Lorrie Morgan: Somewhere Between Black & White

One of the nicknames that Lorrie’s father called her when she was a small girl was “Fussy.” If her dad, the late country pioneer George Morgan, said something was black, chances are Lorrie would reply “No, I think it’s white.”

But Lorrie Morgan, undoubtedly one of the most renowned country music divas of all time, has never been the black or white type. In fact, her fascinating unpredictability, as well as unyielding talent, has kept her at the top ever since she took her first steps. Those steps unfold chapter after chapter, and literally in black and white, with the long awaited release of her autobiography, Forever Yours, Faithfully – My Love Story.

In the book, written by New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey, perhaps best known for his penmanship on Coalminer’s Daughter with Loretta Lynn, Martina with Martina Navratilova and Get To The Heart with Barbara Mandrell, Lorrie opens up, according to her, “because it’s time.”

As easily assessed from her singing and music, she shares both the pleasure and the pain of her extraordinary career and her consuming love for her late husband, bluegrass/country star Keith Whitley. His battle-to-death with alcoholism was nothing less than a tragic battle for her. Fortunately, however, Lorrie survived. She continues to survive today and in a way from which others can learn. Ultimately, that’s what Lorrie is all about. While her music, to others, may seem to take center stage in her life, it’s actually her strength, courage and ability to weather the storms and smile at the sun that makes her human.

With two children, Morgan and Jesse, and her still relatively new husband, singer Jon Randall, offering Lorrie happiness from the get-go, it’s quite obvious even in her music these days that she’s finally hurdled some clouds. Her latest album, Shakin’ Things Up, which kicks off with the undeniably fun-factored “Go Away,” peaks with the singer’s more positive spin on life.

“I’ve always tried to pick songs that I could relate to,” explains Lorrie. “I don’t think anything has really changed between this album and previous albums as far as picking songs that mean something. But I do think when we first started getting songs together for this album like ’Shakin’ Things Up’ and ’Go Away,’ we kind of went with that theme of more sassy and fun kind of songs. The new album is more of a fun album for me. It truly is I think one of my most favorite times in the studio. But then

I think it’s extremely country. It’s not so much about the production, but more about simplicity in the songs. You should always read something into a title of an album,” advises Lorrie, “particularly this album. When I heard the title track I thought it was so neat. The opening line is ’I’ve been told better safe than sorry and to look before I leap.’ I’ve never done any of that. I’ve always been the one to shake things up, and I’m not going to stop,” she laughs.

Being the happy mover and shaker that she is, Lorrie is also quick to note that it’s many of her darker experiences, however, that have made her who she is today. And it’s those sides, as well as the more-up-beat sides, that will always be evident in her music.

“I think I’m still in touch with that painful side,” she admits. “But I’ve always considered myself a fun person. Like when we cut ’My Night To Howl,’ I thought that was one of the most fun songs I’ve ever recorded; and a great video. But it just wasn’t accepted by radio. It was an extremely fun song that kind of said ’I’ve got to get out of this and just let it go.’ I think when we did the ’Go Away’ video, that for me was the ultimate dress-up video. Every girl likes to play dress up. I became Marilyn, Liz Taylor, Rita Hayworth… It was extremely fun.

“I think that I’m all that,” she continues. “There are times that I’m all that and then there are times that I want to be in that sad mode. I don’t ever want to be predictable. You just can’t play the same role all the time or people will get bored with it. I get bored with myself.”

Lorrie’s musical offerings have been anything but boring over the years. To date, she’s sold more than seven million records, including her recent Greatest Hits disc, and has become a queen in her own right when it comes to entertaining an audience — not so surprising since she made her first performance on the Grand Ole Opry when she was only 13 years old. As she mentions during one of her segments as October’s CMT Showcase Artist, making her way onto a stage to this day is still a thrill-chill experience.

“I still get very nervous before I go on stage,” she admits. “With every audience it’s different. And with every situation it’s different. I remember my dad told me years ago, ’When you stop getting nervous about going on stage, you’ve lost the love for what you do.’ I’ve always remembered that. So I don’t know if it’s psychological that I’m nervous or I really am, but I feel like I am. I think that I’ve become more confident in my ways of performing. But there are some nights that I still feel very shy on stage. But I know that my fans are there to see me and they bought those tickets to come see me. That’s great, and that part has changed, from earlier in my career when I was the opening act to now, when it’s my show. That makes me feel good, and that makes me feel confident. My dad always used to tell me that there are singers and there are entertainers. You can always go buy somebody’s records and listen to them, but you can’t know what they’re about unless they give that of themselves. That’s what I’ve tried to do as I’ve gotten older and matured in the business. People that come to see me know me a little bit better. And sometimes that’s painfully scary and it’s very vulnerable by opening up that way, but it’s proven to be very worthwhile.”

