William Michael Morgan
Heritage, Values & Country Music
by Garrett Thomas, Communications Specialist

A stage.

It is a simple elevated surface. It is wood. It is steel. But it is also a relationship. To stand on it, to stand behind it, to stand in front of it.

It connects – a constant rhythm, tattooed through our culture.

To stand behind it, hands dirty and heart filled with pride at what you created. To stand in front of it, eyes brimming with anticipation. To stand on it, as William Michael Morgan so often does, looking out at the people whose lives are now connected to the stage, and him – recognizing that he now resides in the place where countless strangers and more than a few idols have made their mark on the world. Many have stood on a stage and shared their minds or put their soul on display to the world and in doing so, have become a part of the story of that stage.

With a little poetry in your soul, a stage quickly becomes more than a simple elevated platform. It is a physical manifestation of memories, ideas and traditions. For him, it’s a moment frozen in time; his boots resonating on the familiar planks worn bare with the heritage of those whose footsteps you trace. Men like Frater Les Paul, the jazz, country and blues guitarist, songwriter, luthier, inventor and icon – a pioneer of the solid-body electric guitar. Fraters Phillip and Don Everly of The Everly Brothers notoriety. Frater Willie Nelson needs no introduction, of course. As is the case with Frater Elvis Presley.

All Tekes, all icons, and all have stood upon the same Opry stage as Frater Morgan and spoken the same words that he has now spoken – crooning well-known country classics, sure, but also the bond of TKE.

When you’re in the business of standing on stages, the physical surfaces come and go. The poetry and the sense of connection doesn’t. The heritage behind those moments has weight. William is not one to overlook heritage. It’s in his music, so often compared to country greats like George Strait. But most potently, it’s in his nature and the way he speaks. He makes the time to be courteous and to be con- siderate of what it means to connect with others.

He made time to fly into Orlando for Conclave 2019; to stand on our simple stage, a mere ten-foot by ten-foot platform reserved for our newest initiates. Because of his nature, he made time to stand on this straightforward stage, erected only a few hours earlier. He made time to connect with 120 years of heritage. Because heritage and values are a part of who he is.

“It was not hard for me to get on board,” he shared, explaining that when he learned about TKE, it was clear to him that our values aligned with his own.

A few days, between arena stages with the Alan Jackson Tour and the iconic stage of the Grand Ole Opry’s Ryman Auditorium, now connect the young singer to the history and the values of Tau Kappa Epsilon – like the well-worn planks of the Ryman Auditorium connect him to renowned musicians and his musical heroes. In those moments on our stage, the young singer’s face, all smiles and laughter in the hall outside, became somber with the weight of that connection – one of love, charity and esteem…but also music.

From the very beginning, Founders Clarence A. Mayer and C. Roy Atkinson set a melody to our TKE heritage. Mayer, a musician of great natural ability and exceptional training. Atkinson, a “quiet young man but a fine singer” with a passion for music. Our archives carry song books from every generation of TKE and our scrolls list the names of many of the greats.

And while they may not share an Opry stage, Morgan now also finds himself sharing a bond with other musical greats from every genre. Tony F. Butala, leader of The Lettermen, every member of which are also Tekes; Robby Hauldren, one half of the duo Louis the Child; Mark Watters, a six-time Emmy Award-winning composer and conductor; Steven Zhu, better known by his stage name ZHU, an electronic music producer and singer.

As Morgan prepared to join the bond of Tau Kappa Epsilon, he mingled in the main conference hall. Shaking hands, posing for photos and bonding with his soon to be brothers. Soft-spoken, courteous to a fault and genuinely interested in the person behind every hand he shook, Morgan exudes traditional country music culture. With every smile given and handshake received, the Vicksburg Mississippi native’s genuine southern charm filled the hall.

“Man, I’ll tell you what, that experience that night was second to none. It was so… it was so awesome. Being just welcomed immediately by everyone,” Morgan shares over the phone. Though a month has passed, there is still excitement in his voice.

[Tekes are] just so accepting and so welcoming. I didn’t meet a stranger. And so many different types of people. All rolled into one and just having a good time. That’s, you know what, that’s what life’s all about.

When attending a significant TKE event, it becomes clear to others what each Frater already knows. We use not for wealth, rank or honor as our way of describing how TKE has never had an exclusionary clause – how we have always strived to be at the forefront of the fraternal world. This was on full display at Conclave and Morgan felt it, saying, “they’re just so accepting and so welcoming. I didn’t meet a stranger. And so many different classes of people. All rolled into one and just having a good time. That’s, you know what, that’s what life’s all about. I think that’s what everyone should be doing.”

Sitting on a small stage, sharing in the largest ritual of TKE with hundreds of other Tekes, Morgan appeared to have the same emotions many of us have. Excitement upon entering followed closely by intense respect for tradition, followed again by smiles and laughter upon connecting with your new family. Not unlike his description of playing at the Grand Ole Opry for the first time.

“You know what, about that stage. It’s the coolest thing. Being an artist, looking up to all the other artist who have been there. I mean my heroes, gosh dang they’ve played that stage so many times. That’s really the only stage I get nervous on. I get anxious, obviously, to play every show. And I’m ready to do it and ready to get up there and play some music. There’s just something about the Opry that puts the nerves in ya.”

