America is headed into the oddest Memorial Day in its history.
The National Memorial Day concert will be broadcast from indoors instead of in front of a crowd outside the U.S. Capitol Building. Seats at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will remain empty. And in many states, citizens are being encouraged to avoid barbecues or, at the very least, to exercise social distancing when they attend.
Despite the unusual nature of living through a pandemic-challenged era, Craig Morgan is moving forward with the release of a new album, God, Family, Country. Due May 22, the Friday of the holiday weekend, the project is practically made for Memorial Day: It focuses on meaning-of-life and meaning-of-death issues while exploring sometimes uncomfortable topics.
Morgan, who served more than two decades in the armed forces, is as challenged by the times as everyone else, though he seems able to fall on back on the tenets in the album — God, family and country — to at least accept what does not make sense.
"These are very disturbing times," he allows. "But I will say this: As disturbing as it is, I have a lot of confidence in my faith. I have confidence in knowing that in the end it will benefit God, and that's what we're here for anyway. For me personally, that's the way I look at it, and I have to look at it that way. Otherwise, my God is not the God that I think he is."
That outlook already has been tested in Morgan's life. His son, Jerry Greer, drowned in a 2016 boating accident at age 19. The death crushed the family, and the recovery took a very long time. Some of Morgan's healing came by writing about the journey in a powerful ballad that became the album's opening track: "The Father, My Son, and the Holy Ghost."
It was the last of five new songs that Morgan recorded for the album, documenting the tears and turmoil that dogged him for several years after the accident. And he did not anticipate making it part of his regular set until he saw the reaction it created when he debuted it at the Grand Ole Opry in March 2019.
"It's very uncomfortable singing that song," says Morgan. "It was extremely uncomfortable writing it. I cried the whole time I wrote it. I didn't want to do it, but I knew that I must do it. And now my pain is part of it. That's my cross that I must bear. But it's not a dark song. It is a positive song. It's a positive message."
That's the point of God, Family, Country — to find a positive way forward through hardship. It's a message embedded in the album's five new songs, including the domestic spat in "Going Out Like This" and the boots-on-the-ground commitment in a cover of Gavin DeGraw's "Soldier." But it's also clear that the themes always have been present in Morgan's music. Five songs he recorded in his first run with Broken Bow — including the title track, former No. 1 "That's What I Love About Sunday" and the story of a homeless vet, "Almost Home" —underscore those same tenets.
The older recordings — many are at least 15 years old — were remastered to make them better match the sound of the new tracks, and though the power in Morgan's voice is the same in both eras, he conveys more worldliness and experience in the fresher material.
"There's a strength and a heaviness to my voice now that I didn't have then," he says. "A thickness."
The younger Morgan saw the world long before he hit the road as a touring country artist. He joined the military, was promoted to sergeant while stationed in Korea in 1988 and was among the enlisted men who helped the United States oust dictator Manuel Noriega in the invasion of Panama in 1989. His time in the service heightened Morgan's belief in America as an important arbiter of global justice.
"I hear people all the time say, ‘Oh, we don't need to be over there. We need to take care of our own,' " he says. "And we do. We do a great job of taking care of our nation, but we're also the leaders of the world, and we are the example for the world. You know, we may be the only nation in the world who has done things in other countries without confiscating the properties with which we invade and help. And we do it because we're not there to win their lands. We're there to win the hearts and minds and help them become a freer nation."
That sense of right and wrong, and of responsibility, is at the heart of God, Family, Country, an album that tested Morgan during its creation and in its marketing plan. Given the current economic downturn and the pause on touring, his instinct was to hold the project back for later release. Broken Bow executives and management talked him out of that idea. In more recent weeks, research has shown that country streaming numbers are up, and with that, home-bound fans might well be in a mood for new music, particularly when it fits the holiday theme.
"If you can't afford this, don't spend the money on my freaking record," says Morgan. "But if you're working and you have the money and you want some new music, here it is."
In its own way, the album is a quintessential red, white and blue effort. Each of the relationships it tackles — with God, with family and with country — demand some sort of sacrifice to work in the best way possible.
"Fact. Huge fact," agrees Morgan. "Sacrifice is the center point on all of these. I made some sacrifices, and I continue to make sacrifices."
How one approaches that is at the core of the American soul. Does one gripe about what they gave up? Or focus on what might have been won, or protected, in the process? It's an issue Morgan knows well through the loss of his son, and it's a subtle foundation for God, Family, Country.
"We all have our cross," he reasons. "[But] it's not the cross as much as it is how you bear it."
This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.