The first time Craig Morgan sang "The Father, My Son and the Holy Ghost" was also supposed to be the last time.
The song details Morgan's difficult emotional journey following the death of son Jerry Greer, 19, in a 2016 drowning accident, and it left much of the Grand Ole Opry audience in tears in March 2019. Backstage, Morgan told Ricky Skaggs he doubted he was strong enough to perform it again.
Skaggs "put his hands on my shoulder with big tears in his eyes," recalls Morgan. "He said, 'You have to sing that song. The world needs to hear this kind of music.'"
Morgan relented. He sang it again at the Opry in July, started doing it in concerts and issued a recorded version in August. Blake Shelton aggressively championed the song on social media, spurring Morgan to sign with Broken Bow and release it to radio on Sept. 16.
"Not only does 'The Father, My Son and the Holy Ghost' put life in this insane world back in perspective," wrote Shelton, "it could also put country music back in its lane."
Indeed, after several years in which terrestrial country radio leaned hard on party sounds and themes, Morgan is one of several artists creating a wave of deep, meaningful material. During a 24-hour window on Aug. 26 and 27, three theme-heavy songs by A-list artists were released to radio through PlayMPE: Eric Church's "Monsters," which examines parenting a child in a dangerous world; and two songs that face mortality, Chris Young's "Drowning" and Luke Combs' "Even Though I'm Leaving."
They're not the only examples. Justin Moore topped the Country Airplay chart on Sept. 7 with "The Ones That Didn't Make It Back Home," a song about soldiers who died in battle, accompanied by a video that incorporates first responders and school shootings. Riley Green's new "I Wish Grandpas Never Died" laments the deaths of people and pets, as well as the decline of the family farm. Tenille Townes' "Jersey on the Wall (I'm Just Asking)" uses the accidental death of a high school athlete to raise unanswerable questions. And Vince Gill's new album, Okie, tackles racial and political division, teen pregnancy, religion and sexual abuse.
"In this stretch of life we're in, I don't see a lot of truth, I don't see a lot of honesty, I don't see that kind of thing from people that are supposed to be taking care of us," Gill told an industry crowd at a listening party in May. "So I'm just trying to be fairly honest and let the chips fall where they may."
Country has usually had a place — as Brad Paisley outlined in "This Is Country Music" — for difficult subjects such as death, faith and disease. Those darker songs have often challenged programmers, though the biggest ones — such as "Live Like You Were Dying," "He Stopped Loving Her Today" or "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" — have become standards in the genre.
"Kenny Rogers told me a hit song makes your toe tap, your heart pound or your mind think," says BMLG Records president/CEO Jimmy Harnen, who worked The Band Perry's weighty "If I Die Young," certified seven-times platinum by the RIAA. "It's good when you feel your heart ache or you feel your heart pound. It's what music does — it moves the society, and it's one of the most powerful forces in the world when we get it right."
The bro-country era, which leaned on party themes and programmed percussion, brought a downturn to serious songs. The genre welcomed a bevy of new, young listeners to the genre, and the industry's decision-makers reacted by flooding the market with light, celebratory material. The new wave of meatier songs does not wipe out candy-coated material, but it brings necessary balance to the menu.
"I'm always looking for songs that strike an emotional chord, and for a long time it was tough to find them," says KUKN Longview-Kelso, Wash., GM John Paul. "I'm not saying the [party] songs were bad, they were just plastic. They weren't songs that had you go, ‘Whoa, that's me' or ‘I've been through that,' or make you stop and stare at the radio. These [new] songs do that."
This particular wave is likely a result of multiple influences. As the calendar moves into fall, labels traditionally issue more serious songs. The business also cycles through trends, and after leaning so heavily on surface-level songs, the pendulum is naturally drifting back toward deeper topics. Additionally, a difficult cultural climate — marked by gun violence, racial tension, childish rhetoric, climate change and the threat of a recession — has made many Americans uneasy. Much of the negativity is experienced in isolation on smartphones or in single-commuter auto trips. Music with deeper messages assures the individual that others share their frustration.
"Country has a slew of songs that will evoke an emotion," says Valory president George Briner, who oversaw Moore's chart run with "The Ones That Didn't Make It Back Home." "Very few other formats do that as often as country radio has the opportunity to do it."
The more difficult topics can strengthen the bond between artist and fan, sometimes uncomfortably. Lee Ann Womack found with "I Hope You Dance" that people at meet-and-greets shared extraordinarily personal and painful information. Young is discovering the same thing with "Drowning."
"People have come up and immediately started sharing their stories," he says. "It's something that honestly humbles you as an artist when you've got a song that people are having such a personal connection with."
That connection is why Skaggs encouraged Morgan to keep singing "The Father, My Son and the Holy Ghost." Regardless of the chart number that it eventually reaches, the song is already making a huge impact on the audience, which is a goal — maybe even a duty — for every artist of substance.
"If you've been blessed with a platform, you should use it to the betterment of the people of the world," says Morgan. "Democrat, Republican, independent, straight, gay, black, white — it don't matter. You should be trying to do what you can do for the betterment of the human race."