Lennon and Maisy Stella, Craig Morgan, Love and Theft, John Conlee, The Del McCoury Band, Thompson Square, The Whites, and Craig CampbellCountry
Lennon and Maisy Stella
Nashville TN | Singer-Songwriter
When Craig Morgan was ten years old and on a school field trip to Nashville, he sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" well enough to catch the ear of a distinctive older lady in the crowd. "She walked up to me and said, 'Son, someday you're gonna be a famous singer,'" Morgan remembers. Two-plus decades later, he'd be looking at a picture of the woman-Minnie Pearl-in the Ryman Auditorium dressing room that bears her name, getting ready for his first performance on the Grand Ole Opry. What Minnie didn't know was that before his moment in the spotlight finally came, Morgan would be an EMT, a contractor, a sheriff's deputy and a Wal-Mart assistant dairy manager. He'd also spend ten years serving his country in the U.S. Army.
But That's Why Morgan is one of country music's most beloved performers. It doesn't matter if he's jumping out of airplanes, putting gallon jugs on a refrigerated shelf or singing hits like "Redneck Yacht Club," "Almost Home" and "Tough"-his honesty, humility and work ethic stand out as strongly as his talent. That's Why, the long-awaited follow-up to 2006's Little Bit of Life, is Morgan's fifth album and BNA Records debut. From the evocative and instantly familiar single "Love Remembers" to the rural rally cry of "Sticks" to the church-choir epic "Ordinary Angels," it's the sound of an artist soaring to new heights as both a vocalist and songwriter, but with his steel-toed boots still firmly on the ground (the same cannot be said, however, for the tires of his Kawasaki motorbike). As Music Row's Bob Oermann wrote, "Craig Morgan is country music's champion of the Everyman-a loyal husband and father, unblushingly sentimental, tough enough to kick your butt if you cross him, and the kind of friend everyone would like to have."
That's why I keep swinging this hammer...break my back for a slice of that American pie, Morgan sings on That's Why's stirring title track, his stout voice ringing out with such authority and passion that you know the sentiment is no less true now that the hammer's been replaced with a guitar. Morgan's father played in country bands (and his grandfather was a farmer), but "I didn't think music was something that I'd ever do for a living," he says. As it turns out, selling records, being on the radio and playing some 200 shows a year has only made him embrace fatherhood and family more firmly. Morgan has four children with his wife, Karen, as well as a daughter from a previous marriage; they live just a few miles from the farmland in Dickson, Tennessee, where his mother and father went on their first date. "Family truly is the thing that's most important," Morgan says. "I love the music; I love singing and writing songs and producing records. But ultimately, I do what I have to do to take care of my family. Even someone who has the greatest job in the world would rather spend more time at home. I know I would, and I have the best job in the world."
He's certainly become quite good at it. "That's What I Love About Sunday," from Morgan's 2005 album My Kind of Livin', was the most played country song that year. Three songs off of Little Bit of Life (the title track, "Tough" and "International Harvester"), enjoyed stays in the Top 10, and he was nominated for Top New Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music in both 2006 and 2007. Truth is, you can't tune in to a country station anywhere in the United States without hearing a Craig Morgan song within the hour. But he's also just a bit like that great actor everybody knows and recognizes from a big successful movie, yet can't quite place on sight. Oh, that guy! "People know the music," Morgan says. "When they come to my shows, they might know the latest single, or they may know a previous single. But sometimes I can read their lips: they're going, 'oh, I didn't know he sang that one!' Or, 'I forgot about that song!'"
The move to BNA from indie Broken Bow (after a heated bidding war) is bound to change that quickly. It's a full-circle move for Morgan, who released his self-titled first record for Atlantic Nashville in 2000, but declined to stay with Warners when the imprint folded. Instead, he went on a five-year run as country's most successful independent mainstream artist. Even in this troubled time for the recording industry, Morgan welcomes the additional support and distribution oomph of a more established label. "I went to an independent when everybody thought it was crazy, and now I'm going to a major when everybody thinks that's crazy," Morgan says. "I'm hoping this one works out as well as the first decision did."
