Craig Morgan is country music's stealth star. He's had back-to-back #1 singles, massive radio airplay--including country's biggest hit of 2005, solid album sales and a belated nomination in 2006 as the Academy of Country Music's new male vocalist of the year, yet his recognition factor has not quite caught up to the scope of his popularity and his level of success.
That is all about to change with his latest CD, Little Bit of Life.
Morgan likens his career to a catapult that has been stretched all the way back through hard touring, steady radio airplay and media exposure and is now poised to heave that career forward with projectile force. He has two secret weapons in his arsenal. As a singer, Morgan has a clearly identifiable voice. As a songwriter, he displays a distinct point of view.
Little Bit of Life is Morgan's fourth album and third for the red-hot independent label Broken Bow Records. His previous albums spawned such memorable hits as I Got You, Redneck Yacht Club, and the poignant Almost Home, as well as That's What I Love About Sunday, which spent five weeks at No. 1 and ended 2005 as country radio's most played song of the year, surpassing hits by Toby Keith, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, George Strait, Sugarland and Faith Hill, among others.
Morgan finished 2005 in the top 10 on Billboard magazine's top male country artists chart (ahead of Alan Jackson and Josh Gracin) and in the top 20 on the magazine's overall list of top country artists (besting Sara Evans, Martina McBride, Big & Rich and numerous others).
Billboard has called Morgan "a writer and interpreter of highly visual story songs," something he acknowledges is his specialty. He's known, he says, as "the singer-songwriter who writes songs about the little things in life," a reputation he's grateful for. "As an artist you strive to have an identity at all. I'm proud that that's the one I've been stamped with.
"I have a passion for making little things very visual and big, stuff that can be easily overlooked," Morgan says of his colorful songwriting style.
Even on songs he didn't write, like the tender and moving track Tough from his new CD, Morgan wrings every bit of emotion out of the vocal without ever sounding anything but natural.
Little Bit of Life, which features four of Morgan's own compositions, is more personal than any of his work to date. In songs like I Am, which Morgan wrote with Phil O'Donnell and Shane Minor, listeners get a glimpse of the real Morgan, a down-to-earth family man and Army veteran who grew up poor and still values hard work and life's simple pleasures like hunting and racing his off-road motorcycle.
In I Am, Morgan alternately describes himself as "a good ole boy," "country and willin' to take a stand," "a dreamer with my feet on the ground" and "down to earth with my head in the clouds." He says he's all of those things and more.
"We grew up tough: dirt road, single-wide trailer," Morgan says of his childhood, recalling that his mother would milk a neighbor's goat to make butter.
Perhaps because of his upbringing, a genuine air of what he calls "positive gratefulness" pervades Morgan's demeanor, even coming across loud and clear in his high-energy live shows. And he's not afraid of hard work. Long past the point where he needs to, Morgan still sometimes helps his crew load in gear on show days.
"Nobody's too good to help lift boxes," he says. "I don't ever want to get so far away from the people who are out there paying the good hard-earned money to come see our shows."
For the new CD, Morgan and his longtime co-producer O'Donnell added a third man to the mix, with uber-producer Keith Stegall -- best known for his work with Alan Jackson and Terri Clark -- joining them behind the board. Morgan says Stegall brought his "experience and an ear for great songs" to the recording process.
For the first time with Little Bit of Life, Morgan feels like he's closely captured the sound and energy of his live shows on a CD. Vocally, he says, "I really opened up" in the studio, resulting in an album that's "a lot more me and a lot more relaxed. After doing this for a while you get a little more comfortable and confident.
"There's nothing more rewarding as an artist and more discouraging as a producer than to have people come out [to shows] and say 'You're even better live than your record.' I just want people to hear on the record what they hear live," Morgan says. "We try not to manipulate in the studio too much. When you go to tweaking and changing and tightening and cleaning you take away from the personality that's in the vocal."
Through the process of recording his own albums, Morgan has gotten so comfortable in the producer's chair that he's interested in producing projects for other artists down the road as his hard-touring schedule permits.
The father of five children routinely performs more than 200 concert dates a year. He is a fan favorite on the legendary Grand Ole Opry, where he has been invited to perform more than 150 times in his career.
In addition to his Opry appearances and regular touring schedule, Morgan frequently performs at military bases both in the U.S. and abroad, remembering how much those visits from entertainers meant to him during his 10 years on active duty. He's glad to have achieved enough notoriety in his career that his appearances can now boost the morale of his fellow armed service members.
Through all of his successes, one thing that hasn't changed about Morgan is that he IS his audience. A grounded, regular guy, Morgan enjoys his downtime at his home near Nashville as much as he loves hitting the road and entertaining thousands of fans at a time.
Just to prove that point, amid the normal musician credits in the liner notes of Little Bit of Life, one unusual thing stands out. Listed among the A-list Nashville session players who contribute guitars, drums, fiddles, steel guitar and dobro to the project are several people who get credit for "tractor."
Morgan is not just having some fun with his fans. In an album chock full songs reflecting the rural themes and everyman issues the artist has become known for, it's fitting that actual tractor sounds are featured on International Harvester, an album track named for the iconic farm equipment brand.