Craig Morgan Beats the Odds with “Almost Home”

Others have scored hits by waving the flag and promoting war, but leave it to a soldier to hit the Top 10 with a song about the peaceful dreams of a homeless man.

Now resting at No. 9 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks, Craig Morgan’s “Almost Home” is the year’s most unexpected success story. In a business climate favoring major corporations, the 37-year-old Nashville-area native signed to the independent Broken Bow Records after his previous label, Atlantic Nashville, folded. And at radio, where a single’s brevity is highly valued, “Almost Home” runs a whopping 4 minutes, 38 seconds.

“I wasn’t going to put this song on the record — and I wrote it — because it was so long,” Morgan tells CMT.com. “But everybody at the label sat down and said, ‘This is a hit. We believe in this song.’”

Others believed, too, especially Morgan’s contacts at country radio. He began cultivating those friendships in 2000 when Atlantic released his debut single, “Something to Write Home About.” Although that track and three subsequent singles generated only marginal chart success, radio programmers couldn’t resist Morgan’s enthusiasm and upbeat personality.

Morgan also had a story to tell, having spent more than a decade in the U.S. Army. As a member of the Army’s airborne division, Morgan participated in Operation Just Cause, the military operation in Panama that toppled dictator Manuel Noriega’s regime in 1989.

Even today, Morgan continues his military service. “I went back into the reserves prior to the Sept. 11 thing,” Morgan says. “The first unit I was in when I went into the reserves — a parachute rigging unit — was mobilized. But prior to that, they had started working to move me out of that into an Army recruiting unit. They wanted me to work with the recruiting command based on my ability to try to convince people to join the Army. I’ve got about four years before I can get my 20-year letter, so I figure I’ll be in for another four years anyway.”

Morgan’s final Atlantic single, “I Want Us Back,” had been on the chart for just three weeks in 2001 when he learned that the label was shutting down its country division. “I was in a writing session with Sharon Vaughn and my co-producer, Phil O’Donnell, when I got the call. … I honestly didn’t realize that Atlantic was doing as bad financially as they were. I don’t think any of us knew that, especially with John Michael Montgomery having a hit and Tim Rushlow having a Top 10. We just thought that things were going to be picking up. And I was just getting started. They were starting to get a great buzz on me, but you just never know.”

Asked how he reacted to the news, Morgan laughs and says, “Well, I finished that writing session. I said, ‘It’s no big deal.’ I’m a firm believer that God has a plan for everything.’ I knew I could make money writing songs.”

Atlantic’s country roster was immediately shifted to Warner Bros. Records, but Morgan soon found himself looking for another label. In fact, he began working on his current album, I Love It, even before he signed with Broken Bow.

“Once I left Warner Bros., I really sat down and spent a lot of time working on writing, finding songs and getting ready for the new album,” he says. The work included co-writing “Almost Home” with veteran songwriter Kerry Kurt Phillips. With rich images of a cottonwood tree and a summer breeze, the lyrics deal with a homeless man who’s dreaming of his youth — and a better place in the future.

“I actually had the idea out on the road,” Morgan says. “It was going to be about something else. My wife was calling me. I’d been out of town quite a bit and she’s like, ‘When are you coming home?’ And I’d tell her, ‘Look, it won’t be long. I’m almost home.’ I wrote that down thinking it would be a good idea for a song.

“Then Kerry Kurt and I started talking about that old homeless guy who lives under the Demonbreun Street bridge [in Nashville], as well as any other homeless person. Kerry Kurt said, ‘You know, that’s what it’s about. He’s the one who’s almost home.’ But as much as that’s what the song is about, people think more about their own lives, so it’s really weird the way it turned out.”

Morgan did not shoot a music video for “Almost Home,” although he has completed work on a clip for “Every Friday Afternoon,” the next single from I Love It.

When asked if he had any inkling of what “Almost Home” would mean to his career, Morgan says, “I had no idea. I’ll be honest with you, I still don’t get it. I’m just thankful. I praise God every time I step onstage and sing that song. I get to the chorus and there’s 6,000 people singing this chorus so loud, I can’t hear myself.

“As writers and artists and producers and industry people, we all like to think we can pick them and say, ‘Yeah, this is gonna be a hit’ and ‘I told you that was a hit.’ But we don’t know. These songs are few and far between. You just have no idea how grateful I am to have one.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.