With musical roots that stretch back to her idols Loretta Lynn and the late Tammy Wynette, Lorrie Morgan remains one of the most gifted and resilient figures in contemporary country. In a wide-ranging interview with Journal of Country Music editor Chris Dickinson, Morgan speaks with candor, humor, and a resolve born of tragedy and triumph, proving she is indeed a woman who has come to know her own strength. The complete version of this article is available in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Country Music, available on newsstands in mid-March or by subscription.
It is the fall afternoon after the CMA awards, here at the governor’s mansion in Nashville. On the patio, beneath a tent, there is a luncheon to honor the new Country Music Hall of Fame inductees: Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, and Johnny Bond. In the small crowd spread out across the patio, the current living Hall of Famers mingle: Little Jimmy Dickens, Earl Scruggs, Roy Horton, Bud Wendell, Brenda Lee, and Jo Walker-Meador. Their medallions are strung around their necks like badges of endurance.
The gifted songwriter Cindy Walker sits at a table among friends. The woman who penned such classic country songs as “Cherokee Maiden” and “You Don’t Know Me” is smartly turned out in her fall colors, obliging a classic custom from another time by wearing dress gloves on her fragile hands. Her own Hall of Fame medal — nestled like a big locket in the scarf around her neck — looks to weigh more than all her delicate features combined. Walker is still striking, the epitome of what the greatest generation would call a great beauty of her day.
I ache for a cigarette and finally locate the de facto smoking lounge: three women firing up out on the edge of the manicured stretch of lawn. Among them I spot one of the great beauties of my day. I walk toward her and light up, secure in the knowledge that not even the governor of the state of Tennessee will tell Lorrie Morgan to snuff out her butt.
Morgan is here to represent her late father, the Hall of Famer George Morgan. We have never met before, but a cigarette habit is all you need to gain entry into this tight group hugging the fringe of the party. She opens up the smoking clutch to me, introduces her friends. She is a petite woman in a tailored skirt-suit and high-heeled slingbacks, the sort of knock-out power outfit Nicole Sheridan used to wear on Knot’s Landing. Up close, Morgan’s platinum beauty is nothing less than stunning, her delicate bones so perfectly wrought it’s hard to tear your eyes from them.
But oddly enough her beauty is not what she leads with in person. She smokes and laughs her raspy laugh, gestures with her hands, bores down physically close to make an adamant point, jokes and lets fly with a few four-letter words. There is a warmth and immediacy to her, an agile mind and a palpable heart that have seldom been captured in the writing about her. She has often been portrayed in the press as something of an ice queen, an impenetrable beauty whose boyfriends get more ink than her unique voice. It’s a public image at odds with this open, nervy woman on the lawn.
In a town where both its Music Row and alternative music scenes have refined the art of empty social chit-chat, Lorrie Morgan emerges as that most singular of individuals: Intense in conversation, she is a woman who seems to have no time to waste on small talk. I mention a show of hers I had seen a few years before, in which she had included an unplugged segment. Sitting on a stool that night, a guitar in her lap and leaning quietly into the microphone, Morgan had brought the house down with spare interpretations of a number of classic country hits, among them a haunted, broken reading of “Apartment #9,” Tammy Wynette’s first single.
When I mention this to Morgan she seizes on it, the conversation no longer about her but instead about Tammy Wynette. She speaks of Tammy and her intensity deepens, her love of the late star a genuine thing. Morgan also speaks of the day she turned forty, the depression it originally caused and the empowerment in it that she has since found. She is candid, by turns wickedly funny and ardently serious, and seems to trust in the fact that twenty years in a hard business have taught her she can only be herself.
She can’t stay for the luncheon; her son has a game this afternoon that she must attend. She slips through the crowd, cutting a gleaming swath of star power among the subdued suits. For a woman who long ago accepted that there are no road maps in life, she has made her zig-zag path look like a seamless trajectory.
A few weeks later we talk by phone, and Lorrie Morgan is making fudge. Behind her raw, husky twang I hear the metallic clang of pots and pans. She apologizes in advance. “Soon as it starts losin’ its shine,” she says, “I’m gonna have to put you on hold and pour it.”
Morgan inhabits a strange space in country music: She stands with one foot in an earlier time, the other on the increasingly shaky ground of contemporary country. She was signed to RCA in 1989 by label honcho Joe Galante, and later switched to BNA, a separate label under the RCA Label Group. Ten weeks after this interview Morgan will leave her label home of ten years. Through a publicist, the parting will be described as an amicable one.
