William Michael Morgan Puts 'Missing' Into Action

William Michael Morgan
Amy Richmond

William Michael Morgan

The new country singer de-stresses with a song that recalls Randy Travis and George Strait.

When country went through its recent bro-country phase, many longtime fans of the genre -- not to mention a major faction of Nashville’s creative  community -- griped that something was missing. Gatekeepers’ rush to  capitalize on the new sounds squeezed out the genre’s traditional roots. Veterans hoped that some kid could become a 21st century version of Randy Travis, whose

 emergence in 1986 fueled a return to country’s core in a period where  crossover dreams had fueled much of the music’s direction.

William Michael Morgan's first single, “I Met a Girl,” invited  comparisons to Travis, taking a crazy 52 weeks to climb to No. 2 on Country Airplay. His easygoing baritone and the song’s spacious arrangement were a radical  departure from the busy production values that dominate the current landscape, but they helped move the format back toward balance.

In that context, it’s ironic that Morgan’s sophomore single is “Missing.” Released by Warner Music Nashville to radio through PlayMPE on Oct. 24, it’s not a  commentary on the volume of sounds in the format. Instead, it’s a reflection on the abundance of noise in the culture -- the incessant text messages, 24/7 news and entertainment, and the social media vortex. It’s so easy to get caught up in everyone else’s  issues and priorities in 2016 that adults can easily lose connection with the most important soul in their lives: their own.

“Everybody needs to go missing from time to time,” says Morgan. “Everybody needs to get lost for a little bit and turn their phone off, turn their mind off and get missing. Go out in the water or the woods, whatever the case may be.”

“Missing” owes its existence to songwriter Rhett Akins (“Dirt on My Boots,” “Star of the Show”), who has been known to let the voice-mail messages pile up on his cellphone during hunting season.

“The song is basically about me,” he says. “I do go missing a lot. People text me. They finally start sending me direct messages, wanting to know if I’m still alive: ‘Dude, where are you?’ I’m usually gone off hunting somewhere, and my phone died because it’s so cold, or I just don’t have any service.”

The tables turned on Akins in late 2011 when another friend went AWOL for an extended period.

“He finally answered the phone, and I was like, ‘Dude, did you go  missing?’ ” says Akins. “He said something to the effect of missing was his favorite place to be. I don’t know if he said it exactly like we wrote it, but that’s where I got the idea.”

Akins brought that concept into a writing session with Marv Green (“Shotgun Rider,” “Wasted”) at THiS Music on Nashville’s Music Row. Green, whose hit list includes “True” and “It Just Comes Natural,” felt that George Strait — noted for maintaining a low profile — was a likely target.

So Green drove the tempo and got a start on the melody, steering it toward the Texas club culture that sprouted Strait.

“It’s not really a [western] swing song, but it’s more in the California swingy, dance hall vibe, more than I grew up on,” says Akins. “Marv’s a great guitar player, and he really knows his country licks. He and his brother grew up  playing bar bands. I never really grew up having to make people dance.”

Green used surfing as a getaway during his formative years in California, and he’s still apt to go for a run or take a walk at Nashville’s Radnor Park to block out distractions. He and Akins decided to cast as wide a net as possible as they suggested escape hatches in the chorus.

“We set up the back half of the chorus first and then figured out ‘Where do you go missing?’ Well, big city, country, little beach town,” says Green.

The second verse details just how long the protagonist has been out of circulation — the grass is three-feet high, the mailbox is full, and his email has at least 100 unanswered messages — but the money line is in the classiccountry wordplay: “I’m on a mission to be missing.”

“I love alliteration,” says Green. “Rhett and I love a lot of the same music, and we love playing with words and melody at the same time. It’s just one of those things — you get both of the ‘m’ sounds, you get the [short “i”] of the ‘mission’ and ‘missing.’”

And they got the song done quickly. They didn’t get it placed quickly, though. Strait never did bite, and when Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” set off a wave of progressive singles in 2012, there weren’t many acts looking for something as traditional as “Missing.” Not, at least, until Morgan signed with Warner Music Nashville. Sony/ATV vp creative Tom Luteran and senior vp creative Terry Wakefield pitched the song to producer Jimmy Ritchey (Jake Owen, Greg Bates), and Morgan’s team lived with it for a while before they finally cut it for his debut album, Vinyl.

“It really hit me because at that time I was just so busy,” recalls Morgan. “I didn’t even know which was up or which was down.”

They recorded “Missing,” along with the rest of the album, at Ocean Way Studios. Fiddler Larry Franklin, electric guitarist Brent Mason and steel guitarist Paul Franklin play the song’s descending signature riff and get plenty of opportunities for small, instrumental fills, but there’s enough space left that Ilya Toshinsky’s acoustic guitar rings clear.

“There’s not a lot of bells and whistles,” says Ritchey. “There isn’t any programming on the record whatsoever. It’s all guys playing their instruments.”

“This song was one of those that just has to fit in the pocket and feel good,” adds co-producer Scott Hendricks (Blake Shelton, Alan Jackson). “There’s not a lot of complexities for the musicians on this song, but that’s also part of its charm. It’s so easy to listen to.”

Morgan later cut his final vocals at the Warner Bros. Studio after he did his own sort of “missing” routine in the booth to get in the right head space.

“I keep to myself,” he says, explaining his approach to vocals. “I’m normally an outgoing guy, but I reserve myself a little more, I drink a bunch of tea, a bunch of coffee and a bunch of water, and that’s it. Maybe a bag of Lays potato chips — I do love me some of them Lays potato chips.”

Morgan’s routine works.

“Everything you preach to other singers about, you don’t really have to with him,” says Ritchey. “Just turn him loose, let him get comfortable, and let him hear himself the way he wants to hear himself — he’ll sing it two or three times and be done. He’s that good of a singer.”

As “I Met a Girl” concluded its chart run, Hendricks and WMN vp A&R Cris Lacy both lobbied for “Missing” as Morgan’s sophomore single.

“It talks to so many people,” says Hendricks. “Women, men, young, old, in-between — all of us have the innate desire to be missing, and these lyrics just say it so cool.”

“Missing” begins its chart run with a No. 59 debut on Country Airplay. Assuming it moves forward, it guarantees a traditional-country presence on modern country radio in the coming months. And it brings some utilitarian encouragement to a stressed-out 21st century populace.

“It’s about getting gone for a minute,” says Morgan, “just freeing yourself and getting all that bad juju out of you before it beats you down.”