By now, you’ve probably heard some of Drake Milligan’s classic-sounding country songs, like “Sounds Like Something I’d Do,” “Over Drinkin’ Under Thinkin'” or “Kiss Goodbye All Night.” The Texan’s debut album, Dallas/Fort Worth, was produced by Tony Brown a legend well known for producing records for George Strait, Reba McEntire and Vince Gill, among others. His resume also includes a stint in Elvis Presley’s band which must be more than a coincidence: Milligan used to work as an Elvis impersonator, and later played “The King” on CMT’s Sun Records series. Guests on his album included guitarist James Burton (another alumni of Elvis’s band) and Vince Gill. So, he’s a guy with a true love for classic country. We talked to him about his fascinating journey and his passion for vintage music.
My first thought when I was listening to your record was, “How old is this guy?” You use producer Tony Brown, and the guests on the album are James Burton and Vince Gill. Talk about your sound and style.
I’m 24 and I’ve just always really gravitated towards older music. My parents listen to a lot of the old school country stuff like Merle Haggard, George Jones, all the way up to George Strait and Alan Jackson. I’ve always I heard it said that if you really want to find out what made your heroes click, go to their influences, right? And so for me, I just really became a fan of the history, and learning who played on records and who produced records.
I know that early on, you worked as an Elvis Presley impersonator. What did you learn from that experience?
The Elvis thing was such a phase for me… until it really wasn’t. It was kind of a phase that got out of control. When I discovered who Elvis was, I was about seven or eight. It was through an Elvis impersonator. I’d heard Elvis’s songs. But it wasn’t until I saw that Elvis impersonator… it was the first time I really saw, you know, somebody perform. And then I went I went home and watched Elvis videos, I was like, “This makes sense to me. You can perform music, not just sing it. For me, as somebody who was born decades after Elvis died, I can still watch his videos and still be impacted by him. He was such a great performer. Then I can still feel like he’s singing right to me.
So,it just became a great way to learn how to perform. So my career as an Elvis impersonator was kind of… it was me just figuring out how to perform to people and and try to borrow some of that stuff from Elvis and pick up on some of those things that made him great.
You know who else is a former Elvis impersonator…
If you start going to big award shows, that’s something to talk to him about.
[Laughs] I would love to, man. I think Bruno’s the best singer in like, the past 15 or 20 years. He’s amazing.
I know you were were on American Idol. I know you were on America’s Got Talent. I know you played Elvis Presley in Sun Records on CMT. And somewhere in there, you got signed to a record label. Explain the timeline to me: what happened first?
I was cast in Sun Records when I was a senior in high school. I was about halfway through my senior year of high school and got the opportunity to go to open call auditions. They told me “No” at first. But I went up there anyway. I knew a few people with the Film Commission in Memphis. I’d done a little short film called Nobody where I played Elvis back in high school. So I knew some people at the Film Commission there, and I told them, “Hey, I know you’re working with these people. Can you tell them I’m serious? I really want to do this and and I could be good.”
And they did. They let me come in and audition. And two weeks later, I got the call that I had the part and left high school and finished school online. I treated that whole experience as, really, the start of my college education. I just really dove in and was asking all the questions I could. Our musical director was Chuck Mead, who was in a great band back in the day called BR5-49. And Chuck is like a country music encyclopedia. He just he knows so much of the history of and appreciates it and is a great musician and singer. And I spent a lot of time trying to learn from him
Once I finished that, Tony Brown did see me on the show and loved my portrayal of Elvis. And Tony played keys for Elvis back in the day. The last couple of years, Elvis’s life, he was on the road with him. And he had me come play a gig for him here in Nashville. And then we maintained a relationship during that time. I moved to L.A. This is probably around 2017. I was I was living in L.A. for a few months. I didn’t I didn’t last long. It wasn’t made for this country, boy, I can tell you that. But, you know, I spent some time there and during that time auditioned for American Idol and realized shortly that after that audition… I said, “Man, I’m not ready for this.” I hadn’t done any work in the studio, or much songwriting or gigging.