Although on this day she makes no specific mention of any plans to part with her label, her frustration with the music business drenches her words. As she makes fudge in her Tennessee kitchen and talks on the phone, neither does she mention her upcoming release, To Get to You, a second greatest hits collection that also contains five newly recorded tracks. As it will turn out, it will also be her last release for BNA.
With a singing career that stretches back to her early teen years, she has nearly three decades invested in the music business. She has been a bona fide mainstream star for the last ten. But somewhere along the way the rules of the game changed on her. Today’s commercial country is a land ruled by market research, and standing guard at the narrow entrance to country radio is the radio consultant. It is a world that Morgan no longer understands.
“It’s gotten really very technical,” she says when I ask her how the business has changed. “Years ago, when I first fell in love with country music, part of the reason was that it was so much from the heart. It was so simple, lyrically, everything. It was just the simplicity. Every seven to ten years, this business has gone through a severe change. And now, it’s a little bit hard because to me it’s kind of gotten away from the heart, if that makes sense. It’s more technology. And the music business has really become more of a business than what it was originally meant to be. I think a lot of us, we’re kind of trying to go with the flow and trying to do what we’re supposed to do to get on radio, and blah, blah, blah. But you know, I certainly hope that the next seven to ten years brings back the simpler side of country music.”
For now, Morgan sounds unwilling to make the necessary concessions to adapt to the new country landscape. “I’m not willing to sacrifice what I’ve learned and what I’m about just to get played on radio,” she says. “And that’s probably been a big downfall for me, and a big argument with me and my record label through the past few years. I just can’t go in and record stuff just to get on radio. I can’t do it. I think there’s the element of the heart and the simplicity that’s missing in country music, what turned everybody on to it in the beginning. And it’s gotten really far away from that. And I know for a lot of us, it’s scary.
“I hate to walk into a record label and them pull out a piece of paper and say, ’Okay, here’s the statistics,'” she continues. “Oh, what’s that big word Joe [Galante] uses all the time — research. ’Here’s our research statistics.’ And I’m like, ’Who the hell is researchin’ this s—? Who are these people that you are trusting to research?'”
We talk about the state of radio today, the power of consultants and the cold call research where telemarketer-types play snips of songs over the phone to demographically correct listeners. On the subject of radio consultants and the narrow research they use to determine a song’s hit potential, Morgan is adamant in her feelings. “How can you call somebody on the phone at home when a woman’s cookin’ dinner for three or four kids, and say, ’I’m with such-and-such radio station, can you give me eight seconds to tell me what you think of this song?’ I’m gonna say, ’I hate the son-of-a-b—-, good-bye!'”
Beyond an industry besotted with demographics, Morgan sees no mystery in determining a song’s worth. For her, it has always been a simple and organic procedure. “Nine times out of ten a person’s gotta be riding in the car, by themselves, radio full-blast,” she says. “That’s when you find out if a song fits ya’ — if you can drive to it.”
Her voice gets quiet, almost pained. “What’s sad is all these people that I’ve looked up to for the last ten years, I’m seeing them be suckered into this paper business . . .” she says softly. The only research Morgan has to go on is what she’s seen and heard out there on the road for the last ten years. “That’s what the country artists have always had that they can’t get across to the label heads and to the radio programmers,” she says, intense again. “[The fans] are real people. They’re in my meet-and-greet every night. This is the lady who walks up to me and cries and says, ’I just want to tell you thanks for putting out that song. I just want to tell you thanks for throwing my little girl a flower from the stage. I just want to say thanks.’ These are real people, real faces, that want to hear real music.” She pauses. “You can’t statistic through your whole life.”
I ask Morgan how she feels about her record label now, if that’s something she specifically wants to talk about. “Yeah, I better shut up on that particular . . . ” she says, momentarily drifting back. “Let me say this about that. I love Joe Galante. He gave me the shot in this business that no one else would give me. And I will always love Joe Galante. Always. Regardless of what comes tomorrow, a year from now, ten years from now. He, along with God, allowed me to make a lot of my dreams come true. And I’ll always love Joe Galante for that.”
