When NBC launched American Song Contest this spring as a competition between acts from all 50 states and several territories, it cast a few previous hitmakers — including Michael Bolton and Macy Gray — among its all-genre competitors.
But the show may have also unearthed a future star from North Carolina who has been writing in the shadows in Nashville.
John Morgan is the first signee on Jason Aldean’s Night Train label, and has made the most of the association thus far — writing eight songs on Aldean’s current Macon, Georgia double album, including the Carrie Underwood collaboration “If I Didn’t Love You” and Aldean’s current solo single, “Trouble With a Heartbreak.”
But in American Song Contest, Morgan introduced his voice with an effectively smooth song, “Right in the Middle,” which also played up his home state, with a sly reference to a “Tar Heels hoodie” in the chorus. Morgan didn’t know it would be a TV competition piece when he wrote it in November of 2021, but he was adamant about not giving it away.
“I want to write the best song that we can write today — whether it’s for me or for Thomas Rhett or Jason Aldean, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “This specific day, I remember finishing this song and just being like, ‘This is something I want to do for my artist stuff.’ It was just something I connected to, and it just felt like me.”
It should, since Morgan was a driving force at the writing appointment with Rodney Clawson (“American Kids,” “Dirt”), Justin Wilson (“Kiss You in the Morning,” “Momma’s House”) and Will Bundy. He came in with the title, a bit of the chorus melody, and a general idea that it should be about spending time with a woman he would want to pursue were he not right in the middle of loving a memory.
“I had an idea in my phone that was similar to it that I had been wanting to write,” Wilson recalls. “I never really knew how to go about it. And when John came in and brought up ‘Right in the Middle’ and explained, ‘Hey, I ought to love everything about this. I’m just in love with this other girl still,’ I kind of spoke up: ‘I totally understand this.’ ”
Knowing where they were headed, they locked onto an opening line, “We’re two minutes into a three-minute song,” that serves as either a description of background music at a bar, or as a metaphor for the time the singer has invested in the evening with a “small-town stunner.” The “Middle” melody was understated, but it fit the protagonist’s emotional position, a blend of longing, heartbreak and nostalgia.
The chorus explained that mix, shifting focus from the woman in the room to the woman in the singer’s memory, addressed in the first person, as he flashes back to the two of them singing along to Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” And he takes note that she “stole my Tar Heels hoodie and a piece of my heart.” Tar Heels is, of course, the team nickname for the University of North Carolina athletic department.
“We threw him a little home state love there,” Clawson says. “It’s funny because artists don’t ever come up with that themselves. Songwriters will say, ‘Well, if we’re going to do a hoodie, who’s your favorite team?’ ‘Tar Heels.’ ‘OK, well, let’s do that Tar Heels hoodie.’ ”
Just as the chorus seemed it would end, they slid into another section that gently repeated the title four more times, essentially stacking two choruses back-to-back for an extended set of hooks. It was singalong gold, but it also meant they would be chewing up a big chunk of the standard three-and-a-half minutes they would have for storytelling.
“I was actually worried about that while we were writing it,” Wilson says. “When we got to the chorus, it was going so long, I was like, ‘Man, are y’all sure that we need to have it this long? Or are we going to run out of time?’ And I had to just trust.”
One way they compensated was to cut the second verse in half. That stanza took a bit of conceptual work, too, since the natural tendency would have been to readdress the girl in front of the protagonist. Instead, they had the guy continue pining for his ex, wondering what she’s doing now and if she has moved on more successfully than him.
“It took us a minute to figure out we just needed to stick on that,” Clawson says. “That’s not necessarily the typical way to go, but once the whole chorus is about the girl that he’s still in love with, it’s kind of hard to flip back to the other girl.”
So what happens to that first girl? “I would say from previous experience, she’s probably gone,” Morgan says with a laugh. “She paid her tab and hit the door, I’m sure.”
Aldean co-produced Morgan’s recording with two of his band members, guitarist Kurt Allison and bassist Tully Kennedy. Though they have a fairly identifiable sound as a unit, they were able to supply Morgan with a completely different foundation — no one’s likely to know it’s Aldean’s team simply from listening. “That was something we were kind of conscious of,” Aldean says. “He’s a different artist than I am, and his sound’s a little more laid-back and not so rock’n’roll. So that was something we knew we were going to have to do going in, and we just kind of let it happen naturally.”
Kennedy, who’s one of the genre’s more acrobatic bassists, restrained his playing a bit, and Morgan handled the guitar fills himself, even though studio veterans Allison and Rob McNelley both participated. That ultralong chorus also benefited from Aldean’s experience. Morgan was challenged at finding the right places to breathe, and Aldean guided him a bit through that process to find a version that would work even beyond the studio.
“He’s so good at hearing those stops and breaths and everything,” Morgan says. “That’s one of the benefits of having him as a part of this team. He knows what it’s going to be like performing it live.”
Ultimately, after working on the final vocal for “Right in the Middle,” they decided a previous vocal he had cut for the demo better captured the song’s emotion. As a result, they kept only a few touch-ups from his final session for the master recording. “He’s a pretty flawless singer,” Aldean says. “He’s not a guy that you have to coach a whole lot in there. That’s one of my favorite things about him: He’s got really good instincts as far as what he wants to do with the song.”
With its Tar Heels reference, “Right in the Middle” was the perfect introduction for the North Carolina contestant on American Song Contest. Broken Bow released it on April 17, prior to Morgan’s first performance on the show, with plans to work it specifically to country radio at a future date.
“It feels like it’s meant to be on radio,” Morgan says. “I say that lightly, because I know what I’m saying — but it felt the most in that direction to me, and everybody that I played it for has fallen in love with it.”