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Interview: Morgan Wade

11 May 2021

Photo by David McClister

Morgan Wade may seem like an overnight sensation, her story is like one out of a fairy tale. Playing early on a stacked festival bill in her small hometown of Floyd, Virginia (2019’s population is listed as 724) in 2018, Wade’s twangy Americana sound caught the ears of headliner Jason Isbell’s crew who bought merch from Wade and then shared it with members of the band, including Sadler Vaden. The guitarist heard Wade’s immense talent and reached out with an offer of working on honing her songwriting and helping her release material. The result of this collaboration, Reckless, was released earlier this year and struck a chord with music fans far and wide – not just limited to a country music crowd. Rolling Stone Country likened Wade’s songwriting skills to Don Henley and Tom Petty and the 26-year-old singer/songwriter was invited to perform on CBS This Morning in April.

But, as Wade shared when we recently spoke, she’s not an overnight sensation. Though she didn’t start performing until she was in college, Wade took every opportunity to perform in front of people, whether it be on the front porch of somebody’s house or a dingy nightclub where there might only be a few fans in attendance. To help calm the performance nerves, Wade would have a few drinks before hitting the stage … and then, to unwind, have a few after her performance was done. Unable to shake a hangover the morning after a show in New York in 2017, Wade decided then and there to quit drinking and has been sober ever since. Her drink of choice now is Topo Chico which she admits to buying by the caseload.

As the world starts to open up after the pandemic, Wade’s touring calendar is starting to fill up with dates supporting artists like Lucero and American Aquarium and that’s how our conversation began.

Tour dates are starting to roll out. Are you ready to get out on the road?

MORGAN: I am, yeah. I played five shows since Reckless came out. I played zero in 2020, so that’s really a good feeling. Now that we’re slowly getting back out there and stuff’s not being cancelled anymore, it’s a good feeling.

The Big Takeover has a strong history in punk rock, dating back to the early ’80s. I know you’re a country artist, but wondering how you might identify with punk, whether it be an attitude, or clothes you wear, or the tattoos you have?

MORGAN: I don’t really know what punk rock is, exactly. I don’t listen to country music, really, which baffles people because when people ask what I’m listening to, it’s never country music. Machine Gun Kelly’s last record, Tickets to My Downfall, now that was a punk record and that’s probably my favorite record that came out last year. I can’t deny that. I listen to a lot of, like, punk-rap and more of that sad music, like Lil Peep and stuff like that. I can’t say it’s too far off from punk rock, pretty much if I like music, I like it.

I always wonder, who is this generation’s Don Henley or Huey Lewis or Phil Collins. I’ve had people say that Post Malone fits that bill which, at first, I thought was crazy – he sounds nothing like the middle-age arena artists from the ’80s – but he does write hits, gets a lot of radio airplay, and can fill an arena, so maybe that is a good comparison.

MORGAN: Lana Del Rey goes over a bunch of different genres, she’s one of those that hasn’t had a ton of radio play but she can sell out an arena and tour and she can put out 10 albums in a year and they would all sell and do amazing.

You grew up as part of an MP3/streaming music generation but vinyl is making a comeback. Did you ever buy vinyl when you were younger or did you consume stuff digitally?

MORGAN: Honestly, because I’m 26, I still remember cassettes and being in the car with cassette tapes. And then I remember my grandpa being like, “What the heck?” when we moved over to CDs. So, CDs was my big thing. I remember going to Walmart or something and going back there to look at CDs. It’s funny because I was at Walmart today and I looked and there are almost no CDs. I guess it’s been so long since I’ve looked, but there was more vinyl at Walmart than there are CDs.

I’ve heard you talk about genres. When I bought Reckless, it was in the Country section of the record store. How do you feel about that and does it really matter how you’re classified at the end of the day?

MORGAN: No, I think at the beginning it did because, when I started working with Sadler, I made it very clear, I felt like with everyone I met before him, that I talked about working with, they were just more so wanting to put me in a box. “You’re going to be this” or “You’re going to be that.” I don’t like that. I want to have that freedom to do whatever I want to do. Sadler was like, “Morgan, I don’t think your music is just country music. I think it’s such a blend of things. But, at the end of the day, if this person hears it and thinks it’s country, okay, that’s cool. If they think it’s rock, let it be rock to them.”