She is far less diplomatic when it comes to an assessment of the state of today’s Top Forty. “It’s bubblegum,” she says about many of the songs on country radio today. “That ain’t what life’s about. Country music is therapy — it’s therapy for the rural world. And it’s gotten so far away from it that nobody knows what’s real anymore. You know, people aren’t what they appear to be in their pictures anymore. That concerns me, that we’re reaching out for perfection, when country music has always been about imperfection.”
Expressing the ups and downs of the imperfect life has always been Morgan’s strong suit. There is a dark grain to her voice, a fine, sandpaper edge that imbues her strong, clear pipes with a subtle grit. She is one of the most distinctive singers of contemporary country, a subtle interpreter who is at her best when explicating sorrows large and small.
Within her strongest cuts she has explored an adult view of things; at her best, she has chosen to record songs that capture the intrinsic confusion of the thing called love. While some of her oeuvre is riddled with stiff missteps — the brittle, forced bravado of “My Night to Howl” comes to mind — she has beneath her belt a passel of remarkable interpretations that stand as antidotes to the current glorification of gooey sentiment. In a current country radio world where emphasis is placed on the flimsy highs of romance, Morgan’s sharpest material addresses not the skyward trajectory of love but the skidding stop: the moonlit romance that withers in the glare of the morning after, the blunt realities of in sickness and in health, the exits taken long before ’til death us do part.
She is an oddity of sorts, a rarity in the business, an artist who is able to infuse a traditional country sensibility into even her most pop-leaning tunes. Morgan’s pop vernacular is a decidedly pre-rock one; she paid homage to it, in fact, with her 1998 release Secret Love, which included a batch of pop standards by the likes of George and Ira Gershwin and Jimmy Van Heusen. (“I wanted to do the ones that meant something in my life,” she says about the album. “From bein’ a little girl believin’ that romance really existed, pretending like I was Doris Day on the back of my horse singing ’Secret Love.'”)
Her career song remains the Angela Kaset-penned “Something In Red,” where Morgan brought to bear a world-weary delivery against a lush setting, her voice alternating through the verses, lightening to convey fragile hope, darkening to reveal layers of regret and nostalgia. The lushly orchestrated 1991 hit did what few current country power ballads are capable of doing: It told an actual, imperfect story. Tracing a woman’s life through the colors of the outfits that she dons, the song was a haunting walk through the disintegration of a marriage: the desperate attempt to recapture initial passion (“I’m looking for something in red / Just like what I wore when I first turned his head”); the fear of infidelity; the death of romance that accompanies monogamy and children; and the insecurity that comes with aging (“Strapless and sequined and cut down to there / Just a size larger than I wore last year”).
With “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” Morgan’s voice rose and fell through the wounded, wiser lyrics, the careening guitars and assertive drum whaps mirroring the sound of a knocked-down woman standing back up again. Against the weepy steel of “Good As I Was to You,” she nailed the disillusionment of another love gone bad. “I Guess You Had to Be There” chronicled a woman torn by her husband’s infidelity; Morgan avoided the maudlin for the bitter burn, bearing down into the syllables as she conveyed the death of a marriage in all its pain and humiliation.
It has been these songs, sprinkled throughout ’90s radio, that have emphasized the imperfect nature of love, the fact that no matter how hard you try to get it right, it so often goes wrong.
Lorrie Morgan has lived the imperfect life as well, often under the harsh scrutiny of the tabloids. She has been widowed once, divorced three times. She has survived a hysterectomy and financial difficulties. She has watched as her personal life has been dissected in the media, watched as every date and relationship has been bluntly reduced to a screaming, one-dimensional headline. Beneath her public life she has grappled with the private demands of being a working mother: Her daughter Morgan — by her first husband, George Jones’s bassist Ron Gaddis — is on the verge of being a college student. Her son, Jesse — by her second husband, the late Keith Whitley — is in seventh grade.
Born Loretta Lynn Morgan in Nashville (the full name was just a coincidence, a prescient tribute to the woman who would become one of her idols and mentors), Morgan was the fifth child of country star and Grand Ole Opry member George Morgan. She attended Catholic schools in Music City and grew up with a backstage view of show business. She made her own Opry debut at thirteen, an adolescent with knocking knees singing “Paper Roses” while her father bawled in the wings. That would all turn out to be the easy part.
