At age 24, traditional country singer William Michael Morgan is something of a Throwback Thursday voice for the genre, compared favorably to Randy Travis, whose signature hits -- "On the Other Hand" and "Forever and Ever, Amen" -- predate Morgan by six to eight years.
With his latest single -- "Vinyl," which Warner Music Nashville (WMN) shipped to radio via PlayMPE on Sept. 11 -- Morgan pulls from music history even more, using an imperfect recording format to celebrate an old-fashioned romance. Introduced to the marketplace in March 1983, the CD was already 10 years into its run when Morgan was born, with its crisp, unforgiving tone replacing the warmth of analog and the pops and crackles that -accompanied 45- and 33-1/3 RPM records.
The business has moved on to yet another medium, with songs available to stream at the touch of an iPhone face. And yet, the much-publicized resurgence of vinyl -demonstrates a distinct, growing fascination with old technologies and behaviors, which makes "Vinyl" an appropriate title for such a -throwback as Morgan, who appreciates the effort those products demanded of the listener.
"I personally love the whole action of listening to vinyls, getting up off of the couch and having to go over and pick out what you want to listen to -- side A, side B, this album, that album," he says. "It's a treat for me, you know, putting that needle on and hearing that few seconds of scratch."
The original idea for "Vinyl" was, coincidentally, born in 2013 or 2014 of nostalgia, employing a sort of backward-glancing traditional country sound when the controversial bro-country movement was pushing the genre toward programmed drums and hip-pop attitudes.
"Everything doesn't have to be new," says songwriter Wade Kirby ("Doin' What She Likes," "All Over the Road"). "There's classic things that [still] work. I know that things change, but some of the nostalgia is cool to me."
Kirby threw out "Vinyl" as a viable title during a co-writing session with Carson Chamberlain ("The Best Day," "Love's Got a Hold on You") at the Combustion Music office of Ashley Gorley ("Unforgettable," "Dirt on My Boots").
"That one just sounded like it would be fun to write," recalls Gorley. "Then the issue was figuring out which way: Was it talking about old bands you loved, or old records you loved? It could've been a heartbreak song."
"Vinyl," continues Kirby, "had an old-fashioned thing, and an old-fashioned thing paired with a love-relationship thing is always a good concept."
They wrote it the old-fashioned way, too. Instead of firing up synthetic tracks on a laptop, Kirby and Chamberlain strummed guitars while Gorley found the right chord progression on piano.
"It didn't need any fancy chords, and they needed to be voiced in a pretty cool, classic way, but also not so old school that it wouldn't work right now," says Gorley. "We felt like it would fit in on the radio if an artist that wanted to do that kind of thing came about."
Each of the verses made a couple points that underscored the parallels between the turntable era and a timeless commitment. "You make the whole room go 'round and 'round," the lyrics suggest at the close of verse one. The woman is compared to "a band in the hall of fame" in the heart of verse two. At the end of each metaphor in the verses, they incorporated a slight -hesitation into the phrasing before driving home the word "vinyl."
As a result, when the chorus took a firmer pace, the lyrics featured more metaphors -- "Baby, you're an instant classic," "Ain't nothin' gonna stop this groove" -- but purposely avoided the title.
"There's no reason to stick it in the chorus," says Chamberlain. "We've got it in the verses enough to where you get it."
Once completed, they hired a full studio band to cut an archetypal demo, with Jacob Davis -- now signed to Black River -- providing a bit of blue-eyed soul over a moderate R&B sway.
"You can't have a song that says 'Ain't nothin' gonna stop this groove' without the song having a little bit of a groove," observes Kirby.
Blain Rhodes, who was then working as Warner/Chappell manager of A&R (he's now Universal Music Group Nashville director of A&R), got the WMN A&R team interested in "Vinyl," and the tinge of soul in the song -easily won Morgan over.
"I love R&B -- anything from Otis Redding to Usher," he says. "But my [favorite] R&B would be more like Motown, more Temptations, Isley Brothers, that kind of feel."
"Vinyl" was a key centerpiece as co-producers Scott Hendricks (Blake Shelton, Dan + Shay) and Jimmy Ritchey (Jake Owen, Clay Walker) compiled songs for Morgan's debut album. "That song was our stake in the ground, going, 'This is who William Michael is as an artist,'" says Hendricks. "It's very real, very true, kind of nostalgic, and we wanted to keep the music true to that."
They recorded the instrumental tracks at Nashville's Ocean Way, with a web of acoustic guitars and Paul Franklin's tangy steel joining Morgan's reassuring baritone to emphasize the country flavor inside the soft R&B tonality of "Vinyl."
"That's what's so unique about country songs and country artists," says Chamberlain. "A real country singer with a real country voice, you take a song that's more R&B, if you put that signature country voice on it, it pulls it back in to where you don't notice [the soul] as much."
Morgan cut his final vocals at Warner Bros.' Studio B ("That closet of a room," says Hendricks), and though he required only a few takes to nail it, it took him a bit to find the right head space.
"I had done a lot of demos," says Morgan, "but going into the studio and cutting your first record, it's pretty intimidating. You've got to kind of collect yourself -- at least, I did -- and just take a deep breath and give it all you got."
Morgan's first single, "I Met a Girl," reached No. 2 on Country Airplay in 2016, and with the arrival of Midland and the upsurge of Jon Pardi, "Vinyl" hits the market at a time when traditional country is seemingly regaining its foothold.
"Our format needs William Michael Morgan," says Hendricks. "It really does. He's a counterweight that is quality, and it's on one side of the spectrum. We need that to balance off what happens on the other side. As a format or genre, we are healthier when we can cover a pretty wide range from left to right."
"Vinyl" has found early believers at WEBG Chicago, WJVC Long Island, KCYY San Antonio and WDSY Pittsburgh, offering a laid-back analog calmness in an increasingly frenetic digital world. It's pretty much essential in expressing Morgan's throwback authenticity.
"It was my favorite song from day one," he says. "I wasn't getting off this record without releasing it."