I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, “I don’t like country music but I listen to your stuff and I love it.” I think the record, it’s not country enough for the traditional country people. It’s not just me with a guitar so it’s freaking some people out. But, I don’t think genres matter any more, you’ve got so many people just doing just so many different things that it’s starting to become one of those things where it doesn’t matter. I mean, what is country music anymore anyways? I couldn’t tell you.

The last two or three years, I’ve listened to a lot of artists that are borderline country but don’t fall squarely into the genre – artists like Ruston Kelly, Katie Pruitt, Sarah Shook. They are all artists that if I went to the record store and saw them in the Country section, I probably wouldn’t have bought. But the fact that I picked them up and didn’t think about a genre, I’ve discovered some great new music. I think Reckless fits into that category.

MORGAN: Yeah, I think in the Country section, you have Americana-ish feeling music and that’s where I’d place the artists you just labeled. I mean, Ruston Kelly’s kind of, to me, punk country, that’s how I’d kind of look at him. It’s funny, my idea of what country is is probably going to be different than what you think it is. We all have our own interpretations of songs.

When you were doing stuff with your band, The Stepbrothers, were you the sole songwriter or was there any collaboration going on?

MORGAN: No, it was all me. I did everything and would just go to those guys and be like, “Hey, this is what I did, let’s play it.”

Were there rotating members in the band or was it a solid lineup?

MORGAN: It was pretty permanent for a while, and then it started changing. It feels like it’s been so long ago, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve played with any of those guys. That was a different time in my life.

You first met Sadler when you played Floyd Fest in your hometown in 2018. He is in Jason Isbell’s band and they headlined. Were you a fan and were you hoping to meet Jason and his band?

MORGAN: It’s funny because somebody told me the other day that they heard a podcast that I had done a week before Floyd Fest and they asked what band I wanted to see. I said I wanted to see Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit and I said “I hope I get to meet them” or something, very nonchalant. I’m not that person, if Lana Del Rey was at Cracker Barrel here, I don’t know why she would be, I wouldn’t go up and say anything to her, because I wouldn’t have anything to say. I was going to catch their set, absolutely, I think that was the only music I was going to stay for. After my set, their sound guy had apparently been hanging out there and caught my set. That’s how I made that connection, he was like, “I’m going to tell the guys about you” and then a couple days later I got the email from Sadler and then we talked on the phone and then we met out in Nashville and then it just went from there.

When you started writing with Sadler, did it feel more like a challenge or an opportunity?

MORGAN: I had no idea, I was super nervous. I had never co-written with anybody before. But, it was easy with Sadler because we just connected. He’s my favorite person to write with now, him and Paul Ebersold, he also produced the record. Both of them are like my go-to’s with songs because they challenge me, not in a way of “that sucks” but more of a, “hmm, I think we can do better than that.” And I know when something’s really good because they’ll let me know. It was weird at first but now I’m used to it. It’s different if you’re used to the person. I work with Universal publishing and so I’m writing with other people, doing co-writes, and it kind of takes a minute, you kind of want to get to know that person just a little bit. Sometimes I can say stuff that people might think I’m taking it a little too far, so you kind of want to know your levels and where you’re at.

Working with Sadler has definitely changed my writing, I think it’s helped it a lot because it’s gotten me out of just a little hole and I’ve realized there’s a lot more stuff I can write about. Him being the first person I ever co-wrote with was the best thing that’s happened.

Does co-writing mean music or lyrics or both?

MORGAN: It can mean both. Sometimes Sadler will send me an instrumental and say, “I came up with this,” which he’s really good at – he’s an amazing guitarist – and then I can say, “Okay, I’ll come up with some lyrics.” It’s back and forth. He brought “Reckless” to me, he had the idea for that, and we wrote that on Skype with each other. That’s why I don’t really have any one process that I do, it just comes to me and I just roll with it. It’s been working well not forcing it.

Did you go into writing with Sadler with a clean slate or did you bring him songs you had already written? And, are there any songs from your past that you might revisit some day?

MORGAN: I had the idea for “Wilder Days,” so that was one song I brought in. There were one or two that I brought and, other than that, we worked for the next two years together writing new songs. I’ve got some older stuff that I would like to revisit and hopefully put out, some stuff from my earlier days that needs some fixing up because I’m not exactly in that place anymore.

Is there a particular lyric that you’re really proud of, like after you wrote you said, “That is good!”?

