If you listen to most country music fans, every singer in the genre is either a stone-cold traditionalist who makes “real” country and tops out at #50 on the charts, or a pandering sellout who jumps on the latest trendy sound and amasses a stack of label-aided No. 1s. If William Michael Morgan proves anything, though, it’s that these labels are too narrow, and that when it comes to country music, you can have your cake and eat it too.
The TL;DR version of this review is that Morgan’s new album Vinyl is a strong opening statement from one of country music’s most intriguing new talents. However, the most impressive thing about Vinyl is how deftly Morgan, with a serious assist from Warner Bros., walks the line between 90s neotraditional country music and the smoother modern sounds of 2016 country.
If I had to sum up the differences between Vinyl and the previously-reviewed Mo Pitney’s Behind This Guitar, it would be while Pitney has left a deeply-personal imprint on his album, Morgan’s influence on Vinyl is muted, buried under several layers of Nashville sheen and polish. Nowhere is this more evident than in the writing credits on both albums: Morgan has only two co-writing credits compared to Pitney’s eight, which doesn’t give us a whole lot to evaluate Morgan’s chops as a songwriter. (For the record, “Lonesomeville” is pretty good, and “Something To Drink About” is pretty meh.)
The difference is evident is the sound of both records as well. While both Pitney and Morgan feature the same fiddle-and-steel foundation that makes traditionalists’ mouths water, Pitney’s sound is tighter and more cohesive throughout Behind This Guitar, whereas Vinyl is a bit more eclectic and scattershot. The music jumps around from the up-tempo beat-driven “People Like Me” to the acoustic minimalist approach of “I Met A Girl” to the breezy, laid-back “Missing” to the retro, Ronnie Milsap vibe of “Cheap Cologne.” While it’s never a terribly jarring transition, the lack of sonic coherence is definitely noticeable.
Similarly, Vinyl covers a diverse set of themes as well. There’s the I’m-so-lonely “Lonesomeville,” the I’m-not-so-lonely “Missing,” the I’m-not-lonely-at-all “Spend It All On You,” the common-man-celebrating “People Like Me” and “Beer Drinker,” the father-losing-his-child-tearjerker “Back Seat Driver,” the child-losing-his-father tearjerker “I Know Who He Is”… There’s a song for everyone to enjoy and connect with on Vinyl, which is not surprising to see when an artist and their label are still trying to find their niche in the genre.
Morgan’s greatest strength is…well, Morgan himself. Like George Strait, Morgan doesn’t need to write his own material because he has the charisma and delivery to take any song and make it his own. The proof is in the pudding: Morgan took “I Met A Girl,” a song co-written by Sam freaking Hunt, a poster child for the Metropolitan sound and the sworn enemy of classic country fans, and took it all the way to No. 1! Morgan’s smooth delivery and solid vocal range (which, admittedly, I can’t come up with a good comparison for) allows him to own his songs, even if they aren’t actually his.
Overall, while the behind-the-scenes machinations of Warner Music are very evident in Vinyl (machinations that extend all the way to the cover art, which looks pre-worn to suggest an actual vinyl record), there’s a reason major labels are successful: They take a exceptional talent like Morgan, wrap his sound in a package presentable to the masses, and reap the benefits. The result is a great album that is nearly on par with Pitney’s Behind This Guitar. (In fact, given that Morgan already has a No. 1 while Pitney struggles to get into the Top 30, most people will probably prefer Morgan’s sound.) I’m not ready to anoint Morgan as the next Randy Travis just yet, but after another single or two, he might make it closer than you think.
Rating: 7/10. Do yourself a favor and get in on the ground floor on William Michael Morgan right now. (I had a hard time tracking a physical copy of this disc at my local stores, so you might be better off ordering it from Amazon or a digital delivery service like iTunes.)
Best Songs: “Missing,” “Vinyl,” “Back Seat Driver”
Worst Songs: “People Like Me,” “Something To Drink About”