Morgan and his longtime friend and partner Phil "Philbilly" O'Donnell have always been actively involved in choosing the songs they didn't write themselves, and always co-produced the records. "Producing is an aspect of the business that I love, because there's a creative process that takes place in the studio, outside and away from the writing and the singing," he says. Nothing's changed this time around. "We did all the same stuff we've done on the past three records. The only difference is, we get pitched better material. Both the writers I already know and people that I haven't written with, because of the success we've had, have started pitching me great songs."
Morgan's gift is for, as he puts it, "real-life stuff." His eye for the everyday, whether he's trying to make sense of a world where kids want iPods for Christmas instead of BB guns, or describing girls with ponytails tucked in their baseball caps, is so unerring that it's easy to overlook just how much goes into the songwriting. On the aching, piano-and-steel tinged ballad "Lookin' Back with You," Morgan spins today's most precious moments into tomorrow's cherished memories-nearly every line is ripped right from his life, but every line is also the work of an exquisite craftsman, whether he's going for humor, pathos or a mundane detail. When my new truck is my old truck/and I take off these big old tires/and it's our turn to slow down traffic everywhere, he sings. Elsewhere, "Sticks," with its bluegrass bar band vibe, seems destined to supplant John Mellencamp's "Small Town" as an American classic of both rock'n'roll and country. I was raised in the sticks/that's where I get my kicks ... tailgatin' with my buddies/boots and dog and tires all muddy. And if Morgan keeps writing songs like "Planet Her" for Karen, he may not ever need to get her birthday presents. "Ah, she's not much for the music," he jokes. "She'd still rather have a Corvette."
On "Lookin' Back with You," Morgan envisions the two of them in "Cracker Barrel rockers" but it's probably safe to say he isn't ready to trade in his KX-450 yet. Before most concerts Morgan jumps his bike across the stage; he attended the 2006 ACM Awards on crutches after crashing in a race. At the same time, he's also famously at home going 5 mph on a combine (International Harvester is now one of Morgan's sponsors). "I find great comfort and ease of mind at both," he says. "The great thing about being on a tractor is it slows your world down a little bit. Your thought process changes. It gives you a chance to reflect. On the motorcycle, I'm not thinking about anything but riding. For me, relaxing is getting on my motorcycle and going as fast as I can and as long as I can through the woods."
Needless to say, Morgan's full-on personality made him well-suited for the military. He spent 10 years on active duty in the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, and goes overseas to perform USO shows every chance he gets. "Sometimes you walk away feeling regret: that I should be there with them still," he says. "But I'm starting to appreciate what I can do now for those men and women outside of being a soldier. Doing stuff for the USO will always be a priority for me." Morgan received the 2006 USO Merit Award for his involvement, joining the likes of Steven Spielberg, Elizabeth Taylor, and Bob Hope as a recipient.
As with the touring, being in the military made him value home and family as much as ever. And he still runs his country music operation like an Army unit. "My dad and mom raised me to be grateful and thankful and appreciative," he says. "They always told me, if somebody loans you something, give it back in better shape than what you get it in." Thus, Morgan and the band and road crew sweep the stage before and after shows, and are not likely to ever get an angry phone call from a motel clerk. After most gigs Morgan's right there with them loading up the truck. "Something in my genes and my blood requires that I work-right or wrong, it makes me feel like a man," Morgan says with a laugh. "People ask me how I stay grounded ... man, I go home and I still mow my own grass. I clean my own pool. I have kids that I get onto and play with and love the same as everybody else. I will always be that same guy. Just like the people who buy our records and listen to our music."
Love and Theft
Love and Theft is a bit different from the group that scored a Top 10 hit two years ago with "Runaway." But the changes that have affected the group-most notably, signing with RCA Records and downsizing to a duo-have actually brought Love and Theft closer to what it originally set out to be: a band that writes, records and performs honest, soulful country music.
While Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson are proud of their successful first effort, they are excited to have teamed with producer Josh Leo (Alabama, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) on their RCA effort. "We love performing" says Stephen. "The way we are recording now is the way our influences made records: live with a band. It's a lot more organic."."
Eric's earthy voice is the perfect complement to Stephen's high-altitude tenor. The guys happily share lead vocals, harmonize like a church choir, and bolster their band with their own guitar work. "Stephen and I have always been on the same page as far as the vision for Love and Theft and what we want it to be," says Eric. "We feel like we have made the record we've always wanted to make."
Fort Worth TX | Country
One of the most respected vocalists to emerge during the urban cowboy era, John Conlee was known for his superb taste in material and his distinctively melancholy voice. Conlee was born and raised on a tobacco farm in Versailles, KY, in 1946, and took up the guitar as a child, performing on local radio at age ten. He went on to sing with the town barbershop chorus, but didn't initially pursue music as a career, instead becoming a licensed mortician. He also worked as a disc jockey at numerous area radio stations, and made important industry connections via that area when he moved to Nashville in 1971. Five years later, Conlee's demo tape got him a contract with ABC. He released a few singles, but didn't find acceptance until 1978's "Rose Colored Glasses," a song he'd co-written with a newsman at his radio station, rocketed into the country Top Five. Conlee spent the next decade or so scoring hit after hit, nearly all of them helmed by producer Bud Logan. He had two number ones in 1979 alone -- "Lady Lay Down" and "Backside of Thirty" -- and four number two hits through 1981, which included "Before My Time," "Friday Night Blues," "She Can't Say That Anymore," and "Miss Emily's Picture." Conlee returned to the top of the charts three times over 1983-1984 with "Common Man," "I'm Only in It for the Love," and "In My Eyes," and had his last number one in 1986 with "Got My Heart Set on You." All told, Conlee made the Top Ten 19 times through 1987, when he moved from MCA to Columbia and reached the Top Five with "Domestic Life." Never much for touring, Conlee subsequently curtailed his recording activities as well, instead devoting his time to charity work (often on behalf of American farmers), raising his family, and running his own farm outside Nashville.
Thompson Square isn’t a real place, exactly. It’s the musical territory staked out by the husband-and-wife duo of Keifer and Shawna Thompson, an exciting and unpredictable area where country meets rock, rough meets smooth and one vagabond heart finds a harmonious common ground with another. It’s the sweet destination where two journeys end and another one begins. “It’s the place where we create our thing, a little fantasyland where we live,” Keifer says.
"There's nothing like playing music to bring a family together," says Sharon White, but that's not exactly right; over 30 years have shown that the music of The Whites - sisters, Sharon and Cheryl, and father Buck - has just as much power to bring audiences together in a feeling that resembles that of one giant, extended family.
The story of The Whites begins in Texas, when a young Buck White started his musical career not long after the end of World War II, working the dance halls and radio shows in a succession of bands. Honky-tonk music called for the piano and the bluegrass mandolin, and so he became proficient on both, absorbing the many varieties of Texas country and blues to fashion his own distinctive style - one that kept him in steady demand as a sideman throughout the 1950s. In 1961, tired of the rough-and-tumble life of a honky-tonk musician and wanting to raise his family in a more wholesome environment, White moved to Arkansas. Yet within a matter of months, he and wife Pat were once again making music, forming a band with another couple that eventually called themselves the Down Home Folks. As Sharon and Cheryl grew, they, too, were drawn to music ("Mama said I could carry a tune before I could talk," Sharon recalls.) at first forming the Down Home Kids with the children of other Down Home Folks members in the mid-1960s, then moving up to join their parents in a growing number of bluegrass festival appearances.
The first big turning point for the Whites came in 1971, when a successful trip to Bill Monroe's Bean Blossom festival convinced the family that the time was right to move to Nashville and pursue a more serious music career. Though Pat retired from the band in 1973, the move paid off as Buck White and the Down Home Folks began their recording career, featuring the striking family harmonies and top-notch instrumental work that has characterized their music ever since. The remainder of the decade saw them make a steady ascent in the world of bluegrass, recording five acclaimed albums for various labels and working a busy touring schedule, even as they gained a toehold in the country music field thanks to their powerful vocals and broad repertoire. The former, in particular, attracted the attention of Emmylou Harris, who brought them in to sing on her Blue Kentucky Girl album of 1979 and then took them on the road with her as an opening act.