She worked nightclubs in town and toured with her father while still in high school, but when George Morgan died in 1975, the teenager lost not just a dad but her most trusted advisor. She hit the road on a long series of lonely tour dates, trying to establish herself. She recorded, with minor success, for a number of labels: Columbia, ABC/Hickory, and MCA. In 1979, she even cut an electronic duet with her late father on his ballad “I’m Completely Satisfied with You” for the Four Star label.
As hard and uncertain as that time seemed, it paled in comparison to what came when she joined George Jones’ road show as a support act, back-up singer, and duet partner. If her father had given Morgan her first break, he had also shielded her from the ugly realities of the business. It was on the road with Jones that Morgan came to understand the dark side of fame.
“It was a very emotional time,” she says. “I was twenty, twenty-one years old, and got into a world that I’d never been involved with before. Yeah, I’d been in the music business all my life, Grand Ole Opry, workin’ with Dad. But this was a new kinda guy. This was something that was very . . . whew . . . scary to me as a young girl.”
It was the dawn of the 1980s, and that “new kinda guy” was then in the throes of brain-bending alcoholism and drug addiction. Although “No Show Jones” has long been flung around as a comic moniker, the grim reality that inspired George Jones’s nickname was no joke to those who experienced the repercussions firsthand. Jones would go missing in action, disappearing completely before shows, and Morgan and the band were left holding the bag. Standing in the turbulent wake of those missed dates, the green entertainer saw how quickly the spotlight can go black. She saw how a loving audience can transform into an ugly rabble.
“The reality of it was that it was scarier than hell,” she says. “Oh man, they threw bottles, tomatoes, apples — anything they could find when we had to announce that [George] wasn’t going to be there. One night they almost tipped the bus over. And you know, I thought, ’Why would he put us through this? He must not care at all.’ Of course, [me] being young and naive . . . hell, he cared. He was dealin’ with his own damn demons, you know? Lookin’ back, he was just as scared as I am and everybody else is now. But he just kind of showed his fright in another way.”
Although she occasionally seems weary recounting her history one more time (“I started workin’ on Ralph [Emery’s] morning show again, and then got back into Nashville Now, and you know, blah, blah, blah, and blah, blah, blah”), the George Jones tour still evokes genuine emotion twenty years on. “Whewwssh,” she breathes with a shuddering air. “That was a weird part of my life.”
But it was also part of the dues-paying that has made Morgan the real deal. Seeing the price of fame early on stripped away any illusions she had about what a life in music could really cost. “I love George,” she says quietly. “I wouldn’t trade those days for anything because it taught me a lot, and it definitely taught me what I didn’t want to have in my life. I can’t say that I’d go through it all again, not that particular part. But I’m glad that I did it.”
In the song “Between Midnight and Tomorrow,” Morgan’s voice captures the grief of a woman sitting up ’til dawn, watching her drunken lover sleep. What sets the song apart is that it doesn’t reduce the equation to a simplistic Good Women, Bad Choices scenario. Like Tammy Wynette in “Stand By Your Man,” or Patty Loveless in “Here I Am,” Morgan evokes the subtler issues involved with loving the sinner but hating the sin. The man Morgan sings about is an alcoholic, but underneath the disease is the actual man. The woman is grappling not with a one-dimensional monster but rather, as the playwright Eugene O’Neill once put it, a good man’s failing.
It has been a decade since the death of Morgan’s second husband, Keith Whitley. A Kentucky bluegrass prodigy who’d apprenticed with Ralph Stanley, Whitley was a rising hard-country singer and a binge alcoholic when he met Morgan in the mid-’80s. At the time, she was cutting demos and working as a receptionist at Acuff-Rose. Her own music career had yet to catch fire. They married and the union produced son Jesse. In 1989, just as Morgan’s breakthrough RCA hit, “Dear Me,” was rising on the charts, Whitley died of an alcohol overdose in their Nashville home while Morgan was touring Alaska.
His death came doubly hard; at thirty-three, Whitley’s bruised baritone was just coming into its own. In Garth Fundis he had finally found a producer sympathetic and sensitive enough to understand his hardcore, traditional heartbreak. It seemed, for a time, as if Whitley and Morgan might fill the spotlight vacated by George and Tammy. It was not to be.
Ten years on, Morgan still thinks of this good man, and his fatal failing. “I don’t think you ever quite get over losing somebody that special,” she says. “I wonder from time to time, where would we be now, what would we be doing. Would he be proud of Jesse? Would we be as happy as I always thought we were going to be? There’s never a day that goes by that I don’t think about Keith, ever. You never get over losing somebody who was — hell — the love of your life.”
