Morgan Wade likes to joke that many of the tattoos that “upset old, male country music fans” aren’t all that significant to her. “I’ve got around 140 to 150,” she says, “Some, like this taco on my arm, well, there’s no reason. I just got it because I liked it!”
But others – such as the chunky dagger plunging vertically down into her windpipe and the hands clasped in prayer across her lungs – are bold visual expressions of the 27-year-old’s ragged-voiced, raw-hearted country rock. If she flips back her bleached-blonde hair, you can also read the words “Sober Me” inked in capital letters beneath her left ear.
Talking from her home in Virginia, Wade’s Southern drawl has an endearingly awkward, childlike edge. But she is direct when I mention that “Sober Me” tattoo and credits “almost five years” of sobriety for the success of her first full-length record, Reckless, recently named Rolling Stone magazine’s Best Country Album of 2021. “Good songs require honesty,” she says, “and sobriety means I’ve had to be real honest with myself and others about mental health, relationships… hard stuff I used to hide.”
With a sound that has had her compared to the soft 80s rock of Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks, Wade’s melodies burn slowly up from her boots. Her lyrical yearning for connection (“Lay me down on the floor in the kitchen/Show my angry heart what I’ve been missing”) has resonated with people left as numb by the pandemic as she was by her “messy” drinking. In the single “Don’t Cry”, she confesses to lies she can still smell on her breath.
It is exposing stuff for a woman who “was a pretty private kid”. Born in 1994, in the “one-stoplight” town of Floyd, Virginia, Wade was an only child for the first 16 years of her life. Her parents married young and her mother was just 17 when she was born.
They divorced when she was five and little Morgan was partly raised by her grandparents, who lived across the street. Her favourite tattoo is of the Morgan’s Salt bottle she sat facing at their dining table. “It was a quiet, rural childhood,” she says. “My grandfather has hundreds of acres. Cows all around. Horses.”
Floyd is a quirky town. Though conservative in many ways (66.2 per cent voted for Donald Trump in 2020), it has a thriving artistic community. A gallery has been built from an old grain silo and on Friday nights, Wade says “the local bluegrass musicians gather for a weekly ‘jamboree’ at the county store. I’d go up there with my grandparents and it was a really cool introduction to live music.”
Although nobody in her family was musical, Wade began writing songs (“about heartbreak, I’m an old soul”) aged around six. When she applied to join the school music group, she was told her voice was “too weird” and resolved to keep her singing a secret. But she continued writing songs on the guitar her grandma bought for her.
“All the singers I admired on the radio – Faith Hill and Shania Twain – had these pure, clear voices and I had all this gravel,” she says. “People today assume I got that voice from smoking. But I never smoked,” she laughs. “I think I’m the only musician I know down here who doesn’t smoke!”
It was Elvis who showed Wade that “people who are weird can still make it”. She remembers coming home from school and finding a VHS of Jailhouse Rock on the counter. “My mum told me it was in black and white so I wouldn’t like it. But I watched that movie five or six times that same afternoon. And then they had to break it to me that he was dead, and that was terrible.
“After that, I was obsessed. I read every book I could find about him. I read that the churches were preaching against him but he just carried on doing his own weird thing until he changed the course of music. Elvis was my first crush and even now I’m a member of a Facebook group where they believe Elvis is still alive. It’s kinda comical, so insane… but it would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
Wade was a 19-year-old student at Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke – “aiming for a career in cardiothoracic medicine” – when a bad break-up inspired songwriting at a level that made her want to get a band together. She advertised on Craigslist and invited two friends to meet the applicants.
“It was such a dumb idea. I’m 5ft 2in. My friends were about the same size. And we all just went rolling over to some stranger’s house, down into an older guy’s basement! I’ve got sisters aged 10, nine and five now. I’d be horrified if they did anything that stupid! You could be interviewing my mum for some true crime podcast now.”
Although the band (who became Morgan Wade & The Stepbrothers) turned out to be a great fit, Wade’s nerves meant she accepted a beer they offered. “I had never sung in front of anybody else before. That beer was liquid courage.”
Soon, she had snagged herself a fake ID and was drinking before every show. “I was never sloppy on stage,” she says, “but I always had one or two shots first, some beers. Things could and did get messy afterwards. I’d black out.” There was a history of alcoholism in Wade’s family and her mother was “very worried about me”.
The drinking escalated once Wade turned 21. “I had two settings: not drinking or super-drunk. Nothing in between.” As a homebody, she struggled with touring and one boozy trip to New York proved her final bender. She recalls sitting on the kitchen floor of an Airbnb with suicidal thoughts swilling around her brain and realised she’d have to quit. “I remember feeling hungover for about a month afterwards.”
She returned to music with a real commitment to building a career. In 2018, Morgan Wade & The Stepbrothers released a short record, Puppets with My Heart.
Later that year, she was paired with the solo artist Sadler Vaden. “Sadler was looking to produce and he encouraged me to dig deeper into my songs,” she says. “Other people hear my accent and think ‘country’, he hears the rock and punk and pop potential in me. I’m interested in going in all of those directions. Shania Twain opened the door for artists like Taylor Swift to get played on country and pop radio.”
Although Reckless stays mostly in the rock groove, it is loaded with hooks that could easily translate to pop. “Wilder Days” tells the story of a young woman’s obsession with an older man (“You say you hate the smell of cigarette smoke/ You only used to smoke when you drank…”), while “Last Cigarette” (my favourite) is layered with exhilarating backing vocals that mimic a nicotine rush.
Wade believes “the internet has broken down the boundaries between genres”. She adds: “It’s allowed us to call time on a lot of the sexism in country music… all the industry types telling women what to wear and how to act. I haven’t experienced anything like that. If some guy told me I wasn’t ‘feminine’ enough, I’d post about it on social media and [he’d] get chewed out.”
Releasing her debut into the stillness of the pandemic has made Wade hungry for the road. “Staying sober means keeping myself busy,” she says. “So I find a gym, a coffee shop and a good book store every time. I love self-help books. I figure if I read enough of ’em, something will stick!” She is coming to the UK for the C2C festival in March and says we should be prepared for shows that “shake up old ideas” of country music.
“One of my favourite things to play live is our cover of Elvis’s ‘Suspicious Minds’ mashed up with AC/DC’s ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’. Nobody expects a short, shy country girl to belt that out.” She laughs. “But I’m here to throw people off!”
Reckless: Deluxe Edition is out now