Craig Morgan's 'When I'm Gone' Finds Inspiration In Mortality

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Craig Morgan performs at the Black River Entertainment Lunch & Performance as part of CRS 2014 Day 2 on February 20, 2014 at the  in Nashville, Tennessee.

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According to Benjamin Franklin, the only guarantees in an ever-changing world are death and taxes. Moaning about the IRS is a common response to the latter. As for death, many would rather not discuss their own.

“It can make you nervous if you think about it,” says Craig Morgan.

But after confronting that possibility in combat zones during his time in the Army, Morgan can’t help but consider it — and, in the case of “When I’m Gone,” sing about it. But while the topic could be morbid or unsettling, “When I’m Gone” (which Black River released to radio via Play MPE on Sept. 2) treats the subject as an anthem, a sort of motivational pep talk about wringing every last ounce of life out of the time we’re given. The slamming tempo, the handclaps and the 
chorus’ tangy harmonies put the story in such an upbeat framework that it’s easy to accept the message when it finally clicks.

“Guys in particular, we’re not much on lyrics,” notes Morgan. “Guys just like a good groove, and a lot of the kids are that way. I know this because I have kids. It’s about the groove, and this song has a great groove. It’s something that immediately kind of pulls you in, and then hopefully they’ll listen to it enough that they’ll listen to the lyric.”

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Kids were the motivating factor behind “When I’m Gone.” Justin Ebach, a songwriter for Word Music Publishing, found himself awake in the middle of the night in 2013, just a few weeks after the birth of his first child.

“I was probably just dealing with baby stuff,” recalls Ebach. “I couldn’t sleep, so I just went downstairs, poured a drink and just started playing guitar, noodling. I started playing this chord progression that kind of starts the song out, and I just sang, ‘My last breath I want to take with a smile.’ That’s literally how the whole song started.”

Ebach mapped out the majority of the opening verse and worked his way into the chorus. He wrote the bulk of it, too, including a clever rhyme scheme: “That I danced on a wire/And I walked through a fire /That I lived every moment till that moment retired.”

“That is probably the quirkiest line of the song,” says Ebach of the “retired” phrase. “As a songwriter, you’re always kind of looking for different ways to say things, and it totally fits the conversation in the song.”

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Ebach recorded what he had on his iPhone, then went back to bed and didn’t bring up the idea with any co-writers for roughly six months. But when a last-minute cancellation reduced a Friday writing session from three people to two, he decided to try out “When I’m Gone” on Steven Dale Jones (“One More Day,” “He Gets That From Me”), one of his weekly collaborators.

It was so well-developed that Jones encouraged him to finish it on his own, but Ebach was stuck on the chorus. It needed a line between the quirky “retired” and the closing “When I’m gone,” and it was a crucial gap.

“The line before the title is almost the most important line in the song,” suggests Ebach. “It sets up the title.”

Jones blurted out the solution, “My life goes on,” and those few words instantly tied up the concept, that a life well-lived would continue to make a positive impact even after its conclusion.

“I’ve been doing this 30 years,” says Jones. “I have friends who are dead, lots of them, who are writers, and I’ll still hear their songs and say, ‘Oh, wow, it’s like they’re still here.’ ”

With that piece of the puzzle locked in, they easily crafted the rest of the song in about 45 minutes, celebrating a youthful outlook in the second verse and adding a two-line bridge with a stark reminder — “Time don’t last forever” — that encapsulates the message.

Ebach built the demo himself, playing all the instruments and singing lead. He also supplied his own harmonies, stacking two background parts in the chorus and creating tension with a short suspension over the extended word “gone” before the chord resolves, heightening the urgency in the song.

Ebach and Jones felt they had created something with potential, but given its mix of pop-influenced musicality and trad-country subject matter, they weren’t entirely sure where to shop it.

“If you listen to Justin’s voice, you’d say it’s more Rascal Flatts or Keith Urban possibly than Craig or Blake Shelton,” says Jones. “That’s one of those things where you’d like to think people hear through a vocal on a demo, but sometimes they don’t.”

Several artists considered “When I’m Gone” but passed. The song ultimately found its way into the hands of Black River vp A&R Doug Johnson, and he played it for Morgan and producer Byron Gallimore (Tim McGraw, Sugarland) during a song meeting. Morgan was specifically looking for songs that would help him stretch artistically without sacrificing his creative core, and he immediately identified “When I’m Gone” — with its classic message and contemporary production — as a song that accomplished that.

“I want to be relevant in our format,” says Morgan. “I don’t want to be a guy that’s just hanging on. I want to be recording music that every generation that we have that’s listening to country radio wants to hear.”

They cut it at the Black River studio complex, with drummer Shannon Forrest and bass player David LaBruyere creating a loping foundation for the track. Steel guitarist Paul Franklin and fiddler Larry Franklin helped hold down the country side of the production, while a few other elements contemporized the stew, particularly an Ebow — a device rubbed against Troy Lancaster’s guitar strings to evince a synth-like sound — and a mix of human and machine-generated handclaps.

“You EQ those to kind of make ’em stand out,” says Gallimore, “but you’ve got to be so careful with ’em, or when you play ’em on Waffle House speakers, all you’ll hear is the handclaps. I’m always afraid of the levels on shakers and handclaps. If you get on a speaker that doesn’t have any bass, those things can really stick out. ”

Wes Hightower and Tania Hancheroff overdubbed the stark harmony parts at a later date, and Morgan did the final vocal on a separate date where he could take off his co-producer hat and focus solely on singing.

“He came in prepared,” notes Gallimore. “Probably about 20 minutes was all it took to sing. He did about three or four takes, and that was it. We literally could have kept any one of ’em.”

Concert audiences tried to sing along as they were hearing it for the first time, propelling “When I’m Gone” to be the lead single from Morgan’s forthcoming album.

That’s an appropriate slot. It’s a forward-looking song that arrived at an inspirational juncture in a new father’s life. The intent is for it to inspire others to leave their own mark on the future, just like old Ben Franklin.

“You get one life,” says Ebach. “So, what are you waiting for?”

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.