And so I withdrew from the competition and moved to Nashville and try to do it right and just started started writing songs. I got I got connected with Sony Music Publishing and Broken Bow Records and was able to start working on an album. But, really just I spent the last four or five years just writing all I could and learning and doing the things I needed to do to get ready and putting my time in as an artist. And so then America’s Got Talent came along this past year, and I went for it and decided that I was ready to tell my story. I had a great band and some great songs. And so it was the perfect opportunity to showcase that.
It’s hard work to even get on American Idol. Why did you decide to leave?
I really wanted to be my own artist. It would have probably been me going up there and just singing Elvis songs. I really wanted to find my own voice and I did that. Tony Brown helped me a lot with that. When I moved to Nashville, I said, “All right, I’m gonna throw everything Elvis out the door.” I’m not going to be “The Elvis Guy.” But, I ended up just trying to be a George Strait impersonator. You got to you got to incorporate those influences. And Tony really helped me with that. “No, man, you got to use that stuff. But combine it with your other influences and create something.” And that’s really all any artist ever really does is just combine their influences. There’s times where maybe a little move or Elvis move comes out or maybe a little George Strait kind of singing thing comes out or. For me, finding my own sound was it was really just learning how to combine those influences.
Let’s move on to the “Proust Questionnaire” part of the interview. If you could duet with any artist, living or not, who would it be and why?
You know who I’ve been digging lately? Lee Ann Womack. There’s just not a bad vocal performance out there [by her]. I love her voice so much. That’d be great. But of course, Elvis. Come on! But also George Strait. There’s a giant list. But Lee Ann would be a great one to duet with for sure.
What album or song in your collection would surprise your fans?
I don’t think there’s too many surprises in there. I’m pretty predictable! But I’ll go through my playlist and it’s Elvis or George Strait and Merle Haggard and then Eminem will pop up. I guess that would be a surprise.
What words or phrases do you use too often?
I say “ya’ll” a lot. “Howdy.” That gets overused. I have to stop myself on stage from saying [in an Elvis-like voice], “Thank you very much.” That’s something I’ve picked up from Elvis, too.
What’s your most treasured possession?
It’s probably my guitar. When I moved to town, I said, “I’m going to buy a real guitar.” And I went to every guitar shop and I found the guitar that I couldn’t put down. It’s a custom shop Gibson acoustic guitar and it fit just right. It’s kind of been my go-to guitar, it’s the one that I played on America’s Got Talent.
What kind of snacks do you prefer: sweet or savory?
A little bit of both! I love Blue Bell ice cream, but then I need something salty afterwards.
What is the best birthday gift you ever received?
That’s a tough one. I can remember a Christmas gift. It was my first guitar, I can still see it. It was a little red Fender Squier. I can still see it: Christmas morning, looking down from the balcony in my parents’ house and seeing that red Fender Squier. I think I wanted that because it was like the one that Drake Bell played on Drake And Josh [laughs]. I think that was around the time that I discovered who Elvis was. But the first songs I learned were, like, AC/DC, probably “Back In Black,” and Green Day.
What talent would you like to have that you don’t have currently?
I would love to be more proficient at piano. I’ve got an old piano. It’s actually my great-grandma’s. I’m working at it!
What trait do you most value in your friends?
Loyalty. Definitely loyalty. I consider my band guys, at this point, to be my best friends. You spend a lot of time on the road in the minivan. Those guys are such loyal friends at this point. They’re willing to go to bat for me and willing to work hard for me and really go above and beyond.
So what does your next year look like? Are you going to hit the studio again?
We don’t have any plans right now to go in. We’ve got a ton of festivals and stuff booked for next year. We’re playing Stagecoach next year, which is exciting. That’s going to be crazy. I’m hoping to maybe to get on an opening slot on a big tour or something. By January, I’m going to start really planning out another record.
You know, in the last few months, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to to write. And I really missed it. I really missed the co-writing kind of life here in Nashville and just getting up in the morning and going out and seeing and talking to everybody and getting a song or two at the end of the day. So I really want to get back more into that and stack up some more songs. And also look for outside songs. I don’t want to just cut stuff that I’ve written. I want to incorporate the Nashville community in there.