The rising country star and Opry NextStage featured artist popped the question earlier this summer

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parker mccollum
Parker McCollum
| Credit: Tyler Conrad

It was a night Parker McCollum had forever dreamed of. Following in the footsteps of the country stars he once could only look up to, the Texas native with the truthful voice stepped onstage amongst a few of them in February to make his Grand Ole Opry debut.

There was just one problem.

"She wasn't there," the ACM nominee for new male artist of the year tells PEOPLE, referring to now-fiancée Hallie Ray Light. "We actually broke up at the end of last year for some goofy reason. I don't even remember what the reason was. We were still broken up and we were trying to work things out. But I walked off stage that night and I was like, 'I don't ever want to do anything like this again without her here."

Flash forward five months, mere days following the couple's eventual summer engagement, Light was in fact there to witness the platinum-selling, rising country star make his second visit to the Grand Ole Opry stage, this time as an Opry NextStage featured artist, an honor given to the brightest new stars in the genre.

And certainly, this change in the trajectory of his personal life seems to mirror a confidence that now can be heard in his voice and within pieces of his major-label debut album, Gold Chain Cowboy.

parker mccollum
Parker McCollum
| Credit: Tyler Conrad

Of course, the contradictory nature of the album title follows in line with the often contradictory nature of McCollum as a person and an artist. In fact, McCollum's story has long been a story of contradictions. It's a story of a guy with more talent than most, who spends far too much time focusing on his weaknesses, a guy with a tendency of tearing himself down without lifting himself up first, a guy who may not 'look the part' in an industry often eager to put some sort of tag on just about everyone.

It was all of this that McCollum, 29, acknowledges he was wrangling with during the making of Gold Chain Cowboy.

"I was really not doing well with being off the road and to be honest, I just was not living right," admits McCollum, whose Hollywood Gold EP that was released last fall became the top-selling debut country EP of 2020. "I was trying so hard to take myself to this place that I'd always gone to, to get these songs, and it just wasn't working like it used to."

McCollum also says he started feeling as if he was becoming the "sad country song guy," the same guy who snagged a platinum-selling No. 1 hit for his downhearted yet honest single "Pretty Heart."

"If I liked a song, I started thinking that I shouldn't like it because it was not a 'heartfelt, rip your heart out' country song," remembers McCollum of the making of the album, which also includes his latest irresistible single "To Be Loved By You." "But I started realizing that if I enjoy singing it and I think it's a good song, I'm going to record it and put it out. I took a deep breath and relaxed and started to not worry about it so much."

And it was around that time McCollum went and wrote what he calls the best song he has ever written.

"'Rest of My Life'" was my only solo write," he says of the album cut he wrote in June of last year. "I actually wrote it dead sober the morning after another rough night.  I was in the shower, humming the melody and got out of the shower to write the song. I wrote for about 15 minutes and got back in the shower. I've found now that I write my best songs when I'm really healthy and my mind's in a good place."

Getting his head in a good place has certainly gotten a tad easier, now that McCollum firmly has his heart in the right place.

 "I couldn't wait to ask her to marry me," McCollum remembers of his proposal to Light earlier this summer. "There was no backup plan and no hesitation. I didn't overthink one thing. I was like, 'It can't get any better than her.' There was no doubt in my mind that I was making the right decision. She saved my life in a way. I don't think I was headed down the right road."

It's this newfound joy in his life that has seemed to propel a certain sense of confidence in McCollum right now, where dreams he may have once thrown away before he even dared to dream them might end up coming true.

"My whole goal is to be a part of country music history and be a respected songwriter," says McCollum, who will head out on the road with Dierks Bentley next month. "I want to become somebody like [Chris] Stapleton, where you know him when you hear him because he is so honest and so real with his music. I just want people to look at me the same way, like 'We listened to him because we believed what he was saying.'"