That’s rock and roll.
It was my first show back. I was on the fence, especially after Harold said he wouldn’t go, you see I’ve been soliciting opinions and consensus is if you’re a thinking person over the age of 60 you should refrain from going to a show indoors. And I was on that tip until I talked to my shrink, who doesn’t talk, even though he’s fully capable of doing so. I’m telling my story, about writing, how I live my life, and when the session was over it occurred to me I had to go to the show, for my mental health. He wouldn’t tell me what to do no matter what, but verbalizing my story made it all clear, that’s why you go to therapy.
Not that I wasn’t anxious. If for no other reason I’d be wearing a mask. Which I did, and I was the only person in the arena who was, other than some of the ushers. But no one gave me a hard time. And I’ve got to tell you, as great as the experience of going to the show was, just being out, there, hanging with the people, was even better. You need people, interaction to live.
I was met by Ebie McFarland, Morgan’s PR person. Who represents the creme de la creme of Nashville musicians. She was anything but in-your-face, I was more interested in her story than Morgan’s, how she came from a small town, went to Vanderbilt and worked her way up the food chain to her own company. Darius Rucker left the old company with her and she was on her way.
And then there was Seth England, the manager, who made his bones with Florida Georgia Line. He looked more like a northeast college graduate than a down home Tennessean. This was not your father’s country.
As for Greg Thompson… He’s the only link to what once was, we’ve known each other for decades. He survived the promo wars and ended up in a better place at Big Loud.
As for the agent… I could look up his name, I can’t remember it off the top of my head, you see it’s the first time I met him. That’s one thing that impressed me, this was a new generation. Not the usual suspects, not whatsoever. This young guy had his own agency, he was doing it himself, just like Big Loud, only Morgan is attached to a major label.
And then Morgan walked down the hall. They made a big point he wanted to meet me. Who knows, but these situations are always uncomfortable, I mean what do you say? There’s never enough time to go deep, it’s mostly hit and run, a pressing of the flesh, but not this time.
First and foremost, when he was introduced I thought to myself THIS IS THE GUY? I mean we’ve all seen the photos, I expected some large guy, not quite Trace Adkins size, but Morgan is a small wiry guy, more akin to someone you went to high school with than someone inhabiting a different atmosphere. I mean this is the guy the entire country is mad at? I’m not apologizing for him using the “N-word,” I can see how Black people might not be able to get over it, but if you think Morgan is some evil redneck you’d be wrong. First and foremost he’s smart. And believe me, not all of them are. Many can only do this one thing, write and play music, they’re savants, they can barely talk.
And talk we did. I didn’t want to push it but when he wasn’t shuffling off…
Was it true he didn’t go to his first concert until he was 21? To see Eric Church?
Yes. He grew up with violin lessons, at his own insistence. And piano lessons. He can read music, although he’s a bit rusty.
He got bored at school so his mother home-schooled him. He got an offer of a gospel recording contract when he was barely conscious, but his mother said no, she wanted him to have a childhood.
And he lived to play baseball, but when he got hurt, he started to focus on music. Not that he planned to be a star, his mother entered him in “The Voice,” he went along with it, had some success, got blown out, and then…
This was the opposite of the usual story. Someone who knew they wanted to be famous as a musician from a very young age and then was groomed for trajectory, cutting endless demos, getting in front of bigwigs, trying to get them to sign them and press the button.
Actually, Seth got in touch with Morgan on a tip. It’s not like there was a bidding war. He heard Morgan sing, and then put him in a writing session and the feedback was top-notch and the journey down the road began.
Now “Dangerous” is kind of quiet. It’s not bombastic. As for its thirty tracks… Morgan’s still in that phase where he’s bursting with things to say, and even though Seth told me that the rappers’ endless albums wasn’t really an influence, Morgan said it was. The path had been paved, why not go down it? There’d been nothing else to do during lockdown other than write, so why not go with it. Who knew the double album would be the biggest hit of the past two years, residing in the Top Ten for all these months. Drake, the usual suspects, came and went, but Morgan remained. Some might say it’s the yahoos keeping it there, but those “Let’s Go Brandon” cuts went up the chart and immediately fell, you can only sustain when you’ve got the songs, and that’s the secret sauce of “Dangerous,” the songs. Be northern blue elitist all you want, but if you checked out “Dangerous” you’d realize this. It’s basic, it all begins with the songs, the production just serves them. There’s melody, there’s changes. This is a return to what once was and always is, no wonder it was embraced by the public, not only do the songs resonate, YOU CAN SING THEM!
And I knew something was up when the warm-up music just before Morgan took the stage was Foghat and Zeppelin, then again the levee breaks down south.
