He’s a passionate singer with a unique sound who grew up in Appalachia, and you’ll be hearing Morgan Wallen before 2016 is over. Wallen moved to Nashville in July 2015, not sure what he would find, but convinced that he should at least give his dreams a legitimate shot. Less than a year later, he’d already been signed to Big Loud Records, recorded some initial tracks with producer Joey Moi (Florida Georgia Line, Jake Owen) and hit the road on his first radio promotion tour.
It might appear that Wallen’s on the fast track, but it took him a while to get there. Born in Sneedville, Tennessee (a town that also lays claim as the birthplace of bluegrass pioneer Jimmy Martin), to a hard-rock-lovin’ preacher and contemporary-Christian-devoted teacher, Wallen showed his musical interests early, singing in front of the local congregation at age three and asking for a violin for his fifth birthday. He would soon switch to piano and later add guitar to his arsenal, though he never really imagined it was possible to make a career of it.
“I didn’t think that was realistic because I had no clue about how the music business worked,” Wallen says. “Even living three hours away, I had no idea about Nashville.”
Instead, he focused his efforts on baseball, and he was pretty good at it. Playing shortstop and pitcher for Gibbs High School in Corryton, the same school where Kenny Chesney graduated. Wallen earned an offer to continue playing at a major college.
But fate intervened. While pitching during his senior year, he felt a pop in his right elbow and would undergo a tendon replacement procedure. While he was able to continue playing guitar and piano, it proved to be the end of his baseball career.
“Looking back, I’m glad it happened the way it did, because I really actually loved music more than I ever did baseball,” he says.
The kind of music almost didn’t matter. Rock, hip-hop, country – he loved it all, particularly the emotional connection that it created between the musician and the listener. But when he wrote, the music was invariably country.
“Writing music was a way for me to get my feelings out,” he says. “I don’t really express my feelings very much, and I guess it was just a way for me to let some of that go. It’s my safe place.”
His mother signed him up to audition for NBC’s The Voice, convinced that he’d do well. Wallen had no idea what to expect – he’d never seen the show – but he was chosen by Usher and was later stolen by Adam Levine. The last song he performed during his run, a cover of Florida Georgia Line’s “Stay,” helped him steer him toward his creative destiny.
“Honestly, I was just trying to figure out who I was,” he reflects. “I was trying to figure out me as a person, me as an artist. It was one way to do it.”
During his time in California, Wallen met Sergio Sanchez, the lead singer and writer for Jive Records’ hard-rock band Atom Smash. While Sanchez initially served as Wallen’s vocal coach, they hit it off and started co-writing regularly in Knoxville. Sanchez sent the music to producer Paul Trust and his partner Bill Ray who produced and funded an initial batch of songs. Armed with new music, Wallen and Sanchez moved to Nashville and became ingrained in the city’s music community. From there, things moved quickly. Wallen’s managers, Dirk Hemsath and Mike Bachta of Working Group Artist Management, set him up to play for William Morris Endeavor’s Kevin Neal, agent for Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line. Neal signed him on the spot. Hemsath and Bachta next sent demos to Big Loud Shirt’s Seth England, hoping to land some co-writing opportunities with songwriters at the publishing company. England was so impressed that he brought Morgan in to audition for his partners in Big Loud Records: Craig Wiseman, Clay Hunnicutt, Kevin “Chief” Zaruk and Joey Moi. They signed Wallen to both the label and the publishing company.
Wallen started woodshedding as a songwriter, working with the likes of Wiseman (“Live Like You Were Dying”), Rodney Clawson (“Dirt”), Chris Tompkins (“Drunk On A Plane”), the Warren Brothers (“Highway Don’t Care”), Tommy Cecil (“Home Alone Tonight”) and Matt Dragstrem (“Sippin’ On Fire”). Meanwhile, Big Loud proved that it was big-league – while Wallen worked on his own music, the label’s first-ever single, Chris Lane’s “Fix,” went into the Top 15 and continued climbing, an unheard-of start for a brand-new label.
Wallen hopes to build a similar story. He headed out on a promotion tour of radio stations in the summer of 2016, giving him a chance to start playing for people again after spending so much of the previous year in writing rooms and the recording studio. The end goal is to be on a stage, making that emotional connection with his distinctive sound. But it takes time to get there.
“We’ve just really been trying to get the focus on the music,” he says. “If we don’t have that, then there’s no point in playing.”