Morgan Wade, Raised on Bluegrass, Excels at Country-Pop on Her Debut Album

Morgan Wade may not be performing live music if it weren’t for Craigslist. The Floyd, Virginia, native was in her freshman year of college and having second thoughts about breaking up with her boyfriend, a mandolin and harmonica player, when she decided to woo him back — or, some might say, troll him — by starting a band.

“I just got it in my head that I could form a band,” Wade recalls. “It would either piss him off or get him back, either one.” She found her future players online — ”the safest thing for a 19-year-old female to do,” she says dryly — and went through with her plan, not only winning over her ex but forming a group known as the Stepbrothers in the process. Naturally, her boyfriend joined.

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While the ragtag Craigslist band eventually dissolved, Wade, now 26, evolved into a committed musician and touring artist. Her debut solo album Reckless, which arrived in March, carries the ragged edge of a singer-songwriter who’s been putting her nose to the grindstone for some time. In a voice like worn leather, Wade describes desperate, spontaneous relationships that feel the strongest when they’re at their breaking point. “Lay me down on the floor in the kitchen/Show my angry heart what I’ve been missing,” she sings on the chorus to the soft-rock anthem “Take Me Away.”

It’s not the first trajectory or sound you might imagine for an artist born and raised in Floyd, one of the historic birthplaces of country music in the United States and still a mecca for bluegrass fans the world over. Wade recalls spending Friday nights as a child at the Floyd Country Store, sitting on her grandfather’s lap as fiddlers, guitarists, and folk singers entertained a crowd of dancing locals and tourists alike. That certainly became a part of her, but she didn’t want traditional hoedown country to be where her own music began and ended.

“I have a country accent, so everyone assumes that I’ll just sing country music, but I like to do a lot more than that,” she says. “I just want to play whatever I want to play, and right now, that happens to be more like rock music or pop music.”

Sadler Vaden, longtime guitarist for Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit and Wade’s producer on Reckless, along with Paul Ebersold, recalls meeting Wade at a festival in Floyd and later watching one of her performance videos. He was struck by how little she shared with the sound of Nashville, Texas, or the Appalachians. “I just immediately was drawn to her voice,” Vaden says. “Something about it reminded me of Melissa Etheridge or something, right out the gate.”

Vaden called up Wade, and shortly thereafter, the two were crafting an album together in a Nashville studio, in what Vaden describes as a “really chill” process. He considers Tom Petty’s 1988 album Full Moon Fever (the one that opens with “Free Fallin’”) to be the “template” for Reckless, and that’s certainly felt in its production style, which oscillates between country-rock circa 2004 and Don Henley-esque pop-rock. But it hardly stays within those boundaries: “Northern Air” is an atmospheric folk song built around acoustic strings and drum brushes, while the snaptrack and earworm hook on “Last Cigarette” would be right at home with mainstream country’s biggest streaming hits.

“A lot of people wanted to corner Morgan as, ‘You’re the next Tyler Childers,’” says Vaden. “And she did not want to be that. I’ll even say that, at first, I maybe thought that she was that too. But she loves pop music. And so I just tried to help her achieve the sound that she was hearing in her head.”

While Wade has been writing songs for as long as she can remember, it wasn’t until she started performing with the Stepbrothers at 19 that she truly became comfortable onstage. Overall, it was a fruitful time for her work. The Stepbrothers played shows in her college town of Roanoke and the surrounding area, and for the first time Wade got the sense that more people besides herself were interested in the songs she could write. Still, the stress and odd hours of touring weighed heavily; she developed a drinking problem, compounded by the constant after-show beers and bar runs.

“It’s difficult sometimes, when you’re ready to go onstage and you wouldn’t mind a little liquid courage,” she says. “You got a lot of downtime after you set up a new soundcheck, everyone’s sitting around, and there’s a lot of cool bars [in town] and stuff like that.”

In an interview with The Ties That Bind Us, Wade recalled an especially difficult night after a show in New York, after which she finally decided to get sober. She hasn’t touched the bottle in four years, but her struggles with drinking and maintaining sobriety continue to weave their way into her work. “The Night,” released as a one-off before work commenced on Reckless, drives home the constant temptation from booze and pills (“It’s the pistol and the bottle, it’s the drugs and it’s the throttle/That tell me they’ll make me feel alive”) and calls out the hesitancy to talk about mental health in the Southern culture in which she was raised. On Reckless, the track “Don’t Cry” envisions a kind of ego death to fully heal from the pain of one’s past.

“I had to go through the years of having a drinking problem in order to get to this place I’m at now,” Wade says. “I wouldn’t be able to sing what I sing without having to struggle or endure that. Just because I’m almost four years sober doesn’t mean I don’t miss drinking — I miss it all the time. But I always remember the next morning when it’s 6 a.m., and I’m up at the gym, and the guys in the band all have a hangover. Then I’m like, ‘Alright, I made the right choice.’”

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