In the constant fight to take back country music, many people point to the outlaw movement of the 1970s and call on another Willie or Waylon–an “outlaw” who will ignore labels altogether and make the music he or she wants to make. The outlaws were responsible for turning country back from the softer, more commercial Nashville sound, and modern examples of this might be Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, both achieving major success without the support of Nashville (although Simpson has since gained Nashville’s attention.) One could also point to Texas artists such as the Turnpike Troubadours, content to stick to their own sound and style rather than sell out for a quick road to greater fame. These “outlaws” are certainly necessary if country music is ever to be saved–but there is another kind of savior, less talked about but no less important. In 1981, one Texas-based artist was signed to MCA for one single. He was thought to be too traditional for radio, but he was given one chance. That artist was George Strait, who would go on to have arguably the biggest career in country music and who remains signed to MCA to this day. He did as much to save country music as the outlaws, but from a different, more radio-friendly angle. In 2016, we need these advocates just as much as the Jason Isbells and Turnpike Troubadours of the world, maybe more, because they are the ones who will start to turn the tide from the inside. This is why we fight and root for Chris Stapleton, Maddie & Tae, and now, William Michael Morgan.
William Michael Morgan, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter from Mississippi, caught the attention of traditionalists last year when he released the single, “I Met a Girl,” co-written by none other than country music antichrist Sam Hunt. I’ll be honest here; I was underwhelmed by the song itself, but I was impressed with Morgan’s traditional country voice and style, as well as the fact that he’d rearranged a Sam Hunt co-write into a decent country song, and I was ready to hear more. An EP is only a taste of what we can expect from an album, and it is certainly not the ideal way to judge an artist–this is the first one I’ve reviewed–but this EP reinforces my faith in William Michael Morgan as someone whom we should be watching.
The front half of the EP is slightly more radio-friendly than the back half. It is obvious William Michael Morgan and his team are trying to appeal to more modern country fans while still sounding traditional. “Vinyl” is a solid song about an old-fashioned love that is classic, like a vinyl record. I notice immediately two things: this song is very country, while still being relatively radio-friendly, and the repeated references to “girl.” This repeating of “girl” is akin to bro country and might be annoying to people, but this is a love song; it’s not a song about hooking up in a cornfield. Its lyrics are respectful, and it sounds country. Next is “Beer Drinker,” a song attributing all the things that get done, from the steak you’re eating to the hot tub you’re enjoying, to the work of beer drinkers. This could be seen as clichéd and pandering lyrically, but it comes across more like George Strait’s “Stop and Drink,” a fun, catchy song we all accept as lighthearted country that doesn’t take itself too seriously. “I Met a Girl” is next, and it works better on the album; it’s a simple love song about just this–meeting a girl and being infatuated with her. Once again, though the lyrics could be better, they are respectful and simple, and this is the type of song that could do well on radio. The thing which impresses me most with this half of the EP is how country it sounds; this is the half with songs that could be successful singles, and yet Morgan stays very country and makes his approach quite clear.
However, the weakness with the front half of the EP is the lyricism. The songs are solid, but nothing holds my attention. “Lonesomeville,” the only song co-written by William Michael Morgan, changes this. Here we have a simple, traditional country heartbreak song; the narrator is living in Lonesomeville and missing a woman who left. It’s something a thousand country songs have said before, but at the same time, this simplicity and honesty is lost to us in 2016. It’s the emotion of George Strait and Alan Jackson, simple and relatable to listeners everywhere. This simplicity is present again in “Cheap Cologne,” in which the narrator lies in bed while his woman is out at a bar, probably cheating–“She don’t smoke cigarettes, and I don’t wear cheap cologne.” This reminds me stylistically of something Keith Whitley might have sung in the late 80s, steeped in steel guitar but looking ahead to more modern country. The EP closes with “Backseat Driver,” a song about a father sending his son off with “a Bible on the dash and a map tucked in the door, I can’t be your backseat driver anymore.” This song is more modern-sounding, but the lyrics here are very strong and make it a standout.
This EP is all we have to go on with William Michael Morgan, and it’s not the best way to form an opinion of an artist, but Morgan shows a lot of potential. The strengths are his country voice and commitment to a more traditional sound. We need people like Morgan, who will sound traditional but who can bring that sound into the mainstream with simplicity and honesty. There are much better albums, and this EP certainly has its flaws, mainly the lyrics. However, William Michael Morgan is one of the bright spots in mainstream country music, and we can be thankful for another voice in the fight to take country back. I’ll be looking forward to a full-length album from him!