The early part of the 1980s brought The Whites - by then renamed to reflect their family ties - to national prominence as their simple, traditionally-rooted yet dynamic sound put them on Billboard's country charts with a succession of Top 20 hits. Favorites like their first Top 10, "You Put The Blue In Me," as well as "Hangin' Around," "Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling," and "Pins And Needles," - the latter all produced by Sharon's husband, Ricky Skaggs (the two married in 1981) - introduced them to new audiences, culminating in the induction as members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1984.
Since then, The Whites have entertained and inspired literally millions of listeners at thousands of personal appearances with their unique sound. Time has also brought renewed attention to Buck White's mandolin playing; as bluegrass historian Neil V. Rosenberg recently said, "insiders have long known of his prowess," and with his appearance on Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza, released in 1999, a wider audience has been introduced to his masterful style and compositions.
Their first release for Skaggs Family Records, A Lifetime in the Making, (produced by one of their former sidemen, the legendary Jerry Douglas) proves once again The Whites are among the top ranks of artists able to combine a respect for - and mastery of - traditional country and bluegrass. "We're always falling between the cracks when it comes to styles, but that's just the way our music is. We have dobro, fiddle, and mandolin on this album, as well as some piano. It has the same kind of feel as those singles we made back in the early 1980s, but it's as bluegrass as anything The Whites ever did." Released in the fall of 2000, A Lifetime in the Making received substantial critical acclaim, winning an INDIE Award for 'Best Country Album' (2001), as well as a Golden Voice Award at CMA Music Festival's third annual awards show in Nashville.
In 2001, acoustic music blasted onto the mainstream with the smash hit movie and soundtrack, O Brother Where Art Thou? Buck and the girls were hand selected among bluegrass music's finest to participate in the soundtrack and appear in the film. The Whites were recognized at the International Bluegrass Music Association's (IBMA) Awards Show in 2001, where they won two awards including the well-respected 'Album of the Year' honor. In November of 2001, The Whites were recognized at the 35th Annual Country Music Association (CMA) Awards in the highly esteemed 'Album of the Year' category. Their involvement in the film and soundtrack brought further acclaim the following year, including the highest industry honor achievable - a GRAMMY Award - in the revered 'Album of the Year' category; as well as the 'Album of the Year' nod from the Academy of Country Music (ACM). Along with all the industry accolades, The Whites made numerous appearances in promotion of O Brother, including their involvement in the first 18-city 'Down from the Mountain' tour, a stop at David Letterman's "Late Show" with fellow O Brother artist, Dr. Ralph Stanley, and a featured spot on the follow up tours - the 40 plus city 'Down from the Mountain' summer tour in 2002 and the 'Great High Mountain' tour in the summer of 2004.
In 2007, after years of blending their voices from the living room to the stage, The Whites teamed up with Ricky Skaggs on Salt of the Earth, their first collaborative effort, which earned them a Grammy Award for Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Gospel Album and a Dove Award for Bluegrass Recorded Album of the Year. Buck, Sharon, Cheryl, and Ricky share lead vocals with Skaggs' award winning band Kentucky Thunder laying the foundation for their tight family harmony. Traditional hymns, a few familiar favorites, and brand new treasures flow throughout the album providing an intimate look into the heart of one of music's most beloved families.
In 2008, proud Texans Buck, Sharon, and Cheryl received the ultimate honor from their home state with their induction into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. For those who have heard The Whites before, that's good news indeed - and for those who haven't, it will be an exciting introduction to a rich, yet comfortable musical world. They may not use the name anymore, but Buck, Sharon, and Cheryl White are still creating music that's as good and as real as everything conjured up by the phrase "down home folks."