Spending time with his young daughter, Presley, while on a break from the Alan Jackson Tour, Morgan made time to talk with THE TEKE.

At eighteen, after a childhood spent playing music and dreaming of following in the footsteps of his heroes, Morgan moved to Nashville to pursue his dream. And then a lot happened in a very short time.

At nineteen, when many of us were only just learning about college life, he signed his first record deal. Morgan’s first single, “I Met a Girl,” was released in July 2015, and quickly rose in the country charts. By September of that year, he made his first appearance at the chapel of his heroes when he was booked to play at the Grand Ole Opry for the first time. In 2016, he welcomed his daughter Presley into the world. That same year, his first album, Vinyl, was released.

For Morgan, a lot of life happened very quickly. Now 26, he has grown a lot, but some things won’t change – Opry jitters, for instance.

“Looking out, before you even get on the stage really. I mean, it’s like haunting. It’s just all these emotions of I’m scared; I’m nervous; I’m anxious; I’m ready to do this thing; am I gonna sound okay?"

Despite his nerves, the Opry always feels like home to him. In many ways that Opry sound, given life by many of Morgan’s influences, performers like Keith Whitley and George Jones, is as familiar as family.

“I tell you what. It definitely feels like a family. I tell you that much. That’s one thing I love about it. I love that everyone’s got your back. You know? They want to hear your music, and they want to celebrate with you when you hit the high points in your career.”

From the very beginning of Morgan’s career, even before he released his first EP, he had a place at the Opry. With a sound that has been compared to country legends, many journalists are quick to add labels like ‘traditional’ to the music he makes. Though far too humble to agree with comparisons to the king of country, he is, nonetheless, confident in the music he makes.

“My heart lies with traditional country music, the lyrics, the melodies, and the way that it moves people,” he confesses. To hear him talk, his connection to the roots of country music runs deep. As it should. He started playing gigs before he even learned to drive. Relying on family to take him to wherever he could book.

“I’ve always looked up to people that’ve played that more traditional sound. Like George Strait, Merle Haggard, Keith Whitley, George Jones, gosh, Mark Chesnutt, gosh I could just go on and on and on about some of my influences.” The excitement in his voice as he rattles off the names isn’t forced. It’s genuine affection for the musicians who shaped his world. Without missing a beat, the Mississippi accent rolls right into another story about jitters.

“Speaking of George Jones. It was his birthday the other night. We played the Ryman. I did ‘Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,’ a George Jones song, in tribute to him. Talk about feeling the jitters then,” laughs Morgan. It’s a poignant reminder of where Morgan is currently positioned in his career.

In the song, Jones sings, “You know this old world is full of singers, but just a few are chosen.” He continues by musing on the music of Cash, Haggard and Twitty that the song reminds you of – “All your radio heroes.”

Though he doesn’t say it, the 6'2" Morgan may well be the answer to the questions in mister Jones’ song.

Who’s gonna fill their shoes?

Who’s gonna stand that tall?

Who’s gonna play the Opry?

And now, it’s Morgan’s music that is reaching out and touching people.

“It’s just different for me to hear people be influenced by my music. You know, I have had people hit me up and say, ‘man I love your music’ or ‘you inspired me to do this’ or, or, ‘we played your song at our wedding!’...and ‘you know my grandfather was going through a hard time…’ I have heard so many stories, and for them to relate my songs to what’s going on in their lives, man, that’s one of the main reasons why we do it, or why I do it at least.”

Even following the excitement of these stories, he ends on a note of sincerity, sharing that he hasn’t lost sight of how those other artists resonated with him.

“Just to think that I may have just a little bit of that for somebody else is mind-blowing,” intones Morgan.

Taking to a stage is a connection that requires an unspoken covenant. You are beholden to those who stood before you and those who will stand after you. You must believe in the work, must be passionate, because you aren’t just standing on that stage for yourself. As Morgan shared, a single word from a stage ripples throughout your audience in ways you may not foresee but will resonate with you. When performing for others, Morgan understands that for his audience, in that moment, he is the sum total and embodiment of years of musical history and meaning. The newest note in the melody of their lives. Whether it was standing on the stage at Conclave 2019, or the impromptu stage of a private acoustic set in the hotel lobby that evening, he became connected with a new song this year — the song of TKE.

For an artist like Morgan, every stage contains a heritage, and every heritage tells a story. Even with the weight of that history resting on his shoulders, he admits that he’s not trying to do something or be something that he isn’t. So, he sings the music that tells his story. His heritage. He has found the stages that suit him, and while some things in life are difficult, those stages have lent him wisdom beyond his years.

“The easy part is just staying true to who you are. No matter what you do. If you do the pop stuff, if you do the rock stuff, if you do the R&B stuff, man, if you do whatever you do, just do it. Be you.”

Next from William Michael Morgan

Morgan’s second album will be released one song at a time, letting the fans ultimately decide which songs will make the cut. Look for these new songs on Spotify and your favorite social media networks.