And it’s a rock presentation. Endless guitars, four and sometimes with Morgan you got five. It’s Nashville keeping Fender and Gibson alive. Watching the show it was palpable, the center of real music has shifted to Nashville. It used to just be country, but when the popsters shifted to beats and the studio sessions dried up all the real players moved to Tennessee, it’s a hotbed of creativity. The label epicenter may be Los Angeles, but Nashville is no longer a backwater, it just might be the main stream.
So what’s it like to have the biggest album of the past two years?
EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR SONGS!
I haven’t seen this since Taylor Swift. Then again, back when she was appealing to youngsters and there was a ton of production. That’s not what Morgan Wallen is selling. Ultimately there’s some cool screens, but the focus is first and foremost on the music. AND IT’S HEAVY!
If you listen to “Dangerous,” you’d expect a relatively quiet show, not something in-your-face, you know, where the singer occasionally takes a seat while they’re playing their acoustic guitar. That was not this.
So the audience…
L.A. is not a country town. However as you go east, towards San Bernardino, it is. I’ve been to country shows at the Crypt, when it was still Staples, it’s a different audience. People you don’t see at rock and pop shows, but not last night…
First and foremost, there were WOMEN! Two-thirds of the audience. You men hanging with your brethren complaining you can’t get laid are missing the point. First and foremost you have to go where the girls are, and they were in force last night. Short ones, tall ones, big ones, small ones. Because when you’re at the show, caught up in the music, the music makes you feel like a star, looks fade away, everybody becomes attractive when they’re singing along. AND THEY WERE!
And the guys who brought their girls because they wanted to go…they knew all the words too. I didn’t see a single person staring at their phone, they were all standing, grooving to the music.
Now it used to be different. Many concertgoers went to hear the hits, that was all they knew, people in attendance might not even own the album. But with streaming everything is available and if you’re interested…
And to know all these songs by heart… I realized these were not grazers, switching from hit to hit on the parade, rather they’d gone deep, they’d been hooked, it takes a lot of time and effort to know songs inside and out, you can’t sing them after hearing them once. Not after ten times even. And like I said, “Dangerous” has thirty songs!
Never mind some newly released numbers and what came before.
Not that every number was an assault. After opening with “Up Down,” off Morgan’s 2018 album “If I Know Me,” recorded with Florida Georgia Line and the title song of “Dangerous,” you heard that country road picking, you know with the windows down driving down the highway feeling like a million bucks, that’s what the beginning of “Still Goin Down” sounds like.
“The way I talk, I guess I got it from my pops
Product of some kneelin’ down
In a town where the doors don’t lock
And there’s a million other people like me
From a scene a little more podunk than pop
I didn’t choose being born in the sticks
And I’ll be damned if I sound like something I ain’t
For some folks a back road gets old
But for me, it just can’t”
This is autobiographical. His father is a preacher. You can’t choose where you’re born, why begrudge someone their background, the way they talk?
Another song that starts quietly, although not that quietly last night, is “Silverado for Sale,” which is nowhere near as hokey as the title might imply.
“Never thought I’d be calling you up today
Taking out an ad for this Chevrolet
But there’s a ring in the window just down the street
I wanna marry her, she wants to marry me
Money’s kinda tight but love don’t care
Me and this truck been everywhere”
But it’s the anthemic chorus that brings the song home. And I’m not going to quote it because you’ll think it’s just a truck song, but it’s not. First and foremost, it’s not solely hedonistic, at times it’s wistful. And naming the truck a Silverado roots you, you envision something big and rusted, something you get as a hand-me-down, but it gets you where you want to go. And if you listen to the record…close your eyes and you can see the girls swaying back and forth singing along last night.
The absolute highlight of the show was when Morgan sat alone at the keyboard and played and sang “Sand in My Boots”:
“Yeah but now I’m dodging potholes in my sunburnt Silverado
Like a heart-broke desperado, headed right back to my roots
Somethin’ bout the way she kissed me tells me she’d love Eastern Tennessee
Yeah, but all I brought back with me was some sand in my boots”
What you don’t get if you don’t know the song is it too not only has a Silverado, but an anthemic chorus.
And I’m not going to mention each and every number, but it stunned me that unlike most new acts, Morgan Wallen does not have a dearth of material, he didn’t have to whip out a classic to fill out the set, if anything you were disappointed he didn’t play more of the songs from “Dangerous.”
But still I want to focus on a few more numbers.
“I found myself in this bar
Making mistakes and making new friends
I was growing up and nothing made sense
Buzzing all night like neon in the dark
I found myself in this…”
We’ve all been there, taking it fast, not slow, having a great, convivial time and finding out too late we’ve pushed it past the limit, it’s part of growing up.
