Drake Milligan Parades His Love for Classic Country on Debut Album, ‘Dallas/Fort Worth’ [Interview]
Life has been quite the whirlwind for Drake Milligan lately. He went straight from competing on America's Got Talent and finishing in third place to releasing his debut album just hours after the Season 17 finale.
But this lightning-in-a-bottle moment has been something the Mansfield, Texas, native has been preparing for since moving to Nashville four years ago. After all, as his hero, Elvis Presley sang, “You’ve got to follow that dream wherever that may lead.”
In 2021, Milligan was officially added to the Stoney Creek Records/BBR Music Group roster and dropped his self-titled debut EP. Though the five-song set was lauded by music critics, it wasn’t quite enough to launch him into commercial stardom. Things changed when an AGT producer offered the singer-songwriter an opportunity to audition for the show's 17th season.
“I released the EP last year and we’ve been out on the road. But it’s tough out there, and you need something to break the ice,” Milligan shares in a recent interview with Taste of Country. “AGT’s been something I’ve been watching since a little kid and I’ve really dreamt about being on that stage. When the opportunity came along to audition, I went, ‘You know what? This is a fantastic opportunity.’ I was able to have my band play and sing with me, and I could perform original songs.”
Milligan likens his quick-to-the-spotlight AGT run to the Ed Sullivan Show: The television variety show served as a career launchpad for many new singers in the 1950s and 1960s, including Presley and the Beatles.
“It was an opportunity for artists to show their stuff to the world back in the day. I see America’s Got Talent the same way. It can change your life overnight,” says the 24-year-old. This was when he knew and told himself, “Man, this is how we go forward. This is how we break the ice!”
Not only is the proverbial ice broken, but because of the show, Milligan’s record label expedited the rollout of his long-awaited debut album, Dallas/Fort Worth. Thankfully for both parties, the entire LP was recorded long before AGT and just waiting for the opportune moment to be released.
“The timing of this is so great for me! We had these 14 songs, and some of them are from 2018, and some of them are from 2020 or 2021. It’s a culmination of a lot of songs I’ve written over my time in Nashville,” he says.
Co-written entirely by Milligan, Dallas/Fort Worth is a concept album that aptly introduces two sides of the newcomer — Dallas, which features a more polished neo-tradition country sound; and Fort Worth, which proudly stays true to the genre’s organic and deeply-entrenched honky-tonk roots. The idea for this sprung up from a conversation Milligan was having with the record label’s Vice President of Innovation, Radio and Streaming, Adrian Michaels.
“We were sitting with these 14 songs and Adrian said, ‘Man, your music is like Dallas and Fort Worth. There are two sides of it, that’s so cool!" the singer recalls. A lightbulb lit up instantly and that’s when the proud Texan knew: Dallas/Forth Worth.
“Dallas is such a big city, and it’s always looking toward the future. I call it a little more polished on the record. Half of these songs we cut are really kind of like that. I want to be played on radio, I want them a little more polished. There’s maybe a little bit of rock influence in there. It tries to take traditional country and break the mold a bit,” he explains.
“And then there’s the other side, Fort Worth, which is stockyards, Billy Bob’s, holding on to its roots and just fine with traditional. That’s a big part of who I am and how I write and approach songwriting. I just really try to hold on to those traditional roots."
Dallas/Fort Worth is a masterful collection of songs that pay homage to Milligan’s cornerstone influences, which include Buck Owens, George Strait, Merle Haggard, and even Presley. Instead of pandering to modish pop-inflected production styles, Milligan, alongside producer Brandon Hood and the legendary Tony Brown (George Strait, Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn), chose to charge full-force in the traditional country direction.
The 14-song LP is a flawless introductory project that sparkles with tracks driven by fiddle, steel guitar and unabashed twang, all brought to life by a prolific team of musicians, which include James Burton, Tom Bukovac, Gordon Mote and Stuart Dunkin. The songs are modern while maintaining the genre's established sonic traditions — “old school in a new way,” as Milligan affectionately puts it.
Album opener “Sounds Like Something I’d Do” is a rollicking anthem that drips with country swagger, “Kiss Goodbye All Night” hat-tips Presley with its witty “one for the money, two for the road” lyric, and the jubilant Vince Gill and Time Jumpers-assisted “Goin Down Swingin’” does an impeccable job at transporting listeners back to the height of Western swing music with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys reigning at the top.
“Tipping Point,” from the Fort Worth side of the record, is an exuberant number that melds Buck Owens’ “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail”-esque opening delivery with thick fiddle lines, uptempo romps and a live performance sound.
“With a song like ‘Tipping Point,’ it’s so different from a traditional country track. I think it takes what guys like Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam did, and makes it fresh in a new way," the artist says.
Hat-tips to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll are plenty on this album, whether it’s in the vocal delivery or instrumentation. One undeniable Presley-influenced track is the stunning “Hearts Don’t Break Even" — layered with swelling strings and an almost-ethereal melody, Milligan wrote the track with Hood and Grammy-winning songwriter Liz Rose (Taylor Swift, Little Big Town, Jewel).
