A decade ago, reggae musician Roy “Gramps” Morgan got off a tour bus and took to the Ryman Auditorium stage.
Beyond its name and the fact that it was a beautiful venue, Morgan says he didn’t know much about Nashville’s most legendary venue, often referred to as “The Mother Church of Country Music” for its connection with the Grand Ole Opry. It wasn’t his tour, after all: he’d joined R&B star India Arie on the road after collaborating on the hit duo “Therapy”.
What he knew: singing on this stage, in this city, for an engaged and music-loving audience, it was really, really good.
“Something struck me that day at Ryman that said, ‘This is where you belong. This is where it starts. It’s your new journey, ”Morgan remembers today. “It was like a gospel.”
Basking in the stage lights and generous applause, he made a bold and impulsive proclamation that night – straight into his microphone.
“I’m moving to Nashville! he said, and the cheers rose again.
Then Morgan went to the dealer table to meet the fans and sign autographs. He quickly found himself overrun by real estate agents.
Shortly after this tour ended, he hopped on his Harley Davidson and left Atlanta for Franklin, Tennessee, an affluent suburb of Nashville that’s home to countless country and Christian music stars – and now a member of Grammy-winning reggae royalty.
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“It’s a bet, isn’t it?” “
Morgan is the son of Jamaican reggae hitmaker Denroy Morgan, who found success in the United States with songs like “I’ll Do Anything For You” from 1981. For nearly 30 years, Gramps and two of his many brothers and sisters played in family group Morgan Heritage, which won their first Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album in 2016.
Since moving to the Nashville area, Morgan has found himself explaining to his friends, neighbors and fellow musicians the strong and surprising connections between country music and reggae.
His daring new album “Positive Vibration” is a pure celebration of those connections – a space where steel drums and steel pedal guitars lick each other, while Morgan sings a conch-filled track he calls the “conky- tonk “.
Hear waves crashing over banjo plunks as special guest Shaggy invites listeners to do “whatever floats on your boat” and “A Woman Like You” combines an infectious island rhythm with the beating heart of a country ballad.
“I think it brings those two worlds together perfectly,” Morgan says. “Because musically, it’s a gamble, isn’t it? A lot of people have said, “How are you going to make this work? But when they heard ‘A woman like you’ they were like ‘Whoa! Grandpa, what have you done? And I’m like, ‘It’s not me. This is the universe. ‘”
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Country and reggae connections
Along with reggae, country music was also the soundtrack to Morgan’s formative years. Growing up, Sundays in his house were “Rice and Peas Days,” when his family broke bread while songs like Randy Travis’s “Forever and Ever, Amen” were played on the stereo.
“Country music is an integral part of my DNA,” he says.
The storytelling and spirituality of the genre gained a receptive audience in Jamaica in the mid-20th century. One of Bob Marley’s first singles was a cover of Claude Gray’s 1961 country hit “I’ll Just Have a Cup of Coffee (Then I’ll Go)”. Kenny Rogers was greeted like a king when he first performed in Jamaica in 2004, after songs like “The Gambler” lasted there for decades.
And the legendary reggae group Toots & the Maytals – led by family friend “Toots” Hibbert, whom Morgan grew up nicknamed “Uncle Toots” – took over “Country Roads” shortly after John Denver’s version was broadcast on the airwaves.
Right before moving to Nashville, Morgan had dipped his toes into the country world, covering Alabama’s “Feels So Right” for the compilation album “Reggae’s Gone Country”. But he didn’t really take the plunge until he met another transplanted Nashville from a far away land: Scottish-born artist, songwriter and producer Johnny Reid.
The unlikely duo met at a Nashville Predators game, and it didn’t take long for them to create songs from Reid’s Soultrain Sound Studio in Berry Hill.
“This relationship is going to be a catalyst to really help people say, ‘Tell me your story, man. What have you been going through? ‘ Morgan says. “And if we know each other’s story, we will have remorse, feelings, care and love.”
‘Bring people together’
With Shaggy, “Positive Vibration” features appearances from India Arie and Jamaican dancehall star Lybran, and on “Secret To Life” Morgan sings with his father Denroy and son, Jemere Morgan.
But unlike other genre-mixing albums made in Nashville, you won’t find any country star cameos. Morgan says he’s open to such a collaboration but adds that the way “Positive Vibration” turned out is a testament to the fact that it’s an album made by people, not the industry.
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He’s more interested in real friendships – in fact, he got to know country superstar Luke Bryan, while their sons play on the same basketball team. And he thinks more collaborations are on the horizon, but as his song says, “the secret to life is taking it one day at a time.”
“I can’t get this vision out of my head and the sound of having my steel guitarist, and my violinist next to me on stage, and a bassist from Jamaica,” Morgan said. “And I’m saying this sound is gonna change the world. It’s gonna help bring people together who don’t realize we have more in common than we think.”
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