June 19, 2018

How ‘Up Down’ Singer Morgan Wallen Turned His Accent into an Honest Country Voice

East Tennessee native blends rock, contemporary sounds with his singular delivery on debut album ‘If I Know Me’

The week after Morgan Wallen released his debut album If I Know Me, the Sneedville, Tennessee, native was enjoying his first Number One song on the Country Airplay chart – only thing was, the feeling of excitement was slightly complicated by the fact that he wasn’t the artist who recorded it. Jason Aldean was, and “You Make It Easy,” which Wallen penned with Jordan Schmidt and Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard, was the lead single from the superstar’s 2018 album Rearview Town.

“I would have loved to have sung it, but I wasn’t actually recording songs at the time,” says Wallen, calling in from the road. “But he was, and he got his hand on the demo and he just fell in love with it. Props to him, he heard the song, he knew right then – ‘Yep, this is gonna be my first single. When can I cut it?’ When Jason Aldean says something like that, you’re like, ‘Man, go ahead.'”

Fast-forward to a few weeks later in the present day, when Wallen has his sights set on the top of the chart with his own hit “Up Down,” an unsinkable summer jam featuring his pals Florida Georgia Line. This time, writing credit goes to Michael Hardy, Brad Clawson and CJ Solar, but when b sings about his bobber on the pond or his stubborn fealty to the mix CD in a little place he calls “BFE” (if you don’t know, go look it up), it’s hard not to believe him. And that seems to be the ticket: If I Know Me isn’t scared of deploying a bro-country cliché or incorporating cutting-edge production tricks, but Wallen’s instantly familiar voice keeps it grounded in real experience – even when it’s not a song he wrote.

“You still have to know who you are as an artist and what you’re comfortable saying and what you have to sing four or five times a week,” he says. “If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, if you don’t feel comfortable, or you’re not meaning what you’re saying, no matter if you love it or not – you can still connect with a song, but if you don’t, I feel like people can easily sniff that out.”

The 25-year-old singer-songwriter was formerly a contestant on Season 6 of The Voiceback in 2014, exiting that singing competition without a record deal and all the baggage that tends to come along with it. He eventually signed with Nashville’s Big Loud Records, the boutique imprint started out of songwriter Craig Wiseman’s Big Loud publishing empire, now home to Chris Lane and Hank Williams sound-alike Mason Ramsey.Wiseman wasn’t terribly impressed with Wallen’s songs at the time, but the young performer’s voice immediately commanded attention.

“His voice is just so evocative – [it’s] just so amazing,” says Wiseman. “At the time he was 22, maybe 23. He had that voice that already sounded aged, just a very interesting voice. We loved that.”

Wallen’s voice is a striking combination of many influences, a sandpaper-textured sound that incorporates his dad’s love of classic rock along with his own appreciation for the heavy, nu-metal sounds of the late Nineties. But his east Tennessee accent, straight out of the Appalachian Mountains, situates him squarely in country – almost too country by present-day radio standards. Moi’s contemporary production, however, has been calibrated to ease him onto station playlists.

Big Loud released Wallen’s first single “The Way I Talk” in 2016, earning some visibility by reaching Number 30 on the Country Airplay chart. It also helped cement his artistic identity, celebrating the peculiarity of his accent but also demonstrating he wasn’t so culturally isolated that he couldn’t handle the syncopated vocal cadences more often found in R&B. Wallen mixes various stylistic approaches elsewhere on If I Know Me, embodying a good-natured troublemaker on the minimalistic, heavily-processed title track, evoking rowdy country-rock in “Happy Hour” and then painting a vivid picture of lazy country days in the swampy “Fishin’ in the Dark”-sampling “Whatcha Know ‘Bout That.”

“I don’t think we really [said] we want it to be this or we want it to be that, we just went with our gut,” says Wallen.“That’s what we do a lot of times, we don’t necessarily have a plan. We don’t always know what’s its gonna end up being. Hopefully it sounds good.”

Prior to coming to Nashville and landing his record deal, Wallen hadn’t really written much – “maybe 10 songs,” he admits – but quickly realized it was a creative skill that could be refined and improved by working with better, more experienced writers. He has a writing credit on six songs that appear on If I Know Me.

“You see how they go about it, you bring certain things, but you take little things as well,” he says of co-writing. “I didn’t do anything but write for six months after I got my publishing deal. That was just trying to get better and figure out my sound and the way I like to do it.” According to Big Loud’s Wiseman, that hands-on education often serves as a crucial spark for very green singer-songwriters like Wallen.

“When you get with good writers, all of a sudden the light goes off,” says Wiseman.“[You] go, wait a minute man, these guys aren’t trying to imitate anything, they’re trying to do new stuff and they’re trying to say things nobody has said before in ways that nobody has said them before. They’re not trying to imitate, they’re trying to create.Some people get that and some people don’t.”

Wiseman’s name turns up repeatedly in the credits of If I Know Me, including on the album-closing standout “Talkin’ Tennessee,” which he and Wallen wrote with Eric Church guitarist Jeff Hyde. A smoky, gently flowing story of a guy who uses self-deprecation to fumble his way through a flirtation, the tune mixes chiming acoustic guitars and Hammond B3 underpinning with unexpected melodic turns that recall one of the Eagles’ moody, R&B-influenced hits.

Craig got on a roll that day and we had some cool melodies and some cool ideas and it ended up being one of the coolest songs I’ve got to be a part of writing so far,” says Wallen. “It’s a different-sounding song, especially the weird chord changes and stuff – that’s part of what makes it cool.”

Like many of Wallen’s songs, “Talkin’ Tennessee” also nods to his upbringing, and the many immutable aspects of his personality. “There I go, letting my south side show / Whiskey whispering on, little sweet nothing southernisms,” he croons, at once disarming and unapologetic. Whether he’s set against these more placid surroundings, or in the more progressive blends of electronic, country and rock found elsewhere on his album, Wallen sounds right at home, fully aware of who he is.

“I know that I come from a place of small-town roots and of humble beginnings and I try to keep those things in my songs – just stuff that I know people like me can relate to,” he says. “But I still haven’t completely figured everything out.”

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