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MORGAN WALLEN:
HOMETOWN HERO

To look at Morgan Wallen, it’s tough telling the mullet-sportin’ kid with the twinkle in his eye and the good-time smile from the rest of the young guys who love his music. Raised in East Tennessee, where he played baseball at the same high school Kenny Chesney did, later chasing the dream as a songwriter and collaborator for everyone from Florida Georgia Line to Diplo and Julia Michaels, he’s just being who he is.

But being Morgan Wallen is now a pretty big business. The double platinum-certified “Whiskey Glasses” was 2019’s #1 country song, propelling his debut album, If I Know Me [Big Loud Mountain], to near-platinum. Just as importantly, he and producer Joey Moi have refined his sound to a melodic sweep that invests new songs “More Than My Hometown” and “This Bar” with a feel-good look at coming of age in the flyover that’s as true as it is pungent. And Wallen’s not afraid to mix it up, living the lyrics and getting bounced out of Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk—only to have Bobby Ritchie reach out for a hang the next day.

With phrasing that feels like conversation, a tone that’s equal parts whiskey, split rails and jerky, Wallen walks the line from Waylon to Paisley. Wild, with a heart of gold that makes the girl’s mama forgive him every time, Wallen, like the protagonists of his songs, is a rowdy Everyman, living life, working hard and kicking back whenever he can.

Locked down in a Music City studio, Wallen spent a recent lunch hour talking about where he’s been, where’s he’s going on and how life has changed with HITS’ Holly Gleason.

Has fame kicked in?
In the past six months, it’s escalated. It’s wild and maybe hit overdrive. I don’t know what makes people recognize you, especially in a country kind of place, but yeah, I have eyes on me all the time. With the goals I have, though, if that’s not starting to happen...

How do you handle it?
When they come up, I smile and take a picture. When I see how happy it makes them, it feels pretty good.

They identify with you, don’t they?
I’m realizing that I’m a voice for a lot of people. I’m from humble places—we didn’t have a lot of things—and I try to remember where I come from, where I grew up and the people who made me. I don’t lose touch with what got me here; that whole East Tennessee thing stays with me.

I see how much helping others means to my family. It’s something I was taught by my parents by example. It’s not hard to be kind. You don’t have to go that far out of your way, even if you don’t have much. Just the expression on your face can pick up somebody’s day.

Material things can only go so far. It’s awesome to be able to do things you want, but you can lose as a person; it can affect you. It’s easy to focus on the things of this world, but to focus on that won’t get you near what matters. It doesn’t take a lot to make me happy. As long as I’ve got a fishing rod, I’m good.

Sounds pretty simple.
Country music is good ol’ boys and girls. People I’ve met in the business haven’t changed a whole lot. Luke Bryan’s as big as you get, but he’s still just goofy Luke.

By singing about how you live your life, you’re making it seem desirable.
I never really thought about it that way. But why would I want anything but the same values and things we believe back home? If what I’m singing makes me cool, and it makes the people listening feel cool, that’s awesome.

“More Than My Hometown” is about that culture clash. You write a lot about where you are versus people who want more.
“Hometown” is an analogy, really. No matter who’s around, no matter what’s in front of me, I’m gonna be myself, take it or leave it. It’s important to stay true, to who you are and where you come from, to love it.


And “This Bar,” you’ve lived that?
That would be correct. It’s very much the truth for some of my buddies too, and the co-writers, and a whole lot of other people. So about 100% true. But “This Bar” could be anywhere I find myself: in this field, this church—anywhere you’re meeting people, making memories. Hopefully, my fans will smile and go, “Yeah, he’s telling the truth.”

You like having a good time.
[Laughs] I’m rowdy, sure. I’ve built that brand because I like having a good time. I like people. Sometimes it gets out of hand, but it’s all in good fun.

Any liabilities?
I’ve had to turn down shots—multiple times. And I’m not the kind who turns down people buying me drinks.

You’ve come a long way from The Voice, so much so that we don’t even think about that.
I’d never even played with a band. They wanted me to sing pop music, “Well, OK, I’ll sing pop music.” They tell you what to wear and how to dress, and you don’t know, so you do it. I learned a whole lot about what I didn’t want to be.

You have a lot of twang in your vowels. You also leave a lot of room on your tracks, which lets your voice really define the songs. It’s a lean sound, very Keith Whitley, or a modern-day Vern Gosdin.
Me and Joey found a band, and they’re really good for my sound. When we started, they didn’t really know me and were so polite. But they’re talented and do so many projects; they can do anything. But I think they know me now, and they get what we’re after; they really seem to like playing this music.

Those session guys are notorious, but they love the real thing. You give them that.
I didn’t know how honest I could be; I thought everything was all put together. Everybody does their thing, does what Nashville tells ’em, but I’ve learned that’s not the best way, because the people you work with, who’re listening to the music, they just want the real stuff. So that’s easy.

No pressure for this record you’re working on?
There’s a lot of pressure making sure this album’s as good as it can be. But a lot of the pressure’s been relieved; the success says people like this music—so we know what to do. When I get with some of guys I regularly write with, if we don’t feel like there’s something, we’ll just scratch it and go fishing.

And those girls you’re singing about—you still on the market?
I’m still on the market. I’m so focused on this, with my career and fishing, I’m good.

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