Country singer/songwriter John Morgan had that something special that caught the ear of country superstar Jason Aldean. Impressed with the North Carolina native’s tunesmith abilities, Aldean cut several of Morgan’s songs including the current single, “Trouble with a Heartbreak” and the Grammy-nominated ACM Single of the Year and #1 smash, “If I Didn’t I Love You” with Carrie Underwood. The icing on the cake came when Aldean signed Morgan to his Nashville imprint, Night Train Records (in partnership with BBR Music Group).
Working toward the artistic side of his career, Morgan toured the nation with Aldean on the Back in the Saddle tour and represented the Tar Heel state on NBC’s American Song Contest. “Coldest Beer in Town” was the first release from Morgan’s debut album, and his current single is “Good With Goodbye.”
Morgan is standing apart from the rest of the country crowd as he brings a more traditional country flair to the pop-country sounds of today’s genre. Morgan first picked up a guitar at age 8, and within a couple of years was standing tall in the rhythm section of the family band. He toured the bluegrass festival circuit in the summers, but for a while he gave up his music passion and started to settle down at home.
One day, Morgan was fixing up an old house when an epiphany hit him, and he realized he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing. The embers began glowing again, and Morgan started making the trek to Nashville to break into the business. In time, opportunity knocked when he landed a writing session with Aldean’s bandmates and songwriters Tully Kennedy and Kurt Allison.
Impressively, Morgan co-wrote eight songs for Aldean’s recent double album, Macon & Georgia.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with John Morgan. He tells more about his break into Nashville’s music machine. Morgan also tells the stories behind “If I Didn’t Love You,” and what it’s like getting a front row seat to one of country music’s biggest acts, Jason Aldean.
Here’s the video of John Morgan’s single, “Good With Goodbye.”
BC: How did you get started in music, and what influences did you have?
John Morgan: Where I’m from in the Smoky Mountains, bluegrass is the predominant genre of music. I grew up playing that, and traditional bluegrass was all I knew. I grew up listening to country, but I played bluegrass on the weekends. Keith Whitley and Tony Rice—those were two idols early on. My hobby was playing bluegrass festivals every weekend with my family. It was a fun childhood. Late 80s, early 90s, early 2000s even, that’s the country I grew up on. That’s probably my favorite.
BC: Has it been challenging breaking in with your more traditional sound, or has it been welcomed?
Morgan: For the majority of it, I think it’s been welcomed. It’s funny, because it’s almost like the old traditional sound is new and fresh again. Country has gone a couple of different ways in the last decade or so, and I like a lot of stuff in that decade, but I think now when people come back with steel guitar and more of a band feel as opposed to being track heavy, it almost sounds new or fresh. I think people appreciate the way country music used to sound as a whole.
BC: You were back home when you had this epiphany and decided to come to Nashville. How did that come about?
Morgan: I’m a homebody…I love being home. I love North Carolina…I love where I grew up. I bought a couple of acres back home. It was while I was taking a break from music. I had quit playing bluegrass. I got kind of burned out on traveling and needed a break. I had big plans to raise Black Angus and have a little farm and settle down and keep music as a hobby. I had a friend who is actually now my drummer. He called me up one day and said, “Man, let’s try writing some stuff.” We started writing, and I caught the bug again, and a couple of months later he said, “I’m going to move to Nashville and pursue the publishing deal; you should come with me.” I kept telling him no, and he ended up moving.
Here’s the video of Jason Aldean’s hit “Trouble with a Heartbreak,”
which was co-written by John Morgan.
I think a year passed, and he called me every week and tried to get me to move down there. Finally, I started making trips down, and I would crash on his couch and write with whoever would write with me. Then when I ran out of money, I’d come back home and work enough to come back. That eventually turned into me moving down there about a year after he did. That’s when I met Jason [Aldean] and all his crew. I started writing with some of his bandmates. That’s how I got introduced to Jason, and here we are.
BC: Connecting with Jason Aldean was a huge break for you, and then you went out on tour with him. What was that like? What did you learn from seeing him on stage?
Morgan: I think the biggest thing I learned was how to be a performer. There’s not many people who can say they’ve been entertaining people the way he does for as long as he has. To me, that’s invaluable to be able to be out here night after night and watch his show, how his guys interact with the crowd, all those little things you don’t really think about unless you’re on both sides of it. You’re trying to do it yourself. For us, we’re obviously always trying to make our show better. I think me growing up playing bluegrass, there’s not a lot of showmanship or performance as far as movement. You’re there to play, and that’s how it is. I grew up immersed in that culture. Now that I’ve been writing my own stuff and getting to perform it live, it’s a different ballgame. I think the biggest thing I pulled from Jason is watching his live show and how he connects with people. Every night he brings the same energy. It’s inspiring.
BC: You’ve had a hand in writing a couple of his hits. How did the duet “If I Didn’t Love You” with Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood come about?
Morgan: That’s a got a pretty funny story. That was actually my first major cut. I think Jason had gone in to start tracking his double album. It was the week they were tracking the front half of the Macon, Georgia album. I had been told before they got started that I had two songs that were on hold by him, and they were probably going to end up getting cut. So, I was fired up. As the week progressed, we had another song that was put on hold for a duet and that was a slot they were trying to fill for the record. We thought we had it in the bag. When they started tracking it, Jason was like, “I think this would be cooler if I just cut this myself.” It wasn’t a true duet song; it was more of a background thing for somebody.
