Over the past year, William Michael Morgan has risen from a honky-tonk crooner to a country star with a No. 1 hit under his belt. His deep voice and style that seems pulled out of the late 80s and early 90s has come as a refreshing sound for many country fans. But how did this Mississippi native emerge from seemingly nowhere to the top of the charts?
When I spoke with Morgan during this year's Country Radio Seminar, it was obvious that the impact of his success was still surprising to the 24-year-old. The moment he decided to pack up and leave his hometown of Vicksburg, Miss. to take on Nashville is still fresh in his mind.
"I just remember that moment of my dad shaking my hand before saying "good luck," and my mom crying," Morgan tells Wide Open Country. "It was one of the hardest deals I ever had to do, but at the same time, they understood, and I understood it was just something we had to do."
After sleeping on his manager's floor for about a month, things started coming together. He moved into his own place, signed a deal and released his first single, "I Met a Girl," to radio.
"I was in my apartment at the time and I was listening in my car, just me, and I remember it came on for the first time," he recalls. "About halfway through it, my mom called and she was like, 'Are you listening?' I'm like, 'Heck yeah I'm listening,'" he recalled with a joyful laugh. "I got to experience that moment with my mom even though she wasn't there."
It was a surreal moment for the budding artist who spent his late teenage years hopping from bars and honky tonks across Mississippi, earning his stripes. It's the kind of quintessential success story you'd expect from a so-called "traditional" country singer.
Ironically, his breakthrough hit "I Met a Girl" was co-written by Sam Hunt, who has a sound that initially seems the very antithesis of Morgan's. But the reason why the newcomer chose to cut the track was because of its message. It's a sweet and relatable love song that, at its core, is country through and through.
And for Morgan, the authenticity of the lyrics is what draws him in. He was inspired to try his own hand at country music by the greats like George Strait and Keith Whitley. Morgan notes that they were artists who developed a signature sound through one important factor.
"It's the realness," he says. "There was no smoke and mirrors. It was something that was real from the very first line, from the first line they said in the song to the first steel ride to the first guitar lick. You knew it was Keith Whitley or George Strait or Merle Haggard. And that's why I fell in love with it, because you knew who it was."
Strait especially stands out for Morgan because of his ability to form a specific sound without penning the tunes himself.
"George Strait always had the best songs, and he didn't write a single one of them. And that says something," Morgan notes. "He didn't think that he had to do it all. He knew where his weaknesses were and his strong points were and he capitolized on that. I've only wrote two songs on my record and I'd love to have more, but at the same time I know I'm not the best songwriter."
With the success of his 2016 full-length debut Vinyl, many have been quick to box Morgan into the box of a country traditionalist, going against the mainstream. But he doesn't see it as much as a battle as just a difference of influences.
"No matter if it's pop country, bro country, rock country, whatever the case, you'll notice there's one key word in all of that, and it's country," he explains. "It's just a matter of how you get your message across. I was listening to Whitley, Haggard, Strait and Mark Chesnutt, but that doesn't mean [other country artists] were listening to it, too. Everybody has got their own way of presenting their own message."
It takes at least a bit of a crossover appeal to get you to the top of the country charts these days, and his down-to-earth sound and charming personality have earned him slots opening for huge artists like Lee Brice, Justin Moore and Jamey Johnson. It's a different kind of crowd than the old VFW's he played a few years back. But getting that connection with the audience is one that Morgan both understands and strives toward building.
"In today's time, I don't want to say people don't give a shit, but there's other things that they're doing. They're driving, they're fixing their hair, this and that," he remarks. "Everyone's got their heads so far in their phones. If you're going to pay for a ticket, at least enjoy yourself."
"That's the thing I want to get across to people," Morgan says passionately. "Go to the show and have a good time. Forget about your phone, forget about your light bill, your car payment, your mortgage. Just hoot and holler and have a beer, or seven, and have a good time."
You can catch William Michael Morgan out on tour through the end of the year. His debut record Vinyl is available in stores and online now.