The country music carousel has taken Craig Morgan on an unpredictable ride since the United States Army veteran began his career in late 1999 on Atlantic Records. After a five-year stint at Broken Bow Records, he left the label earlier this year to pursue an opportunity at BNA Records, a division of superpower conglomerate Sony BMG. His first single with the label, “Love Remembers,” has landed firmly in the Top 20. This month is arguably the most important in Morgan’s career, with his first album release with BNA, That’s Why, bowing on October 21, followed on October 25 by his formal induction into the Grand Ole Opry. In a conversation with Country Universe, Morgan explains his move to BNA Records, the making of his new album and his feelings on the Opry invitation.
This spring, it was announced that you’d be leaving independent label Broken Bow Records to join Joe Galante and his staff at Sony BMG on the BNA Records imprint. What are the benefits of operating with a major label as opposed to your recent relationship with Broken Bow?
Two things: They (BNA) have additional tools, and I don’t mean just money. The tools are available in terms of staff, the sales and marketing team, the publicity. It’s a big change. We’re used to 2-3 people handling the marketing, and now there’s a staff of 200-300 people. So there’s just more people getting the music out there. And the unexpected thing is there’s more creative control, and most people wouldn’t expect that from a major label.
At Broken Bow, the label heads wanted to have a little more control. On the album before the last one (2005’s My Kind of Livin’), I went in and produced it alone with Phil O’Donnell. On the last album, they felt that we needed to have a new producer, someone with name value, and you know, we’d been successful in the past and didn’t feel that we needed to do that. (Morgan’s 2006 release Little Bit of Life was co-produced by Morgan and renowned producer Keith Stegall.) But now there’s more freedom. With this new staff, we’re looking at the ability to market and staple and image to me.
You’ve been a fixture in country music for most of the decade, but possibly haven’t reached the next level yet. How will the team at Sony play a part in terms of that marketing?
I’m just grateful for the opportunity they gave me. The music’s what’s most important. With the people at Sony BMG and Joe Galante, they knew they weren’t signing a brand new act. They knew I was a credible act. And we went in and cut music that we liked and songs that we agreed on. They didn’t dictate. There’s always going to be some give-and-take on the songs, but before there was so much talk about who I was, what I recorded, how I recorded. There was a lot more creative control on this album. And we’ll just try to get out and perform and make the best music.
Radio has been an important tool in marketing your career so far. “That’s What I Love About Sunday” was Billboard’s #1 country song of 2005, but the album sales have lagged a little bit. Is creating that image, or the lack thereof, part of that struggle in the past?
We learned a lot. It was a learning process. When you have a song on the charts like that, you need to have the album out in stores. You need to have more copies available on the shelves if the single’s doing well, increase what’s out there. And there were some elements that were missed.
What’s the overall theme of That’s Why?
Just more of the same songs about the simple things in life. We just really enjoyed ourselves. If you’re in a good mood, that’s absorbed by the musicians and they play better. If you’re in a bad mood and you’re arguing with the label, then it’s gonna show in the music. And on this album, everything from the vocals to the production, everything is just much better. We’ve enhanced the melodies, the structure of the melodies. But there’s no drastic difference (in the music).
So much of your music is predicated on the simple values of country life. How do you go about inventing fresh, creative ways to expound on the little things?
I feel like country music is bigger now. There’s just a wide spectrum in country music and country people. There’s a wide variety. You know, country people get cornered as rednecks and a lot of them (country fans) are educated people. Not to say the rednecks aren’t educated. (laughs) As a society and as a people we’ve grown. There’s a lot of music out there, and we’re not on the traditional side and we’re not on the pop side. Country is such a broad format now. It’s very much a picture of our society today. It’s realistic and relatable to people. This is real stuff. But I think vocally and with the melodies and the structure of the song, it’s just so much better on this album.
You’ve performed at the Grand Ole Opry more than 150 times and will be formally inducted on October 25. What’s the best part about playing at the Opry?
In my opinion, the Grand Ole Opry is a critical element. There are few live elements where artists can perform on TV now. Its impact on the format is huge. And it’s a humbling thing. It increases our confidence. And you’re there with the legends of the format. It’s really an elite club. I’m elated to be a part of that.
Going back to what you said about the Opry as a live element. It’s a visual experience as much as audio, and that’s a part of the marketing. There used to be more opportunities, with The Nashville Network showing a number of live performances, and CMT, GAC, providing more of those opportunities.
There aren’t as many channels now. There used to be a lot more ways to be seen live. We’ve got a GAC special called “Back to Bragg” coming out on October 19, and we’re really excited about that. It gives us a chance to go back to where I was stationed in the Army and get out in front of the fans. But we’re trying to put a face to the music now starting with this album.
Obviously, one of the highpoints of your career will be the Opry induction. It’s a career that’s seemed to have a slow, steady build. What are your other future goals for continuing that climb?
We’re hoping to get on a big tour next year. We’re out with Trace Adkins, a great guy, great friend right now, but we’d like to get out with someone like Toby or Alan. We’re looking for ways to enhance our image. And that’d be a huge audience to play in front of.
And these are audiences that may be familiar with the music, but maybe not with Craig Morgan the artist.
Right. And we think that their music audience will be attracted to a lot of the stuff we do. Just takes some drive and commitment. And we’re going to increase touring, trying to do a theatre tour. We’re excited to have more chances to do live performances.
You’ve patterned your career off artists such as Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty and John Conlee. Is there a common thread among them and what goals do you have to attain that level of a career?
There’s a number of other different influences in addition to those-James Taylor, Lionel Richie, Luther Vandross, great voices, and I pick something up from all of them. As far as goals, we hope this record goes multi-platinum and gets award nominations. And it’s not so much winning the awards, but it just gives credibility to the people who work so hard on this thing, and to the people in the label supporting the album.
With the upcoming album, what do you hope that fans and new followers will take from it?
I just hope people enjoy the product. It’s a continuation of the stuff we’ve done. Basically, it’s about the reasons we do what we do and why we act how we act. It’s about the little things in life, all encompassed on this record.