The tough part, she says, was the guilt beneath the grief that came in the wake of his death. “The ’ifs’ are the big wonderment of being married to an alcoholic, or involved with anybody with a drug addiction,” she says. “’If I’d a just done this, if I’d a just done that.’ You get in your mind that if you would have done something different it would have helped them, when the truth of the matter is they are the only ones who can help themselves, ever. I wish I would have gone to a few [Al-Anon] meetings just to help me deal with the aftershock, because it devastates a person who thinks that they were a part of it. ’If I just wouldn’t have gone out of town, and I would have stayed, and Keith would be alive today, and . . .’ For a long time, I lived with that thinking. And that’s not the case. It would have happened the next time, or the next time, or the time after that. You can’t stop a person who’s on the road to destruction, because they have to say ’I don’t want to self-destruct. I want to get better.'”
The subject of Tammy Wynette resurfaces several times as Morgan speaks. “Tammy,” she says emphatically. “Man, you talk about a lady who had her knocks with love and life. That’s the kind of person I can relate to. That’s the kind of person I want to sit back and listen to, because that’s the inspiration.” It’s no accident that the standout track on her new release To Get to You is “Another Lonely Song,” the 1973 Tammy hit that Wynette co-wrote with legendary countrypolitan producer Billy Sherrill and songwriting powerhouse Norro Wilson. Morgan’s decision to cover the song lured the reclusive Sherrill back into the studio to produce the track.
The song is a classic, Wynette-ian epic of longing and heartbreak. When Morgan speaks of it, her voice intensifies as she remembers a time when Tammy’s voice would come over the radio, throbbing with complex pain, acting as therapy for the rural world. “It’s like going in and sitting down to a therapist,” she says. “You go in and sit down to a therapist and he helps you by his words, you feel better. So you turn on a radio and you listen to Tammy sing, ’Time won’t heal my memory / God, it’s killin’ me.'”
Morgan stops. “Hold on a minute.” I hear her whispering the words to herself, searching for the rest of the lyric. She finds it and recites the rest, her voice bearing down on each word: “Lord how I need him here / Just to feel him near and hear him breathin’ / But still the night goes on and on / Another lonely song I’m singin’.” She pauses, pondering the words. “God-dang!” she cries. “That’s what I’d rather turn on!
“You knew she went through it,” she says about Wynette. “And that’s what my music has always meant to me, to be able to go in and sing a song that Jane next door with five kids is dealin’ with. Because if I’m dealin’ with it, I know she’s gotta be dealin’ with it. I know she does. She’s a woman.” Morgan pauses. “And all women go through the same crap.”
I ask her if she has devised a way to let the things go that would have bothered her when she was younger. She is quick and adamant. “Media,” she says bluntly. “Media. The rag mags. What the Globe, what the Enquirer have to print. I let it go. I don’t care anymore. And my children are old enough, and they’ve been conditioned by me very well. I’ve always been very open and honest with ’em about what I’m doing, what my life’s about, who I’m seein’. So they know when they read this stuff that it’s just bulls—. And that was always my big concern — what are my children gonna think when they read this? They know not to believe what they read, unless I tell ’em to believe it.
“These are heartless people that write that crap,” she continues, regarding the tabloid reporters who have dogged her in life. “And they don’t deserve my thoughts or my time. Or my despair. It took me a long time to realize that. That they don’t deserve not even an inkling of thought. I shall think on them no more.”
A few weeks later I sit transcribing the interview tapes late into the night. I listen in that odd way you listen when you hear your own voice rambling, rising, falling, stumbling, reaching for the right word, picking up steam. I listen to myself eating up a minute of tape time, rambling on about the state of radio, the state of music, the state of America. I hear myself wrap up a long, digressive diatribe with the crescendo, “We’re going to hell in this culture.”
I hear Lorrie Morgan respond, “That’s exactly right.” I smile at her patience with me. I hear a pause, the clang of a pan. “I’m going to hell with this fudge, I’m gonna tell you that,” she says. I wish her well with her fudge, and Morgan laughs her smoky laugh. “Oh, I gotta start all over,” says the woman who is no stranger to beginning again, the woman who long ago embraced the importance of the journey over the destination.
Chris Dickinson is on staff at the Country Music Hall of Fame, where she is the editor of the Journal of Country Music.