The Profile: Morgan Wallen’s Career Runs on Fan Connection, the Art of the Song
Morgan Wallen’s wildly successful “Whiskey Glasses” has truly changed his life.
Morgan Wallen; Photo by John Shearer
Ever since the beginning of Morgan Wallen’s career, he has focused on the song — both as a songwriter, and in songs he performs that were written by other people. His brand-new No. 1 hit, “Whiskey Glasses,” falls into the latter category — it was penned by Ben Burgess and Kevin Kadish — but from the very first time he heard it, Wallen loved its wordplay, its groove and of course, its anthemic bridge. In recent live shows, the singer has changed how he performs the song, kicking it off with that bridge before he launches into the first verse.
“Line ‘em up, line ‘em up, line ‘em up, line ‘em up / Knock ‘em back, knock ‘em back, knock ‘em back, knock ‘em back / Fill ‘em up, fill ‘em up, fill ‘em up, fill ‘em up, fill ‘em up / ‘Cause if she ain’t never comin’ back…” Wallen sings.
“I don’t remember [how I decided to start doing that.] I think I just noticed that it’s an easy thing — it’s like a chant. It’s three lines, basically, repeated,” Wallen tells Country Now. “I just thought that since people were chanting it so loud in the bridge, it might be cool to start it off that way. You know? I just thought that moment was too good to let it happen only once, so we decided to do it twice.”
As someone who grew up playing baseball, Wallen has a competitive streak, and he always wants to see his songs make it to the top spot on the charts. Just as he did with his previous hit “Up Down,” and his debut single “The Way I Talk,” he watched “Whiskey Glasses” as it slowly rose. When it officially reached the top, he was ecstatic not only for himself but for Burgess, who had never had a No. 1 song before. Wallen can relate to that achievement first-hand: He himself got his first songwriting No. 1 with Jason Aldean’s “You Make it Easy,” which he co-wrote with Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line, as well as Jordan Schmidt. As someone who rose through the ranks of Nashville’s songwriting industry, Wallen is “super, super pumped” for Burgess to celebrate his first chart-topping track.
Still, the part of “Whiskey Glasses”’ success he cherishes the most doesn’t have anything to do with chart placement. “It’s been absolutely insane to see people’s reaction to it,” he points out. “This song has undoubtedly taken over as the biggest song in my set. It’s been awesome to see, and I’m just so glad that people love it the way they love it. There’s a passion about this song that I’ve not ever experienced before.
“I noticed weeks ago that this song was really important to people, and it was really special to them. And that right there was just enough for me to know that no matter what happens with this, I know that this song has made an impact on a lot of people,” he adds.
Especially for fans who first got to know Wallen via “You Make it Easy,” it’s difficult not to associate him with early success as a songwriter. However, Wallen originally moved to Nashville to pursue country music as an artist — he wasn’t even sure he could write. “I’d only been writing songs for a couple years before I moved to Nashville. I didn’t even know if I could do it. So the fact that I’m alright at it [is great.] I think I’m good at it, but I could still be a whole lot better!” he explains with a laugh.
“Songs have always been the main thing to me. I don’t know if there’s gonna ever be a record that I write only by myself — there may be, I don’t know — but I have a lot of songwriter friends that I respect and look up to. If they send me a song, I’m gonna listen to it every single time,” he relates.
His 2018 debut album, If I Know Me, is filled with thoughtfully crafted, diverse tracks, including irresistible sing-alongs like “Up Down,” and others like “Whiskey Glasses” and “Happy Hour,” which feature clever wordplay. Even outside the record, the singer chooses to cut the songs that make him feel something. That’s how he wound up recording a version of Jason Isbell’s ballad, “Cover Me Up.”
“Every time I sing it, I don’t know, it makes me feel good. Every time I play it, you would think it was already a hit on the radio or something,” Wallen says of the song. “It’s just a moment, too, in my set. Everybody’s got their phones up, trying to document that part.”
The singer is glad his rendition of the song has made such a big impact, especially because he’s such a fan of the track — and the artist behind it. “Jason Isbell’s one of my favorite artists. He has been since I discovered him, and that song has always been one that stood out to me — especially after I had read his story, and realized what he had been through, and all that,” Wallen explains. Now, he hopes that audiences who hear him perform it will be inspired to check out Isbell’s original.
“He’s not mainstream, and that’s obviously on purpose. He doesn’t wanna be mainstream. But I hope that I’m giving him exposure, not that he needs it, but I hope that I’m giving him good exposure by doing the song,” he continues.
Beer-swigging and bemulleted, Wallen might not look like the typical Isbell fan, but his tastes run the gamut. He’s a big fan of indie rock band The War on Drugs, too. The singer says he doesn’t like to over-analyze his influences when he’s writing, but it’s possible that his omnivorous tastes make their way into his songs. “There’s a couple songs I just recorded that I feel like definitely have a little bit of — I’m a huge Fleetwood Mac fan, and I think one of the songs I recorded has a real serious Fleetwood Mac influence to it,” he hints.
“I think I’m just an old soul. I love old music. It’s my favorite kind of music,” Wallen goes on to say. “I think probably the older I get, the more that kind of influence will be in there. But I try not to think too much about it. I just try to write songs that I love, and I hope if I love them, other people will too.”
Next up, Wallen will hit the road with Florida Georgia Line for their 2019 Can’t Say I Ain’t Country Tour. For the “Whiskey Glasses” singer, the trek will be a kind of homecoming: The country superstar duo are longtime mentors and friends to him. In fact, he opened for them at the very outset of his career.
“They let me open for them when I didn’t really have anything going on,” Wallen relates. “I was the very first opener, going out there for like 15 minutes, something like that. And we’re going out to a lot of those same places that I went to with them back then.”
Now, about two years later that first run, Wallen has radio hits and a headlining tour of his own under his belt. “I’m looking forward to just seeing the difference in those places. I’m gonna try to think of how many people were there last time, and how people didn’t have any clue [what any of my songs were]. Now, they’re at least gonna know two of ‘em!”, he says.
For Wallen, that growth is a direct result of the connection with fans he forged with If I Know Me. Now that he’s seen the results, he’s inspired to continue connecting with fans as his career moves forward. “I always loved music, but before [I moved to town and starting recording and playing songs], I’d never really thought about being an artist or singing,” he recalls. “The fact that people are buying into me, and treating me so well, and caring — I already took it serious, but it makes me take it more serious…I sing, I write, we record. That’s just my life. I put every bit of passion I’ve got into it, because I’m so grateful to have this chance.”