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Craig Morgan: the festival’s mystery guest star

Friday, Sept. 19, 2008

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Craig Morgan’s new album is out on Oct. 21.

Early press releases about the Southern Maryland Country Music Festival stated that the lineup would feature Gary Allan, Shooter Jennings, Swamp Da Wamp, John Luskey Band and a ‘‘mystery star.”

The ‘‘mystery star” turns out to be Craig Morgan, a crafter of pop-country singles and hits like ‘‘Red Neck Yacht Club,” ‘‘International Harvester” and ‘‘That’s What I Love About Sundays.”

In April, Morgan released a single ‘‘Love Remembers” from ‘‘That’s Why,” his newest and first album with BNA Records, a division of Sony BMG Nashville. The album is set to be released on Oct. 21.

Morgan’s rise to country stardom is unconventional. He grew up in rural Tennessee and spent 10 years on active duty with the U.S. Army. While stationed in Korea, Morgan won a few singing and songwriter contests which were organized around the base.

‘‘I really just did it to get out of work,” Morgan said, laughing during a phone interview. The contests were casually organized, he added. His chops were still raw, and he had just started writing his own songs.

But Morgan knew about Nashville’s music business, and after he returned from overseas, his friends and family members encouraged him to give country music a try. The son of a bass player, Morgan grew up listening to John Connelly, George Jones, Gene Watson and even Kenny Loggins and Luther Vandross.

Morgan signed with Atlantic Records and released his first and self-titled album in 2000. In tunes like ‘‘Paradise” and ‘‘Something to Write Home About,” which cracked the Top 40 on country charts, Morgan reflected on his experiences in the Army. In ‘‘Paradise,” he sings, ‘‘When you’ve been where I’ve been any kind of life is paradise.”

After his label folded, Morgan joined the independent Broken Bow Records. In subsequent albums — ‘‘I Love It,” ‘‘My Kind of Livin’” and ‘‘Little Bit of Life” — Morgan has established himself as a songwriter and musician whose lyrics hone in on a more universal American experience.

‘‘I wish I could say it was what I intended to do,” Morgan said, talking about the shift of writing about personal subjects to those of the everyman. ‘‘I just write and sing and make records. It’s what I do. I try to write songs that the majority of people, no matter where they are at, can relate to.”

Morgan has said his main strength as a songwriter is his ability to capture ‘‘the little things.” When asked about that, however, Morgan said, ‘‘I didn’t say that. I just relate what other people say. I’m not smart enough.” Then, as he did throughout the interview, Morgan shifted away from a more self-deprecating tone to talking about the effect of using accessible visual motifs.

While Morgan does some of his own writing, he’s forthright in detailing his relationship with songwriters, particularly his producer, Phil O’Donnell. He has no problem admitting someone else wrote a hit like ‘‘International Harvester” (sung from the perspective of a tractor driver slowing down traffic) or his signature, comedic summer hit, ‘‘Red Neck Yacht Club,” which includes the lyrics ‘‘basstrackers, bayliners and a party barge⁄ strung together like a floating trailer park anchored out and gettin’ loud⁄ ... regular joes rocking the boat that’s us⁄the redneck yacht club.”

In a sense, ‘‘Red Neck Yacht Club” strays a bit from Morgan’s usual wholesome themes.

But ‘‘Again,” he said, ‘‘it’s just one of those songs. You don’t have to be a redneck to like ‘Redneck Yacht Club’.”

Despite his scoring hits with an independent label, Morgan recently announced his decision to sign with a larger label. After working with Atlantic, ‘‘I knew the capability that (a larger label) had,” he said, ‘‘and when the label folded I thought I would have more creative control with a smaller label. But it hit a plateau. Now we want to move to a bigger label that has a bigger toolbox full of tools.”

One new song Morgan said he is particularly excited about is ‘‘Looking Back With You.”

For one, Morgan sees the potential for a hit single. But he also sees some of what defines him in the pop-country world he has had so much success in.

Morgan has been married for 21 years. His oldest daughter recently went off to college.

‘‘[Looking Back With You] is about getting older and looking back with your wife,” he said.

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