hard. The budding Texas country star, who’s returning to MusicFest after his 2019 debut, tours constantly, taking him across the usual Lone Star highways and often into the Southeast and Midwest, markets that most Texas country artists don’t hit with regularity until several albums into their careers.

And then there’s his biweekly writing trips to Nashville, where McCollum finds more and more of his business taking place—so much so that he recently got his own place in Tennessee. “I was having this conversation with somebody on the plane recently,” McCollum says. “I don’t think I’ve been anywhere longer than 72 hours in probably the last four years.”

That’s about as long as McCollum has been going at his music career full-time. Even as the rest of the music landscape preaches online cultivation and buzz-building before getting out in front of people, McCollum and company opted for hitting every dusty dancehall up and down Texas. It’s a risky and often expensive bet, especially when you have no idea whether or not fans are going to show up.

But with the perfect storm of press buzz, some key opening opportunities and regional radio campaigns, fans little by little started showing up. “People say we did this whole thing in record time, but it doesn’t feel like that to me,” McCollum says. “It feels like it’s been a lifetime to me.”

McCollum wrote his debut album, The Limestone Kid, in an apartment in Austin’s West Campus area, synonymous for housing University of Texas students, though he wasn’t attending school. The 2015 album was the kind of record that was more of a promise of things to come than a groundbreaking effort on its own. It grew more impressive the more you understood the context of its freshman writer, earning praise as an album that gallivanted ahead of the curve for where somebody like McCollum was “supposed to be.”

And yet The Limestone Kid ultimately still felt like a young new writer impersonating some of his favorite artists—in some cases to genuinely impressive effect. The undeniably catchy debut single “Meet You in the Middle” found success through various regional radio stations across the country, helping McCollum get his foot in the door of a  number of venues.

Once The Limestone Kid came out, McCollum opened a set headlined by the Randy Rogers Band. The show promoter tipped Rogers to give McCollum’s set a chance, so he went side stage to check out the show.

“I was immediately interested in what he had going on,” Rogers says. “The songs were great, the band was great. I’m the person who just makes a decision and goes for it, so after the show I invited him on the bus and gave him my number and told him to call me the next week.”

As an artist who prides himself on always being aware of the business side of the music industry, Rogers helped McCollum navigate his way into a better situation—and then immediately got into McCollum’s ear about expanding his musical horizons. “There’s a reason I call him dad,” McCollum quips.

When it came time to write his next record, McCollum made a dramatic decision. “On [2017’s] Probably Wrong, I was probably in the worst place I’ve ever been,” McCollum shares. “And I was doing it intentionally.”

McCollum sat at his spot in South Austin for six weeks, drinking himself into oblivion. He’d just broken up with his longtime girlfriend. “I broke her heart and broke my heart,” McCollum says. “Not to reveal too much, but I don’t know if I’ll ever go that far into it again, but I don’t know that I have to.”

References to depression, drug abuse and dark times are peppered throughout the work, though musically the record manages to feel fairly energetic and uptempo.

It’s hard to determine if the songs on Probably Wrong are that much more developed because McCollum drowned himself in self-inflicted misery or if he just experienced the natural growth one hopes to develop with age and experience. But it’s also a moot point, because Probably Wrong was an undeniably big leap forward, both in terms of what truths McCollum felt comfortable writing and how he sang them.

The album is full of clever turns of phrase and referential moments, a little more John Mayer and a little less poor man’s John Prine. Songs like “I Can’t Breathe” and “Hell of a Year” fast became live show staples, cementing themselves as two of the more important pieces of his early-career catalog.

While dealing with the new album cycle, mentor and manager Rogers urged McCollum to make regular trips to Nashville. “I don’t think I ever would’ve gone up there at all if it weren’t for him,” McCollum reveals. “I was much more narrow-minded about the whole thing, and he helped broaden my horizons.”

Rogers also let McCollum crash at his place in Nashville and use his guitar for big co-writes he helped orchestrate, which, you know, helps. “I tried to show him there’s nothing scary, there’s nothing anti-Texas by going up to Nashville and writing with really talented people,” Rogers says.

He encouraged McCollum to “be excellent and be gone” in everything he did, from playing shows to co-writing to taking meetings. “What I mean by that is do your job to the best of your abilities, then get in your van or car and go do the next thing,” Rogers says. “Don’t hang around. Just leave. Be mysterious. Be good. Rinse and Repeat.”

The strategy paid dividends. “[Rogers] got me my publishing deal—he got me all those meetings with record labels,” McCollum says. “He’d fly up and go to every one of those meetings with me. He really put his name on the line.”

McCollum signed a publishing agreement with Warner Chappell in 2018 and a major label deal with Universal/MCA in 2019. Before he ultimately chose Universal, McCollum reportedly had offers from just about every label in town. “But George Strait has been on Universal his entire career, and that’s why I wanted to be on Universal,” McCollum says. “Universal has had Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Randy Rogers — some of the most respected songwriters and entertainers.”

