Given that Parker McCollum emerged from the Texas bar circuit and signed with MCA Nashville behind music heavily informed by classic country, the singer-songwriter has received a fair amount of comparison to one of his biggest influences, George Strait.
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His voice is different — McCollum conveys a distinctive angst, while Strait typically delivers with a quiet confidence — but there’s enough similarity to justify the correlation. And it makes McCollum a tad uncomfortable.
“I certainly love all the comparisons that I’ve been getting recently to him, but I certainly don’t want that to be my identity,” says McCollum, who received a CMA Awards nomination for new artist of the year on Wednesday (Sept. 7). “I’m incredibly influenced by his sound and his records. He is the standard for me and country music. But I’d just like to have my own thing going, and I want people to know that I’m Parker McCollum and always have been and always will be. There’s only one George.”
McCollum’s new single, “Handle on You,” is likely to heighten those comparisons since it’s the kind of song that Strait launched across the airwaves time and time again. It’s built around a lyrical twist that’s obvious without beating the listener over the head. It features a catchy chorus that lifts a little higher than the verses, but maintains a range compact enough that just about anybody can sing it. And it reveals the sensitive heart of its protagonist without compromising his masculinity.
“It’s right up my alley, the kind of music I grew up listening to and loving,” he says. “I want to write songs like that.”
McCollum penned it on July 1, 2020, with Monty Criswell (“I Saw God Today,” “Five More Minutes”) at a Midtown condominium in Nashville in a mashup of starter ideas from each writer. McCollum supplied the melancholy verse melody, while Criswell brought a title, “Handle on You,” derived from trips to visit his daughter at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. The route was dotted with billboards advertising bourbon and distilleries, and it got Criswell thinking initially about a handle of Jack Daniel’s. That use of the word “handle” is specific to the liquor industry — 1.75-liter bottles are large enough that originally they required a loop to make them easy to carry — and the term’s semi-obscurity is a contemporary bonus.
“In days gone by, it was very specific in a writing room that you did not venture out of what was common knowledge, and so we were painstaking in a writing room years ago to make sure we were doing something that was universally known,” says Criswell. “Now, if you put something in there that maybe is partially known or it’s not known at all, people will just pull their phone up. The discovery aspect adds a shine; you’ve learned something, and it makes it cooler.”
Over time, Criswell’s “handle of Jack Daniel’s” morphed into “handle on you.” But McCollum understood it well enough to create the ideal setup line for the hook: “After all this back-and-forth, a fifth won’t do/Yeah, I finally got a handle on you.”
Oddly enough, Criswell understood the “handle” better than the wordplay — he called McCollum the day after the write to tell him he had just recognized how clever the “back-and-forth” and “fifth” line was.
McCollum’s opening line, “I went and bought the biggest bottle they got ’cause you’re gone,” emphasized the “handle,” and it was so essential, they repeated it at the end of the verse. In between, they dropped a Merle Haggard reference, and they strengthened it in verse two by inserting one of his classic titles, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”
“That was actually accidental,” says McCollum, though Criswell suggests that’s not entirely true. “It was something I was thinking that I didn’t articulate,” he says.
Still, it was McCollum who cemented the narrative with an alcohol line that’s both acerbic and insightful, and sounds like it should’ve been in the vernacular for generations: “I tell myself that I should quit, but I don’t listen to drunks.” It’s so good that they repeated it at the end of the verse, too. “I knew the song was a good one when I just kind of spit it out,” says McCollum.
They created a simple work tape and moved on to other writing sessions. But near the end of the year, McCollum started reviewing material and realized “Handle On You” was significant. On Jan. 26, 2021, the two worked on a demo with engineer-producer Julian King (Tyler Farr, Tracy Lawrence) that traded on the ’90s sound. McCollum recorded the final version shortly thereafter at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio with producer Jon Randall (Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley), who purposely made it a little less Strait-laced.
“That demo’s really country, which there’s nothing wrong with,” Randall says, “other than going that throwback — you know, like super throwback — was just not going to work.”
Randall and the musicians contemporized it without losing its emotional core. They sped the tempo up a hair, dropped fiddle from the mix, gave steel guitarist Dan Dugmore a stronger role and had pianist Jimmy Wallace darken the mood with atmospheric bass notes. Electric guitarist Rob McNelley and Dugmore traded solos, and acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton layered perhaps four instruments, the interlocking parts creating an insistent eighth-note pulse.
“When you break them down, they’re not actually [on top of] each other like it sounds like they are, but it all kind of blends together,” says Randall. “I love the way that guy’s brain works.”
Randall also padded the tail end of the chorus so that the “finally got a handle” part happens twice, delaying the resolution of the chord progression and the storyline for just an extra two seconds. McCollum had a good handle on the vocal parts, making it sound easy. “Everybody I know that’s a really good singer will just call up, they’ll be like, ‘I’m obsessed with his vocals,’” Randall notes.
Originally, MCA planned to release another song, “Hurricane,” as the next single, but McCollum called Universal Music Group Nashville chairman/CEO Mike Dungan to announce that he thought “Handle” should get the nod. And so it did: It’s currently at No. 40 on the Country Airplay chart dated Sept. 10, putting McCollum’s smoothly sarcastic resonance atop the toned-down Strait arrangement. Not that he’s putting much stock in that comparison.
“There’s only one king,” he says, pausing a half beat before he refocuses on his ambition: “Maybe one day, there’ll be a prince of country music.”