Guaranteed to knock ’em dead: The marvelous voice of Lorrie Morgan
Thirty years ago elegant alto Lorrie Morgan dropped debut album Leave the Light On, ushering in contemporary country alongside fellow class of ’89 alums Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Clint Black. RCA Nashville’s gamble was perceptive — five Top 20 C&W singles were lifted from the record including the number one “Five Minutes” and the near-chart-topper “Out of Your Shoes.” Sixteen further hits kept the youngest person to ever join the Grand Ole Opry in the headlines over the ensuing decade. Even late night titan Johnny Carson told a flabbergasted Morgan, “You sing real well…you’ve got a marvelous quality in your voice.”
Not all headlines were encouraging. Veteran country music chronicler-Elvis Presley biographer Alanna Nash uncovered Morgan’s predicament. She was “the Tammy Wynette of the ’90s, both for the throaty sob in her songs of failed romance and for her soap opera-like life.” Eddy Arnold-inspired Opry crooner George Morgan succumbing to a heart attack 10 days after his daughter’s 16th birthday, widowed by the alcoholic demise of neotraditionalist Keith “Miami, My Amy” Whitley, four divorces, and bankruptcy were all calamitous episodes that Morgan survived. Unenthusiastic about playing music biz politics, Come See Me and Come Lonely, Morgan’s encore collaboration with Pam Tillis, dropped in 2017 without the support of a major label or radio. “The Back in Your Arms” hitmaker also plots approximately 50 road dates annually.
Picking up the phone as a voice sunnily uttered, “Hey, it’s Lorrie Morgan. How you doing?” dispelled any rumors of rudeness and signaled the launch of my exclusive interview. In spite of a limited 20-minute window — other journalists also had conversations scheduled — and a temporary, nail-biting lost connection, Morgan disarmingly wove tales of laughter, anxiety, lingering misconceptions, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bobbie Gentry, the Beach Boys, and two hits she initially relegated to the bottom of the barrel.
The Lorrie Morgan Interview
What has your day consisted of so far?
I’ve been very busy doing interviews all morning [laughs]. I have a few more after we hang up. Interviews aren’t hard to do, just time consuming that’s all. Once the interviews are over, I’ve got some chores to do in the house. I’m gonna make me a pedicure appointment, and that’s it. Then we’re gonna come back and enjoy the rest of the day. It’s about 67 degrees here, not a cloud in the sky, and it’s just absolutely beautiful.
Your debut late night appearance was on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. “Dear Me” was performed on April 17, 1990, with Jay Leno serving as guest host while you chose “Something in Red” for the April 25, 1991, broadcast. Carson offered high praise when he observed, “You sing real well…you’ve got a marvelous quality in your voice.”
I remember I was a nervous wreck, but Johnny was so gracious to me. I got to go over and sit on the couch and talk to him. Johnny always reminded me a lot of my dad, and I told him that off-camera [Achieving 15 Top 20 hits himself, Grand Ole Opry alum George Morgan was only 51 years when he succumbed to a heart attack in 1975. The “Room Full of Roses” balladeer left behind 16-year-old Lorrie and her three siblings]. I was just so honored and humbled to be on the show. I was and still am a huge Johnny Carson fan. I have all his old videos chock full of great guests and hilarious skits.
Being on Johnny Carson was a sign that you had unquestionably made it to the top.
Well, you’ve gotta go big or go home [laughs].
Who was the first big movie star that you encountered?
I haven’t even met a little movie star [although Morgan was romantically involved with the late Law & Order linchpin–U.S. Republican Senator from Tennessee Fred Thompson in the mid-‘90s].
I am anxiously awaiting to be on the same spot as Kevin Costner when he comes back to the Opry. I love him and have wanted to meet him for years. He does the Opry sometimes. Maybe he’ll call me and say, “Hey, come on, let’s do a project together” [laughs].
[Author’s Note: Morgan toplined the little-seen Nashville Network one-hour 1993 film Proudheart as a plucky assembly line worker forced to return home and rescue her late father’s debt-ridden gas station. She also costarred alongside Tiffani Amber Thiessen and Eric Close in The Stranger Beside Me, an unsettling serial rapist thriller issued as an ABC movie of the week two years later].
Over the years were you asked to record a song that you really didn’t wanna do?
Yes, I have. I did not wanna do “What Part of No” [No. 1 C&W, on 1992’s Watch Me] or “Something in Red” [No. 14 C&W, the title cut of the 1991 album]. I felt like “What Part of No” was very chauvinistic. I thought men would take it the wrong way and turn against me. I’m happy to say I was proven wrong.
“Something in Red” was crazy because I never even finished listening to the whole song. The first few times they played the demo for me, I cut them off — “No, I’m not doing it.” I thought it was gonna end in black, and I didn’t want anything depressing at that time in my life.
Long story short, they finally locked me in a room one day and made me listen. If they hadn’t been persistent, I never would have fallen in love with “Something in Red.” I said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’ve waited all these years to record this song!” Finally we did it, and it turned out absolutely beautiful.
Did anyone who later became well-known tackle lead vocals on your demos?
Uh-uh, although I started out as a demo singer in Nashville. I was a receptionist at Acuff-Rose [the most esteemed country music publishing firm founded by Roy “Great Speckled Bird” Acuff and Hank Williams’ producer-songwriting collaborator Fred Rose], and they started having me do all of their girl-based demos in the back during lunch hour or in the evenings.
I didn’t have any say about whether a band accompanied me. That depended on what the songwriter wanted. Sometimes I did demos with a full band, and sometimes just a piano like on “Dear Me” [eventually Morgan’s debut Top Ten C&W single in 1989].