“To me, it’s like that Elvis, Glen Campbell kind of song. I miss those melodies so much in modern music. I feel like they’re just so cool with the strings and lush production,” expresses Milligan, who also credits Hood for his second-to-none understanding of his artistry and vocal capabilities.
“My favorite Elvis music is from the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. Especially the Elvis Is Back record, ‘It’s Now or Never,’ ‘Surrender,’ and all these big, lush sounds. He had been listening to some of the operatic stuff and a lot of Spanish music and was influenced by that,” shares the Presley aficionado. “His voice had kind of matured to a big fullness and he could hit those high endings. So I definitely tried to bring a bit of that into this record.”
A former Elvis tribute artist, Milligan has mastered the moves, vocal delivery and stage presence of the global music and pop culture icon. But unbeknownst to many, after acting as Presley on CMT’s Sun Records in 2017, Milligan had grown weary of living in the shadow of the late star. In fact, when he first moved to Nashville in 2018, he desperately wanted to “have nothing to do with him.”
“When I first came to Nashville, I was really running from it. I was running from anything Elvis. I didn’t want to be known as the Elvis guy,” he reveals. “It was really Tony Brown who helped me and told me, ‘Man, you need to incorporate that. It’s part of you, and you got to bring that to what you do.’” That’s when the emerging artist decided to embrace his Elvis-influenced artistry and meld it with his unique storytelling style.
“It’s just combining those influencers, just like what Elvis did back in the day. He combined his unique set of influencers too. I find myself of course stealing some of the moves from Elvis, or some of his showmanship. But also, I try to take something from George Strait or Garth Brooks and incorporate those influences and make them my own.”
Stamping a song as his own is exactly what Milligan does on the jaunty and infectious singalong earworm, “Bad Day to BeaA Beer.” As he proudly quips in the chorus, “Life is good right now, it’s only getting better / And if I had my way, I would be buzzing out here forever / All my 12 ounce buddies are about to disappear / It’s a good day to be me, it’s a bad day to be a beer.”
The idea of personifying a bottle of beer sprung at Milligan's fishing trip with his friend one morning. Out of the blue, his buddy jested, “It’s a good day to be me, but it’s a bad day to be a beer.” Immediately, the meticulous songwriter whipped out his cellphone note down the humorous one-liner.
“That was the first time I heard somebody say that! Of course, we wanted to go for it and make it totally fun and tongue-in-cheek,” the singer shares with a chuckle. “When we cut it, we just wanted to rock out and have fun with it. It’s so easy to go 'Chattahoochee' with it and make an Alan Jackson track, but we wanted to have fun with it and go a little left field with it.”
Like a well-rounded record, Dallas/Fort Worth is not devoid of heartfelt love ballads. “She,” “Don’t Look Down” and future wedding standard “Dance of A Lifetime” all prominently display Milligan’s velvety baritone and knack for delivering charming romantic odes, similar to Keith Whitley and Vern Gosdin, whom he affectionately calls “some of the greatest singers in country music.”
When unpacking this excellent debut album, one would be remiss to not spotlight “Long Haul,” an indisputable standout track on the LP featuring Burton. Combining sincere lyricism with a rockabilly, fast-paced train track-like rhythm, the uptempo number features windblown steel accents, scorching fiddle lines, and virtuosic guitarwork that culminates in a sound that harkens back to the hit catalog of Presley, Carl Perkins, Dwight Yoakam and Bakersfield sound pioneer Buck Owens & the Buckaroos.
Lyrically, “Long Haul” also taps into a wellspring of country imagery that describes the persona’s unwavering devotion to a love interest whom he’ll travel to the ends of the earth for. It’s a well-textured ode that is replete with romantic allusions, no doubt. Yet, Milligan sees it as more than a fictional love story. To him, the song represents his personal commitment to country music. He’s in it for the highs and lows and twists and turns — he’s in it long haul.
“I realized now after singing it live that it’s kind of my love song to country music in a way. It’s a song that I think, in a deeper way, is my way of saying, ‘I’m in this for the long haul. I’ll follow this thing till the end and go everywhere and travel’,” the singer reflects.
When asked what his hopes are for this record, Milligan pauses for a brief moment to reflect. He then lights up with a smile and enthusiastically groups them into two categories: one for the existing country music fans, and one for the non-country fans he’s garnered from AGT.
For the former, he hopes the LP remind them of the timeless traditional country records embedded in the genre’s DNA. And for the latter, he’s hoping it serves as an introductory gateway to this beloved storytelling format.
“One of the best comments I’ve had from my time on AGT is people reaching out to say, ‘I’m not a country music fan, or ‘I didn’t know I was a country music fan.’ AGT reaches so many people that are not necessarily the average country fanbase. People all over the world watch AGT,” muses Milligan.
“I think some people don’t realize how amazing country music is, the history of country music and how great these old country records are. I hope that people listen to this record and go, “Wow, I love this track! What is this? Western swing? I’ve never heard anything like this! Where is this coming from? Oh, Bob Wills!’ I’d love for people to dive into country music through this record and have this be their introduction.”
It’s safe to say, the torch for traditional country is safe in the hands of burgeoning next-generation country star, Drake Milligan.
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