Despite the wealth of talent flowing from Texas, McCollum is one of only a few artists from the scene to partner with a major label. Justified or not, the notion of “selling out” still perseveres in the Red Dirt scene, something McCollum is well aware of.

“At the end of the day you’ve got to do what’s best for you and your guys, to let everybody take care of their families,” McCollum says. “Everybody says, ‘Oh don’t let Nashville change you,’ but that’s one of the things I was so pleased with Universal about. The president of the company said, ‘Don’t change a thing. Keep doing what you do, because you built this thing, and you know your fans better than anybody.’”

And there’s a good reason he knows his fans better than most: he’s one of few artists from the Texas scene who manages to both play Americana music and command pop star-like adoration on social media. His social media engagement with fans is part of the reason McCollum commands a much bigger audience than most artists at his level.

For those unacquainted with social media metrics, “engagement” is the measurement by which people who follow your account also engage with it—meaning they choose to “like,” share or comment on your different posts. Because social media is a business, companies usually restrict how much of your audience actually gets to see what you post (unless you pay for it).

In broad strokes, the average engagement rate on Instagram is about 5 percent (and typically lower for brands and artists). Twitter and Facebook are a lot lower because engagements on those apps are typically viewed more as an “endorsement” since they’re publicly available for others to see. “Good” engagement on those platforms comes in at around just .2 percent, meaning two reactions for every 1,000 followers.

If you’re wondering why you just read two paragraphs on social media engagement, it’s because you need to understand just how insane McCollum’s social media interactions are—and how they make him a rare bird in the world of not just Texas music but all of social media.

Back-of-the-napkin calculations for McCollum’s Instagram engagement yields him at about 10.6 percent from his nearly 160,000 followers. That’s three times higher than superstars like Justin Bieber and seven times higher than motivational personalities like Gary Vaynerchuck. The pattern stays true on Twitter and Facebook too, where posts as simple as “Don’t trust nobody” rack up tens of thousands of interactions—the kinds of numbers marketers salivate over.

McCollum outperforms his Texas country contemporaries at a laughable rate, even far surpassing timeless icons like George Strait. It’s one area where Randy Rogers says McCollum has actually taught him a thing or two. “I’ve tried to be more engaging [online] because of it,” Rogers says. “That’s one way he’s helped me.”

At first, Rogers was worried about McCollum being so open on social media, comparing it to athletes who are on the brink of stardom—right before somebody digs up old social media posts painting them in a negative light. “I remember getting on him for some of his posts, but at some point I just had to realize he’s always had [social media], and he’s speaking to a totally different audience,” Rogers admits. “That was the one thing I had to let go of.”

The thing is, McCollum’s followers spill over from the Internet. “Those people commenting on those photos and messaging me 20 times a day, they’re at the shows, absolutely,” McCollum says. “Every person who says something or thanks me for my music… their followers, whether it’s 500 or 50,000 people, they see that. This growth was attainable by social media existing.”

And that’s another huge difference between when Rogers was signing his first deal in the mid-2000s and now. “The entire conversation about signing a deal is different,” Rogers says.

McCollum’s recent single (and first through his new record deal with UMG), “Pretty Heart,” is his first in nearly two years and has already enjoyed the benefit of the social media buzz.

“This was a song I started writing back in 2014 with my brother,” McCollum says. “I wrote down this line, ‘What does that say about me that I can love somebody like you,’ and I found it about a year ago and was like, ‘Holy shit, how did I forget about this?’”

He took the idea to his cowriter, Randy Montana, and they eventually hammered out what you hear now. “We wrote it right around this time where that girl from Probably Wrong kept popping up back in my life,” McCollum says. “And it was never going to go anywhere, because too much had happened, but she was still popping up here and there, and for a brief little window I went back to where I was when I wrote Probably Wrong.

The song has arguably been McCollum’s most immediately successful song to date. Which of course begs the question—if things get too good, will McCollum again feel the need to take himself to a dark place for his music?

“I think about that all the time, and it’s something I’ve talked about since I was 14,” he says. He points to two of his heroes—John Mayer, who is in his 40s with no wife, no ex-wives and no kids, and George Strait, who’s been happily married with a family his entire career. “It’s kind of this seesaw for me,” McCollum says. “I get tired of being alone, and I get tired of being sad and writing sad songs. But some of the best sad songs I’ve written came when I wasn’t sad.”

To this day, Rogers’ relationship with McCollum stays focused on the business. “I’ve only written one song with him, and we weren’t even in the same room,” Rogers laughs. “It was over the phone. I didn’t take him to try and change him and fit my career. I saw the raw talent and said, ‘This guy has what it takes to be a budding superstar.’”

But the one thing that hasn’t changed is being able to watch the milestone moments in McCollum’s career—going from a van to a Sprinter to a bus. “I remember he had a question about getting in-ear monitors for the first time, and that’s just such a cool, huge step to watch,” Rogers says. “I tell him to remember and hold on to these little moments, because they become precious.

Click here to read our Q&A with Parker McCollum.