Country Singer William Michael Morgan on His Journey to No. 1 With 'I Met A Girl'

Amy Richmond
William Michael Morgan

The country singer William Michael Morgan easily blends retro and modern: just 23 years old (a fact belied by his easy baritone), he was raised in Vicksburg, Miss. on a steady diet of classic country – most of which he listened on YouTube. Though his single "I Met A Girl" is a solemn, vintage-sounding love ballad, it has found a contemporary following, hitting No. 2 on Country Airplay after spending 52 weeks on the chart.

Just before Morgan’s debut album Vinyl hit shelves Sept. 30, Billboard spoke with the singer about “Girl,” his early experiences with Merle Haggard and George Jones, and the importance of not dividing country up into competing factions.

Do you remember the first country song you ever heard?

"El Paso" by Marty Robbins. I was about five or six years old, and that hooked me. I got my first guitar when I was about 11, 12, 13 — somewhere in that area, it all kind folds together. I just started playing. I'd lock myself in my room and look up old YouTube videos of Keith Whitley. Over there on the recommended bar, you'd see Merle Haggard, so I'd click on that. And then over on the recommended bar again, you'd see Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, David Allan Coe, George Jones, all these great traditional artists. That's what I grew up on, and that's what I wanted to incorporate into my music.

You got your start pretty early – were your parents supportive?

A lot of people say they wouldn't be anywhere without their parents, and that is definitely the case for me. They spent time and money that neither one of them had to support me and take me to this place and drive me over here. At the time, I was doing shows in Mississippi in the bar rooms — I wasn't old enough to have my license, so I couldn't drive. I was sneaking into bar rooms and playing with these cats and singing old Haggard and Jones at the age of 15, 16.

Those songs have a lot of experience in them.

I understand them a lot more now.

So when did you make the classic move to Nashville?

I was a green 19 year-old kid. I still remember it like it was yesterday. We got my car all cleaned up, checked the engines, oil change and everything. I still remember my mom crying, hugging me, kissing me; dad shaking my hand and saying, "you be careful now, boy." I get chills thinking about that, man.

I ended up crashing on my manager's house for about a month or two before I ended up finding a place. It was a very different scene. Mama wasn't there to help me. I've grown up a lot. I grew up fast. I still had a great childhood, but I grew up so much faster than people my age. A lot of people my age are still trying to find themselves in the college scene and whatnot. I skipped all that. I just wanted to make music.

In what other ways what it was different?

It's just a big town, a big city. But it's a small city too as far as everybody knows you, and everybody knows everybody. It's a real tight-knit community as far as the songwriters, the artists, the whole business aspect of it.

How did Warner find you originally?

We ended up meeting with Cris Lacy over at Warner Brothers. My management set that up; we went in and played her a couple songs. A couple months later we came back in and played for John Esposito, Scott Hendricks, and at the time Chris Stacey as well. What they saw in this old, snot-nosed kid I'll never know, but I'm glad they latched on and gave us a chance.

That's a lot of high-powered people in one room.

I'm telling you, I was nervous. I was scared. It doesn't happen often, but I was scared.

Did any of those demos end up on the EP or the album?

Yeah, actually. "Cheap Cologne," which ended up on the EP and the album. That was one of the first songs that I put my vocal on when I moved to town about four years ago. Of course, when we cut everything, we went back in and put a new vocal on it.

What first appealed to you about that song when you heard it?

It had that Ronnie Milsap feel to it. I feel in love. It's kind of R&B-ish too. It caught my ears real quick.

There's a few songs on the album with a little bit of that — "Spend It All On You" as well.

Yeah, that's a little something different for me. That's probably the most out as I went as far as different. Just because of that groove — I said, man, I've gotta cut this. Sure enough, there was a high note in there that I couldn't hit. I said, man, we're not gonna be able to do this song because I can't fricking hit this high note. They said, take a second. So I went outside, drank a cup of coffee. Then I came back and did the falsetto part of that song, and it's different, but it ended up working.