MORGAN: In “Met You,” I took that from reading a book about Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley. If you read A Movable Feast, he talks about, “We would be happy, we have our books in bed every night.” So, there’s the line, I don’t know if people picked up on that – you know, in the bridge I talk about “But like Hemmingway and Hadley / It’s not the end of our story” – but in the second verse, I’m like, “We didn’t get our books in bed every night.” I kind of worked that throughout that whole song. I felt kind of artistic on that, I’m like, “I’m going to give myself a little pat on the back for that one.”

Do you know if anybody has gotten any of your lyrics tattooed on their bodies?

MORGAN: Yeah. I’ve actually signed people’s arms and they’ve gotten that tattooed. I was like, “Y’all want my chicken scratch tattooed on your arm?” “Don’t Cry” is a big one that people have have tattooed. Some people have gotten “Reckless” tattoos. It’s strange, in a good way. It’s like, “You want my words tattooed on you?” I look back at being that little kid who was scared to write my lyrics down because I didn’t want somebody to read it because I was like, “They’re going to think this is stupid.” And now, here I am and people are getting my lyrics tattooed on them. It’s a big deal.

Do you have lyrics or music-related tattoos?

MORGAN: That’s a good question. I have “Carry Me Home,” that was a song I had written about getting sober in New York. I had that one tattooed on me just as a reminder. And then Macklemore had a song called “Shadow,” it’s all about relapsing and things like that, but he’s got this line, “Tell my mom I’m going to die sober,” and so I went and got a “Die Sober” tattoo. That’s one of the songs I turn to if I’m feeling iffy.

Before you started working with Sadler, what did touring look like? Were you getting out and playing shows outside of Virginia?

MORGAN: Tour? No. It was more so of the weekend warrior kind of stuff. I would play most weekends. I look back and think, “My gosh, how did you do it?” I paid my dues, I really did. I’m never going to feel like I’m being a drama queen when I have requests at venues because I have played some of the shittiest shows. I stayed all east coast, New York was the furthest up I went. These were shows where we weren’t making any money, we were pretty much losing money. I was just trying to figure it all out. But I look back and I was still so excited for every opportunity. I always want to remember how excited I was for that and hope that I never lose that. If I ever start to lose that, then you know I need to check myself. It’s funny, I’ll drive past these places and be like, “Oh man, I’ve played there.” It was just noisy and loud and I remember that when people are like, “You got lucky” and I’m like, “No man, I worked.” People don’t notice until you start getting a song on the charts and then it’s like, “Oh wow, look at this overnight sensation.” Overnight? Absolutely not.

Are your high school classmates surprised that you’re a recording artists or have they known all along that this was your dream?

MORGAN: It baffles some of them. I have a couple of friends that I went to high school with that I’m still close to and it cracks them up, my tattoos and everything because I was the polar opposite of that. I’m somebody who was totally anti-tattoos. And then here we are. They’re always like, “What the heck?” They’re very genuine with me and excited. I don’t go home much, but, it’s funny, you go home and it’s like, “Hey, can you play our free BBQ in our backyard?” and I’m like, “I’m not doing that anymore.”

After you got your first tattoo, did you become an addict or did you wait a little while before getting your second?

MORGAN: I had a friend in college, it was my freshman year, and I remember she came over to my dorm and we were talking and we were talking about tattoos and she was like, “You should get one” and I was like, “Yeah, I should.” And I went and got a tattoo and then I was immediately like, “Oh, I want to do that again” and then it was just like that. My gosh, I’ve ran out all of the easy places to get them. Either I don’t remember them hurting back then, but now I get one and I’m like, “How did you do that?” because then I’d sit down and get three or four at a time and now I’m like, “I don’t know about that – one and done.”

Congratulations on the success you’ve already had, it’s only going to grow from here. Has it been overwhelming?

MORGAN: Thanks. Yeah. It’s been a little bit overwhelming. I’m going to Key West so I’ve been going and getting in the tanning bed. I went today and the woman there, it’s funny, she could care less that I’m there any other day. And I came in today and she said, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know who you were.” I was kind of looking at her and she said, “I play your music all the time.” Somebody saw my mom with my siblings and she had a woman come up and say, “How do I know you? My gosh, you’re Morgan Wade’s mom!” So it’s been a little weird, I’m not that big but mainstream radio is starting to pick things up.