When country music newcomer Drake Milligan moved from Fort Worth to Nashville, he didn’t just come here to sing. He came to listen.
At just 19 years old, armed with an appreciation for the history of country music, Milligan listened in co-writes and recording sessions, where veteran songwriters taught him how to tell a story, legendary producers taught him how to use the mics and studio as a vehicle for his voice, seasoned musicians were willing to back the new guy, and his country music heroes shared insightful advice on how to seamlessly shift from the studio and the stage – letting things snowball from there.
After spending serval years having taken in all that wisdom, he was intent to pen every song on his first release, but he knew that he’d be better off if he didn’t go at it alone. “Word got around, and I was invited into more and more co-writes, and finding my own sound was what that was all about. I wrote for the last three years. I write every day. You realize when you get to Nashville that you have to write thousands of songs before a really good one comes out,” he says.
That’s where his heroes came in. Milligan was able to book writing sessions with industry legends like Bill Anderson (Brad Paisley, Conway Twitty, George Strait), Dean Dillon (Chris Stapleton, George Strait, Kenny Chesney), Monty Criswell (Josh Turner, Trace Adkins, Tanya Tucker), Marv Green (Billy Currington, Brooks & Dunn, Lonestar), Paul Overstreet (Blake Shelton, Randy Travis, Ronnie Milsap), Terry McBride (Easton Corbin, Garth Brooks, Hank Williams Jr.) and Brice Long (Jon Pardi, Gary Allan, Randy Houser).
“The reason I came to Nashville is because all my heroes are here. All the guys who wrote and played on my favorite songs are still so good. They wake up every day and want to write the best song they can. I wanted to learn something from every write. Writing with those songwriters was a rite of passage for me,” Milligan says. “Seeing how excited Bill and Dean and the others are about writing songs was so inspiring to me.”
“We all get here with a different set of influences. Mine were mainly George Strait and Elvis. Along with a lot of Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, and George Jones. That’s what my mom and dad listened to, so my earliest music memories came from that,” he says. “As I was writing, I learned that the best sad songs are bittersweet and even a little hopeful. I love that tradition in country music: how sad songs can help you feel understood. That’s the magic, because not everything in life is sunshine and rainbows.”
Once the songs were written, it was time to find a producer. Milligan enlisted the award-winning music producer and industry icon Tony Brown (Brooks & Dunn, George Strait, Vince Gill) and songwriter/producer Brandon Hood. Brown first discovered Milligan’s talent as a performer when he saw him portray Elvis Presley in the CMT TV series Sun Records, an adaptation of the Tony-winning musical Million Dollar Quartet.
When it was time to record, Milligan opted for seasoned session musicians who played on the music he was raised on. “When I hear Stuart Duncan (George Strait, Alan Jackson, George Jones, Tim McGraw, Clint Black, John Prine, Travis Tritt, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Elvis Costello) playing fiddle on my record, it takes me back to all the songs I loved that he played on,” he says. The EP also boasts renowned piano player Gordon Mote (Alan Jackson, Carrie Underwood, Josh Turner, Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton). “I figured a guy like that wouldn’t even want to play on a new guy’s record,” he admits, even though he’s more of an old soul at heart than a so-called new guy.
Finally, when it came time to unearth his very own sound, the traditionalist turned to his roots: Texas. His debut album Dallas / Fort Worth via Stoney Creek Records available now is stacked with songs all co-written by Milligan. Featuring 14 tracks, his double-barreled baritone vocals match electrifying honky-tonk hooks, Western swing two-steppers, country pop balladry and more, as Milligan uncorks exuberant themes of trouble-making fun, young romance, life-sustaining love and more. Under his watch, country’s metaphorical saloon doors swing open once more. “As a lifelong Country music fan, it has been my dream make a full-length record that pays homage to traditional Country roots, while still bringing new sounds and energy to the genre,” says Milligan.
Standouts include the trouble-drowning, alcohol-soaked “Over Drinkin’ Under Thinkin’” and his upbeat, rebellious debut radio single “Sounds Like Something I’d Do” that is currently climbing the Country radio charts. But it’s not all up-tempo toe-tappers. It’s in the ballads that he really showcases his deep, smooth as silk vocals. With “Don’t Look Down,” Milligan paints a picture of falling in love on a dance floor, defying gravity thanks to the honky-tonk’s trusty old jukebox, and “She” is a beautifully simple but emotive depiction of a lovesick boy completely in love with a girl, as he lists off everything he loves about her.
“As a native son of the Dallas/Forth Worth area, I’ve always been intrigued by the difference between the two cities. First there’s Dallas: a city determined to prove that everything really is bigger in Texas. Then, just 30 miles to the west, there’s Fort Worth: a city that holds true to its Stockyard roots with a taut rope around its cowboy brand. My goal was to bring those same distinctions to the two parts of this album. On Dallas, the songs have a little more polish on their boots. On Fort Worth, there are nods to those traditional Honky-Tonkin’, Western swingin’, cowboy culture roots that I’m based in.”
When his new album dropped, Milligan burst out of the gates and began to carve out a place for himself on the national scene.Named No. 5 on Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart, his debut album dominated iTunes, scoring him the #1 spot on iTunes Country Album Chart, All Genre Chart and Country Song Chart as well as the #1, #2 and #3 spots on the Video Chart. In an unprecedented move, CMT featured five of Milligan’s videos simultaneously on the network.
Having already received critical acclaim from Billboard, USA Today, Entertainment Tonight, People, Parade, American Songwriter, CMT.com, KTLA, Hollywood Life, Fort Worth Weekly, Sounds Like Nashville, Taste of Country and more, Milligan just made his Grand Ole Opry debut, is currently selling out venues from Detroit and California to Memphis and Forth Worth and will join Gary Allan at NFR in December.