Do you remember the first time you heard "I Met A Girl?"

It was, again, one of the first songs that we found. We found it a year not even into being signed to Warner Brothers. We went in and did pre-production on it, a full production on it. In that session, we cut "I Met A Girl," "Beer Drinker," "Vinyl," "Cheap Cologne," "People Like Me." Believe it or not, we had a lot of the songs on this EP and album very early in my career. It was just a matter of developing myself, my music, my sound — growing up, even.

When we first heard that song ["I Met A Girl"], it was Sam Hunt's mixtape. That's what caught my attention. I said, I've gotta have this. I saw the whole picture — it made making the video really easy. I saw the girl crossing the street, biting her lip, fixing her dress. Sam and Shane McAnally and Trevor Rosen have such a great way of painting those pictures when they write those songs. That's something I wanted to do.

That sort of ballad has not found a lot of love at radio in recent years.

Neither has a cowboy hat and boots, but that's who we are. We said, if we're gonna do something different, we're gonna go all the way with it. We're not gonna conform or try to meet in the middle. If we're gonna do it, we're gonna do it. And to have a label that supports that is second to none. They let us do, within reason, what we want to do creatively. I was ready, baby. I was ready.

A lot of firsts have happened. I got to play the Opry for the first time last year. Since then, we've played 19 times. I've got to put out my first single, my first music video, my first time opening up for this guy, playing with this guy, seeing this person, meeting this person.

Why do you think "I Met A Girl" has picked up such a following?

I don't know. I'm just an old country boy singer that sings some songs. I'm not a guy that understands the whole business aspect of it. Who does? I'm just so grateful that the fans have accepted us like they did.

That song really sets the tone for the sound of the album.

It really does. It really does. That's what we wanted to do — make sure these songs flowed together. You only get one first impression. We wanted to make sure in the process of picking the songs, writing the songs, singing the songs, that we had the best first impression we could possibly present.

Have you found it hard to carry forward your love of traditional music in an era when country hasn't been as interested in that sound?

I grew up on traditional music; I would say that I'm more on the traditional side. But I'm just making the best music that I can make at the time. I wish that people would stop saying "traditional country" or "bro country" or "pop country." If you notice in all three of those, there's one similar word: country. It's all the same thing. I wish everybody would just say, we're making country music. That's what it is. It's all the same message. It's just a matter of how people present it or produce it. It's all the same message.

What is that message?

Well recently, it's been about tan legs on a truck set and scooting on over with a cold beer. You can only do that so often — some people actually have to go work.

You're a big vinyl guy?

I am. Not as much recently as I have been in the past. We had a big house fire in the past five years and we lost a big collection of vinyl. It happens. One of my favorite records still to this day, top to bottom, something about this album hits my soul, is the Stardust album by Willie Nelson. I love that album. Put that thing on, go through the whole process of dropping the needle, hearing that static for a few seconds before the music starts -- there's nothing like that crackle.

Do you think you'll try to record an album of standards one day like "Stardust?"

Man, I want to. I've been thinking I'd love to do something like Haggard did with all those Jimmie Rodgers songs — Same Train, Different Track. I would love to do something like that. I don't know if it would be all Haggard songs — just a full on honky tonk album with a Haggard or two, a George Jones or two, a Chesnutt or two, and just have a whole big slew of hits that I grew up on.

You helped write "Lonesomeville" — that has a bit of a Merle Haggard feel to it.

I wrote that on the beach in Perdido Key, Florida. Mark Sherill had brought the idea over and had it in kind of an uptempo shuffle deal. I said, you know what, at the time we had a couple shuffles we were looking at, so let's maybe slow this thing down a little bit. Trent Tomlinson being the great songwriter that he is, by the time I went to the bathroom and came back, he already had the first half of the verse and half of the chorus wrote. An hour after writing it, we were down on the beach drinking something.

A version of this article appeared in the Oct. 15 issue of Billboard magazine.