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Sunday, 22 February, 2009 12:07 PM

Craig Morgan Returns to Major Label Roots with 'That's Why' (CMA)

Photo by Margaret Malandruccolo

Sony Music Nashville recording artist Craig Morgan

By Deborah Evans Price
© 2009 CMA Close Up News Service

Few artists have experienced a more intriguing career trajectory than Craig Morgan. He's managed to find success on both major and indie record labels, and with a firmly established sense of self and clearly defined creative vision, he's consistently steered his career to the right place at the right time.

These days, the right place is BNA Records, which has released his latest album, That's Why. Morgan had broken into the Country Music scene in 2000 with a self-titled debut on Atlantic Nashville, after which he signed with Broken Bow Records. His five-year run on that imprint demonstrated that with the right artist, an indie could hold its own in the market.

With Broken Bow, Morgan issued three studio albums. He first reached the Top 10 with "Almost Home," which was followed by a string of hits that included "I Got You," "International Harvester," "Little Bit of Life," "Redneck Yacht Club," "Tough" and "That's What I Love About Sunday," which lodged for five weeks at No. 1 and earned kudos from Billboard as the "Most Played Country Song of the Year" in 2005.

"The key was the music," Morgan said, looking back on his track record. "I think we had great songs that were great for the moment. And we worked hard. People do not know the work that the promotion team and I put in on those records. I literally did 280 days on the road, and every time I was in town doing a show, we would go visit radio. So there was a lot of effort put into that. For me, it was good. I enjoy working."

For all the credit he gives to the Broken Bow promotion department, he felt after a while that he needed a change to lift his career to the next level.

"The promotion team over there was a great team and some of my dearest friends," he confirmed. "But in order for me to continue to excel in my career, I felt like I needed other tools."

As a result, when Morgan became a free agent, a bidding war ensued, with Sony Music Nashville emerging as the winner and signing the artist to its BNA roster.

"When his deal ended with Broken Bow, Ken Levitan [President, Vector Management] called and asked if I would be interested in talking with Craig," said Joe Galante, Chairman, Sony Music Nashville.

"I thought several of his singles had been great, so of course I wanted to meet with him. Renee Bell [Executive VP, A&R, Sony Music Nashville], Butch Waugh [Executive VP, Sony Music Nashville] and I were so impressed with the vision and plan that Craig brought to the table. I called Ken afterwards and told him we wanted to do a deal. He had gotten to a certain level in his career but needed help to get to the next one, and we could provide."

When asked what he felt had made Morgan successful as an indie artist, Galante didn't hesitate to reply. "He and [producer] Phil O'Donnell are great at writing and finding songs that help define him," he explained. "And they make great records. He got out there and worked his butt off. He and Faith Quesenberry [Manager, Vector Management] made sure if there was an opportunity, he was going to do it."

Morgan was equally impressed with the Sony Music team. "They work hard and they are very relationship-driven," he said. "Joe also looks at the longevity and overall career of the artist. That is so important. It is nice to have that kind of support."

Just as important, he felt more in tune with their perception of him as an artist. "At BNA, we collectively agreed on the music. I took music that I liked to them, and they allowed Phil and me to go into the studio and make the record."

O'Donnell, who had produced with Morgan at Broken Bow, continued their association on That's Why. They had met when O'Donnell applied successfully for a job as Morgan's guitarist. "We started writing together, doing demos together," Morgan recalled. "He knows me as well as anybody in Nashville and vice versa. We bounce off of each other really well. Where he might go one way, I might go the opposite, and we find a happy medium that works well in the studio."

The result, Morgan's BNA debut, is a collection of songs that reflect his artistry alongside his common-man approach to everyday life.
"I am still the same guy that I was eight years ago and 15 years ago; I just sing and write songs for a living," insisted Morgan, whose jobs before making it in the music industry include working as an EMT, a contractor, a sheriff's deputy and an assistant dairy manager at Wal- Mart as well as serving for 10 years in the U.S. Army.

"I sing, write and produce songs that I can relate to and that listeners can relate to too. I still live the same lifestyle. I don't do a lot of things different, aside from my job, that they do."

"Love Remembers," written by Morgan and O'Donnell and the first single from That's Why, proved Morgan's staying power on the charts. "We were able to help find additional songs and also provide him with an atmosphere where he felt even more creative," said Galante. "He sounds amazing on this album. His vocal is very full and distinctive. I believe the single, 'God Must Really Love Me,' is a career song and record for him. He is on his way."

More than that, "God Must Really Love Me," written by Jim Collins and Troy Verges, reflects what Morgan regards as the blessed essence of his life. "I look back, seeing all the stuff that I have been through, and I know that God must really love me," he said. "He has blessed me by the way that He has."

A family man, married for 20 years, Morgan observed that the most autobiographical song on the album is "Lookin' Back with You," written by Morgan, O'Donnell and Tim James, which addresses the joys of married life and the satisfaction of growing old together. "Every line in that song is 100 percent factual," Morgan insisted, who co-wrote six of the 10 songs on the album.

Among his recent achievements, Morgan's induction in October 2008 as a member of the Grand Ole Opry is perhaps his proudest. "I was nervous, overwhelmed, humble beyond words," he admitted. "The Grand Ole Opry, in my opinion, is the pinnacle. I have been a part of it in the past as a guest and that was a highlight. Now, to be a member of the Opry is beyond believable. I am extremely grateful. It is one of those things I have always wanted, and now that it has happened I feel like I don't deserve it. I accepted it and I am proud to be a part of it, and I hope to uphold the values and standards that they have always represented."

Morgan's fortunes may be soaring now, but his potential was apparent as far back as his childhood, at least in the eyes of one Country legend. He was just 10 years old when he sang the national anthem during a school field trip to Nashville's Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum. After he had finished, Minnie Pearl emerged from the crowd of listeners to tell the young performer that he would be a famous singer someday.

"Did you know the night I was inducted was Minnie Pearl's birthday?" he asked. "Nobody knew. It just happened. It was pretty divine."

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