Drake Milligan Ahead Of His CMC Rocks Debut: 'The Greatest Songwriters In The World Are In Nashville'

22 February 2024 | 9:00 am | Noel Mengel

As he prepares to play CMC Rocks for the first time, fast-rising country star Drake Milligan talks about his love of Elvis, an old-school country music education and why 'America’s Got Talent' worked for him.

Drake Milligan

Drake Milligan (Source: Supplied)

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Lives often have some kind of pivotal moment. But for most people, they don’t happen at age seven.

Texan singer and songwriter Drake Milligan had that moment during a visit to a ’50s-themed burger bar as a child.

“It was a total accident,” Milligan explains. “We were at a restaurant, and an Elvis impersonator there. I thought, ‘What is this? This is the coolest thing I've ever seen.’ Then I went home, started watching all the videos, and became a huge fan.”

Milligan grew up in Fort Worth, the country-music-loving city that neighbours bustling Dallas. 

“I grew up loving my dad’s music, traditional country music, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, those kinds of singers,” Milligan says. “But when I was watching Elvis, it was something a little different. That’s when it clicked for me: that’s something I want to do. I want to be an entertainer like Elvis.” 

Making music as a career was the goal. But Milligan’s exploration of Presley’s music and the story of the man who discovered him, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, provided some unexpected opportunities.

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At 14, he played the young Elvis in a short independent film, Nobody, set in 1953 with Elvis in high school. That experience led to him playing the part of Presley in the single season of the series Sun Records, which screened on CMT in 2017.  

But Milligan’s true calling was elsewhere. He knew he wanted to do his own thing, to write songs and tell his own story. The place to do it was Nashville while continuing his deep dive into the history of country music and early rock’n’roll. 

Of course, it helps if you have the voice to start with: Milligan’s rich, resonant twang is tailor-made for his music, which has as much in common with the traditions of country as it does to the latest wave of new country. 

Breakout single, Sounds Like Something I’d Do, led the way to his 2022 debut album, Dallas/Fort Worth, and the just-released EP Jukebox Songs. Both titles tell you plenty about where Milligan is coming from.

“When I am writing or recording, I am always trying to find songs that feel like they may fit on an old jukebox somewhere, next to [Brooks & Dunn’s] Neon Moon or those kind of classic songs,” Milligan says.

The EP ranges from the upbeat and radio-ready hooks of What I Couldn’t Forget to Jukebox Songs And Barstool Beers, which tips the hat to the “old-school country sound” Milligan sings about in the song. The EP continues the mix of classic and new Milligan delivered on Dallas/Fort Worth

“They are close together but two very different cities,” Milligan says. “Dallas is a growing city, kind of looking toward the future as it changes. Fort Worth is exactly the opposite. It holds true to its roots, which are based in traditional cowboy values.”

The album features songs like the old-school ballads She and Don’t Look Down, the Bakersfield twang of Tipping Point, and Goin’ Down Swingin’, a duet with Vince Gill which looks back even further in time to the country swing of Bob Wills.

These sit easily beside tunes like Hating Everything She Tries On, a love song that is a gentle take on differences between the sexes.

The album closes with Long Haul, which features the guitar licks of James Burton, Presley’s band leader from 1969.

“Once I got to Nashville, I realised there are just so many people that go into making records, Milligan says. “I love the Nashville sound of the ‘60s and people like Patsy Cline and Marty Robbins. You start looking at who produced the records, who wrote the songs, who played on the songs. 

“It’s fun, but it also makes you speak a kind of language that helps you understand country music and the way it’s made. You can say, give me a Ralph Mooney kind of steel guitar thing, and people around Nashville understand what you're talking about.”

Both the album and EP feature Milligan co-writing with some of the best writers in Nashville.

“I wanted to seek out the guys and girls who have written some of my favourite songs for people like George Strait, Al Jackson and Brooks & Dunn. To me, the greatest songwriters in the world are in Nashville, so it was like a master class.

“I think I came in at a great time for it. Maybe if it was 20 years ago, I might not have got the time of day, but they were thinking, here’s a 20-year-old guy who cares about our music and wants to learn from us.”

Eyes on the prize

Milligan maximised the impact of the release of Dallas/Fort Worth with prime-time television exposure on America’s Got Talent, where he impressed the judges with a blazing performance of Sounds Like Something I’d Do. He went on to place third in the 2022 season.

“I auditioned for American Idol in 2017 when I hadn’t done any work writing songs and had spent no time in Nashville. I realised that if I were thrown up on the big stage, not knowing who I wanted to be as an artist, not knowing what I wanted to say, that it was going to be a missed opportunity.”

Five years later, he was ready. “Now I know who I am as an artist. I got to sing my original songs, tell my story, and have my band up there with me. Millions of people ended up watching the show.

Simon Cowell asked me why someone who has been doing it for a little bit, like me, wanted to be on America's Got Talent. I told him the show was like The Ed Sullivan Show back in the day. It’s a great platform for undiscovered artists to get their music out to a lot of people. 

“Think about Elvis or The Beatles going on The Ed Sullivan Show, and their careers changed drastically. And a show like AGT can have the same effect for artists now.”

Milligan brings his blend of traditional and modern country sounds to next month's CMC Rocks festival in Queensland.

“I’ve found that with audiences outside of the States, they really appreciate the more traditional kind of country sound, even more than people in the States do sometimes. I’m just really looking forward to coming down to Australia for the first time.”

With Sounds Like Something I’d Do amassing tens of millions of plays and views, you get the feeling it definitely won’t be the last time.

Drake Milligan will appear at the 2024 edition of CMC Rocks from 15-17 March. Jukebox Songs is out now via Stoney Creek Records.