Newcomer Craig Morgan Makes Recording Debut

When ex-G.I. and country music newcomer Craig Morgan sat down to write with legendary songwriter Bill Anderson, he felt no intimidation at all.

“Bill is one of the greatest human beings I know in this industry,” says Morgan during an interview at his record company’s Music Row office. During a day filled with interviews and media appearances (“I’m willing to work as hard or harder than anybody in this building”) he barely has time to wolf down a bagel, but he goes on and on about Anderson.

“He’s a genuine man who has a heart of gold,” Morgan crows. “He has a love for what he’s doing, which I just love to see in these traditional guys who’ve been in this industry for so many years.”

Buddy Cannon was along, too. The songwriting trio came up with a song, “Hush,” which appears on Morgan’s self-titled debut album, released May 30. Cannon and Norro Wilson produced the album.

Truth be told, not much at all intimidates Morgan, 34, a Nashville-born native of Kingston Springs, Tenn., who lives now in Dickson, Tenn., just a few miles outside Nashville. Attracted by ads inviting him to ’Be all that you can be,’ he signed up for a hitch in the Army while still a teenager. He became a paratrooper and was part of the Army force that helped oust Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega in 1989.

So, when Morgan wades into International Country Music Fan Fair next week (June 12-15 at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville) the crush of people, the hot sun and the long hours won’t present much of a challenge. After all, this guy has jumped out of a plane with a 65-pound pack on his back and walked for 50 miles.

Morgan’s Fan Fair week begins Sunday when he plays in the City of Hope Celebrity Softball Tournament at Greer Stadium. He appears on the Atlantic Records label show Monday morning at the fairgrounds. At 7:30 p.m. CDT on Monday, he moves to Tower Records on West End Avenue for an in-store performance.

Tuesday, he’ll join his writing pal, Anderson, at Anderson’s fan club event. Tuesday night, Morgan is part of the annual Superstar Spectacular concert benefiting the Grand Ole Opry Trust Fund at the Grand Ole Opry House.

Morgan probably will sign autographs everywhere he goes — and at a booth or two at the fairgrounds. He wraps up the week with a concert Sunday night at the Wildhorse Saloon in Nashville.

For the singer, Fan Fair represents an opportunity to gain valuable exposure to more than 20,000 fans who attend. As avid country music listeners, they represent the core audience Morgan tries to reach with his music, and his fortunes need a boost. His first single, the uptempo “Something to Write Home About,” went to No. 38 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart. His new release, “Paradise,” entered the same chart this week at No. 74.

Several of the tracks on his new album have a traditional country feel, something Morgan comes by naturally. His father, Jack Greer, played music in a local band, The CML’s (Country Music Lovers), but never pursued a professional career.

“I love traditional country music,” Morgan admits. “I think we’ve gotten so far away from that that people have forgotten how good it is. We broadened our country horizons, and that’s great, but in doing that, we’ve denied a lot of the listeners something that they desire to have.”

At this year’s Country Radio Seminar, industry watchers revealed that contemporary country music and country radio appeal less to male listeners than to female listeners. In making his new album, Morgan aimed to connect with both genders.

“We found songs and we wrote songs and recorded songs and produced ’em in such a way that they’re attractive to both males and females,” he says. “That was our goal and I feel like we’ve done that. When I go to a radio station and we play these songs on the radio and take phone calls, it’s about 50-50.”

The new single, “Paradise,” touches on Morgan’s military experience in Panama. “I never thought the day would come when I might have to kill a man,” he sings in the final verse. “I did not sleep a wink that night, but we won for Uncle Sam.”

Morgan wrote the song with noted Nashville tunesmith Harley Allen. As he traveled home from the writing session, he listened to the work tape they had recorded together. “I realized what I had written and got so dadgum torn up about it I had to pull off the interstate,” he recalls. “It was real emotional to me. It didn’t strike me when we were writing it.”

A staff writer for Sony/ATV Tree, Morgan has his name on seven of the 11 songs on his new album including “302 South Maple Avenue,” an idyllic portrait of enduring domestic life. The tune must have been a natural for Morgan, who has a wife, Karen, and four kids. Another, “Walking in My Father’s Shoes,” takes its inspiration from Morgan’s father and from his father-in-law. “I Wish I Could See Bakersfield,” written by Cannon, pays tribute to the late songwriter Tommy Collins and includes a spoken recitation by Collins’ champion, Merle Haggard — quite an endorsement for Morgan.

Also in Morgan’s corner is retiring Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. The same management company handles both men, and they’ve struck up a friendship. Earlier this year, Marino attended Morgan’s showcase at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, throwing souvenir footballs to the crowd. Morgan will sing at a ceremony marking Marino’s retirement Aug. 23 in Miami.

His upcoming Fan Fair appearances should help Morgan win new fans. Though his first album is just out, he has done his share of performing and he has a winning way on stage. He spent eight months as a regular at the Country Tonight Theater in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., performing for a steady stream of tourists.

Morgan understands and respects the audience he hopes to reach, in part because he comes from the same stock. “These people aren’t ignorant,” he says. “We’re educated people. Just because we’re country doesn’t mean we’re stupid. That was the assumption in the past, that country listeners weren’t as intelligent as other genres. I think they got a rude awakening in the last two years … We enjoy real, heartfelt music.”

And Morgan says that’s what he aims to deliver. “I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing,” he vows. “I’m real proud of the music. I’m real proud to be a part of country music, and I want to be a spokesperson for country music. People recognize when something isn’t real. All I’m doing is going out there and singing songs and being myself. They either like it or they don’t.”