Morgan Wallen's Debut, 
'The Way I Talk,' Riffs on Accents

Tyler Golden/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Morgan Wallen

The label that launched Chris Lane introduces Wallen with a catchy, hooky country single.

Three notes might well make Morgan Wallen a star.

A simple little guitar riff is ... ahem ... instrumental in the sound of “The Way I Talk,” Wallen’s debut single, which Big Loud released to radio via Play MPE on Aug. 22. The lyrics are smart, Wallen’s vocals are convincing, and there’s an intensity to the chorus that makes it all worthwhile. But the stickiest part is a repetitive, burning guitar pattern, an irresistible, three-note earworm that’s difficult to forget.

“That was actually my favorite part of the song,” producer Joey Moi (Florida Georgia Line, Chris Lane) says, recalling his first listen to “The Way I Talk.” “The lyric is great, but that to me was the most signature part.”

Compact instrumentals are an often underappreciated part of popular music, and yet they remain the primary ID for loads of classic material. Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” isn’t the same without the twisty guitar intro. Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” uses a cheerleader-ish synth line to demand attention. Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” is immediately recognizable in concert from a single opening piano chord. Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” rode a weird mandolin hook to pure gold.

The lick in “The Way I Talk” — conceived by songwriter Chase McGill — opens Wallen’s single and keeps on flipping relentlessly upward underneath the vocal even as the singer launches into the verse.

“A lot of stuff like that gets bypassed,” says co-writer Ben Hayslip (“Honey Bee,” “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day”). “Anybody in Nashville can play those licks, but you kind of write it off as too simple. With Chase, he recognizes, ‘This is not too simple. This is catchy. This is easy for people to process in their brain riding down the road.’ I love that about him. I love it about that song.”

The guitar riff might be the shiny sonic bling on “The Way I Talk,” but personal pride — in your upbringing, in your community and in your character — are all at the heart of the song, which uses Southern living as the vehicle for the message. Wallen, a graduate of East Tennessee’s Gibbs High School (which also counts Kenny Chesney among its alumni), related to the polite “Yes, sir/No, ma’am/Y’all come back now” string in the second verse, but he also recognized the other sturdy traits it implied: family loyalty, love of God and self-acceptance.

“Even though the majority of the writers on the song didn’t know me, it seems like they wrote it for me,” says Wallen. It’s about “the things that I’m proud of and the way that I live, and it was just a perfect match to me.”

Hayslip and McGill started “The Way I Talk” as a ballad, built on a title that McGill had saved.

“I can’t remember where the idea came from, but it looked really cool written down on paper, ‘The Way I Talk,’ ” says McGill.

They worked on it for a bit, then tabled it. But the song resurfaced when they set up a writing session with Jessi Alexander (“I Drive Your Truck,” “Mine Would Be You”) at THiS Music on Music Row in February just as she and McGill returned from an out-of-town writing retreat. Hayslip wasn’t entirely enamored with it when McGill brought the idea back up, but the topic resonated with Alexander, who has long been a fan of Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents.”

“It’s one of my top five songs ever written,” she says. “It dawned on me in the write that there just hasn’t been a lot of country songs written about these Southern accents, and I just got really pumped about it. I’ll never be able to write ‘Southern Accents,’ but as a writer, you know, you kind of have a muse. That was mine.”

All three writers have roots in Dixie — Alexander hails from West Tennessee, Hayslip is a native Georgian, McGill calls Mississippi home — so they shared a kinship with the topic. Nevertheless, “The Way I Talk” didn’t entirely jell until McGill took a break. Less than five minutes later, he returned, inspired with the guitar hook, the opening chorus melody and a sketchy outline of what would become the final words: “It sounds a little bit like my daddy, I don’t cuss around my mama.”

“He walks back in the room and sits down, grabs his guitar and starts playing that melody,”  recalls Hayslip. “With that melody, the lyrics just fell out.”

In short order, they rhymed “mama” with “down yonder.” The two words don’t sound alike in a classic sense, but they work in this setting.

“That’s the liberty and the fun in country music,” says McGill. “Some of those words, just the way you say them, actually kinda rhyme.”

While “The Way I Talk” alludes to the Mississippi River and the Dixie dialect, the song never uses the word “Southern.” And that’s intentional.

“People in Maryland have an accent, people in West Virginia have an accent, and people in California have one,” reasons Alexander. “Really, ‘The Way I Talk’ isn’t just about the South, necessarily, and I’m hoping that the audience will hear it that way for themselves.”

 All told, the song came together in an easy 90 minutes, and they subsequently cut a demo at Ocean Way. In March, Big Loud partner Seth England heard the song while in Australia with Florida Georgia Line. He thought it wan ideal candidate for Wallen and emailed it to the States. Wallen texted back with enthusiasm: “Please don’t let this one get away.”

Moi, who has a reputation for building songs one instrument at a time, held a formal tracking session for Wallen at Ocean Way, recording four or five songs in the same session.

“With Morgan, we’ve tried to stay a little more organic — cut with a band, make sure there was a lot of musicians on it and really make it all about Morgan singing,” says Moi.

Tom Bukovac and Ilya Toshinsky layered the electric guitars, including the sig riff and an ascendant, Southern-rock-flavored guitar break. And extra time was spent getting Wallen in sync with drummer Nir Z’s intense climactic pounding at the close of the bridge.

Wallen changed one line in the opening stanza, replacing a reference to John Deere with “It gets louder when I’m cheerin’ on the Volunteers,” a clear shoutout to University of Tennessee football.

“I didn’t want to get on there and act like I drove John Deere tractors because I haven’t,” he says. “[Farming is] all around my family, but it’s just something I personally never did. I grew up playing sports, so for me to throw the hometown peeps in there was cool.”

Delivering the final vocal was a breeze. Wallen sang the song four or five times in its entirety, then did more run-throughs in isolated sections.

“Vocals is the easiest thing he does in his day,” suggests Moi. “He’s just such a natural.”

As Wallen launched his radio promotion tour this summer, the label polled programmers about his opening material, and within just a few weeks, the consensus was “The Way I Talk.”

Big Loud’s first artist, Chris Lane, squeezed a No. 1 single out of his debut, “Fix,” and between Wallen’s authentic performance and that addictive guitar riff, the label hopes “The Way I Talk” will duplicate Lane’s chart achievement. Regardless, Big Loud is thinking way beyond the first release.

“Whether this song hits or not, we just feel like he’s a legit country vocalist that can have a really long career,” says Moi. “He’s a pure, pure natural. And a good guy.”