With a voice that’s unmistakably Appalachian and skin covered in tattoos, Morgan Wade is one of the singer/songwriters that is part of a musical forefront that, in the past few years has taken over Nashville, Texas and other places alike. Honing a sound too gritty to be country, and carrying too much of a twang to be rock, I suppose you could say, Morgan Wade, falls somewhere in the Alt country side of things.
Born and raised in the small town of Floyd, VA in the heart of the Appalachian mountains, the town has a modest population of 442 people, with the main source of the town’s popularity being FloydFest, the yearly music festival right off the Blue Ridge Parkway that brings in just over 14,000 people each year to the town, which Morgan and her band played last year and will be playing again this year. Although she plays guitar and sings now, her first instrument surprisingly was the classical violin. She attended lesson’s for what she thought was going to be fiddle but, turned out to be a classical violin class at the age of 8 and played recitals for several years before making it known to her teacher and her mom that the violin was not for her and she wanted a guitar. Morgan remembers her teacher saying to her mom that “if she can’t stick with violin then it would be a waste to buy her a guitar”, so her mom listened to the teacher and didn’t buy her a guitar but, Morgan’s grandmother did. After that, she taught herself a few chords and would sing and write but not show anybody, due to the fact she thought she couldn’t sing. Throughout her teenage years, she would play and sing in her bedroom while nobody was home. It wasn’t until she met her now boyfriend and band member, Joe Link that anybody ever said to her “I bet you can sing can’t you?”, and she’s been singing, that is in front of people ever since.
Just like any good southern girl, she grew up with a slight obsession with Elvis Presley, he was one of her first influences when she started music and she still looks up to the king today. With her saying the week before we met and did this interview she was sick in bed for a few days and all she watched was Elvis documentary. Though she grew up with a strong bluegrass influence as well, Floyd is also known for their old-time country store where they host bluegrass jamborees every Friday where Morgan as a child would fall asleep in her grandfather’s lap listening to the music. But, still staying true to being born in the 90’s Morgan has a long relationship with the music of people like Shania Twain, not to mention her first concert were The Dixie Chicks.
Playing music for years, Morgan’s first show wasn’t until she was 19, at “Dogtown” in her hometown of Floyd, her first show with her current band Morgan Wade & The Stepbrothers was there as well. Since then she has played hundreds of shows, solo and with multiple different bands up and down the east coast. Forming the current lineup was a bit of a mashup of musicians and ways of finding them. Morgan already had Joe Link her boyfriend and piano/ mandolin player in the band but she went about finding her bass player in quite possibly not the safest way for a 19 yr old girl but, she found him through Craigslist. So Morgan and 2 of her friends went to a random guys house, headed down to the basement and heard Ed Mcgee play and recruited him for her now band, there was also a drummer and guitarist there as well, they all played a few shows together and then that fizzled out, But she kept Ed, the bassist. She eventually picked up her drummer, Bengy Wagner, and guitarist, Drew Sprinkle both of which had a punk rock background in music and formed Morgan Wade & The Stepbrothers. Since then, the band has been playing for roughly a year and a half and has released their first album “Puppets With My Heart” at the beginning of this year and are gearing up for a spring/summer tour to promote the record.
If you would like to catch one of Morgan Wade’s or Morgan Wade & Stepbrothers shows head on over to their website! You can also follow them on Facebook and Instagram to keep up with their latest releases and show dates!
If you didn’t know, “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” might be one of the hardest songs to find out who the publisher is, and yes, that is probably an over-dramatic statement. The only reason I’m saying this though is because I helped participate in the wild goose chase of a search for the publisher of the said song for Seth, my brother. Seth went in and recorded this song to put on his upcoming album, and if you want to record a cover song and make any sort of profit off of it you have to pay the royalties to the publisher, artist and whoever else. Which is all well and fine, it’s giving the artist what they deserve for writing and/or performing a song, but what’s not fine is when you can’t find the publisher of said song. You see, “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” is an old blues tune that has been passed down over the years and like most old songs whether it be blues, gospel or whatever else it has been recorded by many people, and the rights to the song have been passed around many times, and they’re alternative spellings of the song as well. Some songs though, fall under a law that if it was recorded before 1923 then it is in the public domain, which means the copyright has run out on it, so no worries if you want to record it, but this song we are talking about was recorded in 1931….so that loophole doesn’t work. Anyway, after hours of looking and calling in some help (thanks, Terry V) we eventually found out who owns the publishing rights now (it was Wynwood Co. Inc. for anybody interested to know) and got the royalties paid and everything sorted out, But this isn’t about me complaining about the search for the publisher of this song it’s more about what all I learned about the song while looking for the publisher.
If you’re not familiar with “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” then you’re about to be. where the song probably gained most of its popularity today is from the 2002 movie “O’Brother Where Art Thou” in which, Tommy Johnson is a blues musician (roughly based off Robert Johnson) the main characters pick up at the crossroads while on their way to “seek the treasure” and Tommy plays the song “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” around the campfire later into the movie. Tommy Johnson is played by the real-life blues musician Chris Thomas King and Chris himself actually plays the song on the soundtrack of the movie, Which is pure gold by the way, and I highly suggest you give it a listen.