What Nashville studio are you most comfortable in?
There’s been a lot of ’em. I hate to point one out, but I really love the Church [Ocean Way Nashville Recording Studios]. Masterfonics is another great studio, but I think the Church is my favorite.
Have you recorded elsewhere besides Music City USA?
I recorded in Los Angeles with Johnny Mathis for my Christmas album [the “Blue Snowfall” duet from 1993’s Merry Christmas from London], but I’ve never really gone outside of Nashville to places like Muscle Shoals [Alabama] or New York to work with any kind of orchestration. It would be an awesome proposition. I’m always up for something new or a challenge.
Have you played guitar or piano in the studio?
I’ve played guitar on an album but not piano [comment below if you can identify the project]. I just write a little bit on piano. I’m not by any stretch of the means even a good piano player. I just pick out little melodies on the piano and play.
I did play piano on the Grand Ole Opry one night early in my career. I was so nervous because I was leading the Opry band on “Unchained Melody.” I don’t think I could do that again [laughs].
Even though a lot of people have recorded “Unchained Melody” — Elvis Presley, Roy Hamilton, Frank Sinatra, LeAnn Rimes, Diana Ross and the Supremes come to mind — I don’t think I’d like to cut it in the studio. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to record songs from the Great American Songbook, but “Unchained Melody” has never been one I’ve picked.
When you’re at home messing around on piano, what are your go-to songs?
“Unchained Melody” [laughs]. “Rainy Day People” by Gordon Lightfoot [Author’s Note: Our interview is momentarily interrupted. Morgan calls back to apologize for her inconsistent phone service at home, relieving my pounding heart].
If you could have a conversation with an artist — living or deceased — who would you choose?
[Long pause]. I think it would be Sinatra [Morgan delivered “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” on Ol’ Blue Eyes’ final studio album, Duets II, in 1994] or Dean Martin. I love them. I never got to meet Dean, but if I did I would’ve married him [laughs]. He was great.
What’s the story behind “Back in Your Arms Again” [No. 4 C&W, on 1995’s Reflections: Greatest Hits] coming your way?
I didn’t find that “come back” song actually. I had been with my producer Richard Landis on RCA [starting with 1991’s Something in Red album to 1994’s War Paint, then 1998’s Secret Love, 2004’s Show Me How, 2016’s Letting Go…Slow, and 2017’s Pam Tillis-assisted Come See Me and Come Lonely].
“Back in Your Arms Again” was my second A-side with subsequent BNA producer James Stroud [1995’s Reflections: Greatest Hits, 1997’s Shakin’ Things Up, and 2000’s “To Get to You” single].
James found “Back in Your Arms Again,” and all credit goes to him. I fell in love with how it kicks off with just the bass note. James is a lot like Richard — very creative and unafraid to try things. I like that because I’m pretty unafraid to try things as well.
In 1996 you got to go in the studio and record “Don’t Worry Baby” with the Beach Boys on backing vocals [the opening track on their various country artists album Stars and Stripes Vol. 1].
Mm-hmm. That was the height of my career when so many hit records were coming out. It was a great time in my life to just go in there and be with these guys that I grew up absolutely idolizing and listening to. I even made out in cars when I was younger to the Beach Boys. And here I am in the studio watching Brian Wilson lead the session. I was mesmerized. They were all so wonderful and genuine.
I applaud your fearlessness in selecting Bobbie Gentry’s Southern Gothic benchmark “Ode to Billie Joe” for Letting Go…Slow . Not many covers exist.
I love, love Bobbie Gentry. I’ve been a big fan since I was a little girl with the Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell duets album [1968, Capitol Records] in my record collection. “Ode to Billie Joe” has always been one of my favorite songs.
We threw that in the mix to see if it would be a cool cut for Letting Go…Slow. We slowed “Billie Joe” down a little bit and made the arrangement extremely swampy, sensual, and sexy. It fulfilled my wildest dreams. I had some heavy hitters on “Billie Joe” including Jim Horn on flute [e.g. John Lennon, George Harrison, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys]. I’ve performed “Billie Joe” on the Opry, too.
What’s a major misconception about yourself that you’d like to clear up?
I know people think I am rude sometimes when actually there is a bit of shyness in me. I’m not a big politician. I don’t go out and play the politic game very well, so it’s been harder for me to make my way in this industry. I have a great sense of humor and love to laugh and play. I love my animals. So if people have misconstrued my shyness for rudeness, that’s probably what I would say.
What makes you laugh?
Animals make me laugh, including my dog. I love to watch videos of cats. They are hilarious to me. I love comedians like Richard Pryor and Robin Williams. I love comedies and dramas. I laugh a lot, probably at some really inopportune times. But I don’t care [laughs].
I wasn’t as outwardly nervous during this interview as I tend to be, and I appreciate you putting me at ease. I wouldn’t be alive if I wasn’t a little anxiety-ridden.
Look at you [laughs]. Well good. One time I asked my daddy, “Do you ever get nervous before you go onstage?” He replied, “Every time before I go on. If you ever lose that nervousness, you’re gonna lose your lust for what you’re doing.” Nerves are good and keep you on your toes.
What would your perfect day be?
Gettin’ up and having coffee, as I did this morning with my husband [Randy White] and my dogs. Knowing that my kids and grandkids were gonna come over. A lot of sun and fun — spend the day at the pool, go out on the lake in the boat, have great food and wine, and have my best friends Mike and Sohaila Willis over. We live a pretty normal life here where we are. That’s the perfect day for us — food, family, friends, and wine [laughs]. Thank you for being so kind, and I want everyone reading this to have a blessed day.
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