Apparently, Lorrie’s decision to share much of her personal life with the public via her autobiography was yet another vulnerable move. As well as a treasure chest for the singer’s millions of devoted fans, the book finally offers Lorrie a bit of closure to a lot of pain and unnecessary speculation.

“It’s closure for me because I don’t ever have to sit down and tell that story,” she proclaims. “I can talk about different parts of it, but I never have to sit down and open that back up again. I can discuss it, but not to the degree that I had to do it initially. Setting the record straight is another big part of it,” she explains of releasing the emotion-themed book. “There are a lot of people getting ready to come out with their opinion of Keith’s life and his final days. They just have no idea. They can’t. They weren’t there. They weren’t his wife. They weren’t his family. They were outsiders looking in. It matters not to me and it matters not to Keith’s children. I just felt like it was time that I told what happened because somebody is going to say they know what happened, but it won’t be complete.”

In addition to sharing the highlights of her extraordinary career in country music, Forever Yours, Faithfully recounts her courtship and marriage to Whitley. She tells of his dark descent into alcohol abuse, his tragic, untimely death, and finally, her triumph over the crushing grief — even after learning of her late husband’s devastating infidelities.

“When all that happened with Keith, I was in my late 20s,” remembers Lorrie. “I was still a very young girl. I think knowing now what I thought I could do, I don’t think I could do it again. I really thought at that time of my life that I could change him and that I could love him to sobriety. I know now that I can’t do that. You can’t love anybody that much. They have to love themselves enough to become sober.

I didn’t know what toll it was taking on me back then. I had no idea. I’ve always been one who’s handled a crisis or emergencies very well. Once it was over, was the break-down period to where I thought ’I can’t believe I just did that!’ That’s how I’d always been. I think my adrenaline was pumping so much during that time with Keith that I never had time to think what it was doing to me. Looking back, like I said, I don’t know if I could go through with it again. But at that point I was young and could conquer everything and felt that I could beat this. The only problem is he wasn’t strong enough to beat it.”

Once again, surviving through tragic times, Lorrie came out having learned. It was also extremely important that she pass that knowledge onto her family, or even as advice to others who suffered similar consequences.

“People can’t help the way they love someone,” she says. “It’s hard to tell someone to walk away. We’ve always been taught that love conquers all. And I believe that it does, but I don’t know that it always comes from the one on the outside. I believe it’s got to come from the one with the problem. They have to be the ones who have that love. If you’re strong enough to hang in there with them until they find it, that’s your choice and your decision. But when it starts destroying you and your children, it’s time for that person to make a sacrifice. But I don’t think that anyone has the right to tell someone to leave or walk away. Sometimes we find out things the hard way, and sometimes that’s the best way.

I’m very concerned about Jesse,” she confesses of her young son’s potential addiction due to heredity. “But I think that this particular problem is not as hush-hush as it was when Keith was a little boy. It wasn’t talked about openly. Jesse and I talk about drugs. We talk about drinking. He knows how his dad died, but he’s got the Whitley blood in him. And I know eventually that he’s going to test the water on some of this stuff. I only pray to God that it missed his generation and that he’s strong enough to handle it. I think he will be.”

As one of the country music world’s top figures, Lorrie has also learned to handle her fair share of criticism — yet another area of her life that’s made her bolder, stronger and more determined to survive.

“I think I’d be lying if I said criticism didn’t bother me,” she admits. “It doesn’t matter as much. A lot of people are very heartless. They don’t understand unless they have to live in your shoes. Everyone has to deal with grief the way it’s best for them. I dealt with it my way. I may not have dealt with it like Mary or Jim would. So unless Mary or Jim are willing to come in and take over my life and my situation, then they need to shut up,” she laughs. “That’s putting it very bluntly, I know.”

Lorrie has long been a victim of the media’s sword when it comes to her personal life and relationships — even those after Whitley.

“I feel like I operate better when I’m in a happy relationship,” she ponders. “But I don’t need a relationship to operate at all. I don’t feel like I’m any different than any of us. Everybody is always searching for love and the right person and someone to spend the rest of their life with. But for me, it’s been very difficult because no matter what I do or no matter what he does, it’s going to be written about. And that’s a hard thing on relationships. No, I don’t feel like I need a relationship to exist or survive. But when I’m in a great relationship, I feel happier and I have someone to share things with. That’s important to everybody. But when relationships are bad, there’s nothing worse. You feel like getting in a corner and rolling up. But I think that’s just natural.”

Despite several tragedies and unpredictable encounters in both her personal life and career, Lorrie’s amazing vocal talent and top-notch entertaining craft is also “just natural.” She contributes much of that blessing to her late husband as well.

Before Keith, I just sang,” she admits. “I had to grow up very quickly during that time. My emotions and everything in me, he opened up, which in turn made me sing from the heart. Before, I just sang. I sang with feeling after I fell in love with Keith. He brought that to me.”

For more than 25 years, Lorrie has brought that same gift to her fans.