The title of “More Than My Hometown” might sound a bit clichéd, but this is pure Morgan Wallen, irrelevant of the lyrics, the changes are so damn good and the chorus so damn catchy that you just can’t resist. And still…
“Girl our mamas are best friends and so are we
The whole town’s rooting for us like the home team
Most likely to settle down
Plant a few roots real deep and let ’em grow
But we can’t stop this real world from spinnin’ us
Your bright lights called, I don’t blame you for pickin’ up
Your big dream bags are all packed up and ready to go
But I just need you to know
That I love you more than a California sunset
More than a beer when you ain’t twenty-one yet
More than a Sunday morning Lord
Turnin’ some poor lost souls ’round, and hallelujah bound
Yeah I love you more than the feeling when the bass hits the hook
When the guy gets the girl at the end of the book
But baby, this might be the last time I get to lay you down
‘Cause I can’t love you more than my hometown”
Some can’t resist the bright lights and the big city, others just can’t move on, they need to stay where their roots are.
And I must mention “The Way I Talk”:
“It’s got a touch of the town where I grew up
Something in it them California girls love
Some people like to make a little fun of
The way I talk
It gets slower after three or four cold beers
And gets louder when I’m cheering on the Volunteers
Folks know I’m country when they hear
The way I talk”
This is the essence. If it weren’t for the way Morgan Wallen talks and sings last night would have been a rock show that all those people who pooh-pooh him would have loved. I’m not talking to the punks, not the jam band audience, but you know who you are, someone who might love those genres, but also knows the joy of a concise song you can sing along to at the top of your lungs, like so many of those classic rock hits of yore.
So I’m looking around the Crypt, and I can’t see anybody’s politics. I don’t agree we can’t hate people on the other side of the political fence, because if you hear from them like I do it’s hard not to. But at the end of the day we’re just people, we’ve got more in common than we don’t, we can get along with just about anybody with very little effort, and the music is the one thing that brings us together.
It’s not like there was a sign saying to leave your beliefs at the gate, it’s just last night they didn’t matter, and if you think it was populated solely by those on the red side of the divide, you were not there.
As for being there…
This is the power of a hit song, you can be nobody from nowhere with no CV whatsoever, but you still might write a hit song that brings thousands, millions, together. You’re more powerful than any businessman, any politician, this is the power of music. It infects people in their souls. It’s why we need shows. Records are good, but we need to see these acts live, to hear their music come alive and breathe. I’m not talking about the hard drive extravaganzas with their dance steps, the music should be able to stand alone. And it did last night.
And I’m standing there throwing my arms in the air, smiling that I’m right back where I belong. Sometimes you wonder if it’s passed you by, if you’ve changed, and then you’re smacked in the face and reminded that it’s the same as it ever was, and so are you.
There are those who grew up. Who sold out. Care what the WSJ says to wear. But you can’t bring your fancy car to the gig, your bank account doesn’t show, we’re all essentially naked, in thrall to the music, it brings us together and levels all of us to the same set point at the same time.
I mean outside the Crypt there’s a pecking order, but inside there was none.
You get to choose who you want to be. And I think of how much I gave up to get where I am now. Don’t own any real estate. Don’t have any children. But when I entered the Crypt people knew who I was.
But inside the bowl I was completely anonymous. It was just me and nearly twenty thousand listening to the music.
That’s another thing, Morgan sold out the Crypt’s upper deck, which is almost impossible to do, you need an oxygen mask up there, above the three levels of skyboxes. But the people up there were the lit up their phones en masse, they were standing and singing too, they just had to be there.
Being home is better than it ever was, the world is at your fingertips on your devices, you’ve got the flat screen, but the peaks just don’t equal those outside. It’s a risk. Especially in L.A. Public transportation is so inadequate almost nobody uses it. Traffic is hell. But when you’re standing there in the dark with your brethren listening to the music…
Makes me throw off my mental chains, I’m still gonna wear my mask, I’m still uptight about restaurants, but I’m gonna go to shows, for the soul.
But not just any show. It matters who is on stage. Some people are just a cut above. They’ve got it in their fingertips, I mean backstage Morgan Wallen was a relatively quiet guy, no different from you and me, but on stage…
He was someone different. You’d think he’d be self-conscious, still wet behind the ears. But he was comfortable, delivering for an audience hanging on every note, every word.
And it just was every note and word. He was wearing the same clothes he was backstage. It was a throwback to what once was, something we thought we lost in the Kardashianization of music, where it’s all surface and selling out in pursuit of cash and lifestyle.
But last night we got back to the garden. We’re still stardust, we’re still golden, and just like Joni Mitchell urged us fifty years ago, we’ve finally returned. A new generation is carrying the torch. Just when you think it’s over, done, they pull you back in, but you don’t have to be in the Mafia, you don’t have to give anything up, you don’t have to do anything but come to the show to fix all your problems.
For the evening anyway.