Here’s the video of Jason Aldean & Carrie Underwood’s hit “If I
Didn’t Love You,” which was co-written by John Morgan.
Once we found that out, everybody in Nashville started sending in duet songs. Tully (Kennedy), Jason’s bass player, had texted me and Lydia Vaughan and Kurt (Allison) and he said we lost out on our duet pitch. [I told them], “We’ve still got a cut, which is awesome, but if you guys want to get together tonight after you guys write this morning, let’s try to shoot for one more duet song. If we hit a wall, we’ll forget about it.” We all agreed to do it. It’s funny, because I was hesitant because I had written that day. I was like…Man, I don’t know if I can pull a double today. But I ended up agreeing to it, and thank God, I did. Somebody had that title, “If I Didn’t Love You.” Lydia Vaughan is an amazing new writer to town. You’re about to hear her name a lot. She’s great with taking an idea, giving a female perspective on that break-up song too, and that was invaluable honestly having her side of the story to give us that perspective. We produced a demo and turned it around in 24 hours and sent it in and Jason put it on hold. We had no idea who the partner was going to be until about three weeks later. They had reached out to Carrie’s team and her scheduled lined up perfectly to be able to do the song. They cut it and the rest is history.
BC: You also co-wrote Jason’s current hit, “The Trouble with Heartbreak.”
Morgan: That was a song we wrote with Brett Beavers. It was a surreal moment for me even being in a room with him. I had been a fan of his as a producer. He produced a lot of Dierks Bentley’s early records, which are some of my favorites. It was another one of those times where we got in a room, and it happened to work out and we got a really good song out of it.
BC: Now you have your own album coming out. What’s it like to finally have the chance to do your own thing?
Morgan: It’s a big deal for me. I grew up singing harmonies and playing traditional cover bluegrass songs. As much as I love that still, there’s nothing cooler than being able to write your own songs and be able to release them and speak for yourself in a way. I dabbled with writing as a younger guy, but I didn’t really catch the bug until I was about 18, and that’s when I started trying to figure out what’s the formula…how do these guys put together this idea in such a short amount of time and write to a hook. No one will ever figure out the exact formula for that, but I think happenstance and luck has a little bit to do with it. There are ways to approach it that I feel like are better than others, and I’ve been blessed to be in rooms with some veteran writers who have written hits over the last couple of years and incorporated how they approach writing a song and to how I do. That’s been invaluable as well being able to learn from those guys.
Here’s the video of John Morgan’s song, “Right In The Middle.”
As far as my record, I’m really excited to be able to put out some new songs. The process we’re doing with it is completely different from how Aldean tracks his records. They go in and basically set out a week and they’re knocking two or three songs out in a day. Whereas for me, we’re taking the slower approach and doing one piece at a time. We’ll have some session guys come in—two or three at a time—and track a lot of the rhythm section stuff. It’s cool…I love that whole process. I got into building tracks when I first moved to Nashville, and so I love that aspect of the music industry as well, just being able to sit in a studio and play guitar tones for a couple of hours until we find what we like. It’s one of my favorite things to do, so I’m really excited to show everybody what we’ve been working on over the last couple of years.
BC: What emerged as your strength as a songwriter?
Morgan: I guess from being a guitar player. That was my focus most of the way up. I sang background and sang harmony stuff. Melodies and chord progressions are probably my strong suit. I’ve tried to focus on strengthening my lyrics too. I feel like I’ve done that in some ways. I’ve been in rooms with hit songwriters the last two years. I feel like I’ve grown a lot in that way as well. Melody, guitar stuff—that’s my roots. If an idea stems, a lot of times it’s me having a title and sitting down, playing guitar, and coming up with a melody that fits what I’m trying to capture with that idea.
BC: Tell me about your current single, “Good with Goodbye.”
Morgan: Early on, I wrote a lot and still do with Jason’s bandmates—Kurt Allison and Tully Kennedy. When you get in a room with people, I think we all wanted the same goal which was to get cuts. I think that’s everybody’s goal as a songwriter in Nashville. I think we realized quickly that we all mesh well together. We kind of assumed our roles. Tully is a really solid lyricist, especially in the earlier songs when we would have him doing that. Kurt and I worked a lot on the track side of things early on, and obviously, I was focused on nailing the vocal for the demo. That was part of why people wanted to be in the room with me was to have somebody that can sing the vocal at the end of the day and with a new voice that Jason had apparently liked.
It was cool to not only write a song with those guys, but going into the production side with them too. Kurt and Tully produced all of the early Thompson Square stuff. They’ve had success on all ends of the industry. As far as being producers, they’re very cool about letting me branch out and do what I hear first and then they strip it down back to what it needs to be to fit radio not in a dampening way, to keep it in that lane. It’s been cool to do that process with them and watch how they work and how they approached it. “Good with Goodbye”—I’m very proud of the production side of that. We spent a lot of time putting that song together, and I’m really happy with how it turned out.
BC: What’s next for you?
Morgan: We’re going to be out through October with Aldean on this Rock and Roll Cowboy tour. Look up the tour schedule and come out and see us. We go on at 7:30. We’re the show opener. We’ve been having a blast man! It’s so fun being out here with people who also really love what they do and take it seriously.
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, ParentLife, Homecoming, and Singing News and is currently writing a biography on The Osborne Brothers with Bobby Osborne. He can be reached at [email protected].