However, the first recording of this song was done in 1931, by the man who wrote it, Skip James, A Delta blues musician hailing from Bentonia, Mississippi. How the recording of this song came about was in early 1931, H.C. Spier a record store owner and a talent scout who James had auditioned for took a liking to the musicians sound, that was achieved by an open D-minor tuning and his intricate fingerpicking style. After these auditions, Speir’s had James travel to Grafton, Wisconsin under the record label Paramount Records where he recorded “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” in a chair factories attic that was made into a makeshift studio. He recorded 18 tracks in one night including songs he wrote like “Devil Got My Woman” and “22-20 Blues” (the basis of Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues”). The recordings done at Paramount Records by James had a very divergent sound of the typical blues musicians at the time and were the cornerstone of his music career. Due to the recordings being released during The Great Depression, sales were next to none, and James was let go from Paramount Records and retreated back to Mississippi where he was a choir director and preacher in a church for years. During the 60s though, blues enthusiasts rediscovered Skip James and his career revitalized during this period with new artists covering his songs. Cream and Deep Purple both covered his song “I’m So Glad”. Then in 2002 with Chris Thomas King recording “Hard Times Floor Killing Blues” for the soundtrack for “O’Brother Where Art Thou” and in 2011 Gregg Allman covered “Devil Got My Woman” and many other musicians have covered different Skip James songs since.
Later recordings of “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” were done by RL Burnside, on his “Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down” album that was released in 2000 but, with the alternative spelling “Hard Times Killing Floor”. Along with Burnside, Martin Simpson covered the song as well, on his 1986 instrumental album “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, he put it on his album with the alternative spelling as well. The Documentary film directed by Wim Wenders and produced by Martin Scorsese “The Soul Of A Man” is the second installment of the documentary film series “The Blues”, the film tells the story about the lives and musical careers of blues musicians Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and JB Lenoir. “The Soul Of A Man” features performances honoring the lives of these three blues musicians, artists like Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, and T-Bone Burnett played and Lucinda Williams did a cover of “Hard Times Killing Floor”.
Cliff Miller is the owner of SE Systems based out of Greensboro, NC. He has been doing the sound for countless musicians and been on tour with a few of them as well. Cliff, from an early age, has always been interested in music. In fact in Junior High when he had to write down what he wanted his profession to be, he put musical technician, which he jokingly said is now just a basic sound guy. With hopes of being a musical technician, he started playing guitar in a few different bands in high school and the setlist ranged to anything from Iron Butterfly to Eddie Floyd in the bands.Between his junior & senior year of high school, he attended technical school and got his Third, Second, and First Class Radio license, he was on his way to becoming a musical technician. At 19 Cliff started working at a local music store in Asheboro selling and
servicing instruments and other equipment, along with playing in multiple bands during the course of his high school years and into his 20s. During his time working at the music store and playing in different bands every weekend, he took on another side job, being a sound guy, mostly for small bluegrass festivals and it eventually became his full-time job for several years. Early on, at one of the bluegrass festivals where he was running sound, he had the chance to meet Merle Watson for the first time and later on in the day met Doc Watson and instantly hit it off. The next time Cliff would see the father/son duo would be at the same festival the next year where he was running sound for the second year. The Watson’s brought their newly formed band “Frosty Morn” and were already on the road touring. A few weeks after his second time seeing Merle and Doc and running sound for them he would get a call to be the full-time sound man on the road for the band. It was at this point Cliff quit at the music store and became an almost full-time sound man.
It was in ‘72 Cliff went on the road with the Watson’s and their band, touring the U.S. and
Canada. During this course of time, he became great friends with both of the music legends. With being a musician himself and hearing their set every other night, it wasn’t any wonder he knew every song, and how to play them too. This knowledge of all the songs came in handy at Bluegrass ‘77 in Toronto, Canada when Merle had injured his hand and couldn’t play. Doc asked Cliff to temporarily fill in for Merle on guitar and let Merle, with an injured hand run sound that night. One show turned into two and Cliff ended up being Doc’s guitar playing for 7 years. During Cliff’s time on the road with the Watson’s, at the age of 21, he started a small sound system business called SE Systems out of his parent’s back porch. in the year ‘73. The business at the time made sound systems and eventually in cabinet speakers. When he was touring, his parents were very supportive of him and his business and helped out with the early stages of SE Systems when he wasn’t there, The back porch business after time grew and expanded, to a new building that Cliff and his dad built a 2,500 sq ft from an old Hosiery mill building slab that Cliff’s father owned in Asheboro. This building is where he started working on PA equipment himself. SE Systems was growing and so was Merle and Doc Watson, with both on his plate Cliff managed to start and grow his new company while on the road. It wasn’t until He got married and had his daughter that he would cut back on his touring schedule and focus on SE Systems and his family, that would keep him closer to home for the time being. Now being off the road SE Systems was growing out of the small time backyard company outfit and into one of the biggest sound system companies on the east coast.
In ‘88 Cliff’s business was still steadily growing when he got a call from B. Townes, telling Cliff he wanted to start a memorial festival in Merle Watson’s honor and he needed sound. The memorial was far bigger than anyone imagined, they sold more tickets then they had seats in the auditorium, in which they moved the whole event to an old softball field and used a few flatbed trailers as the stage. Friends of Merle’s and Doc’s both volunteered to play, a few who volunteered were Chet Atkins, Earl Scruggs, Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Grandpa Jones and many more musicians came to give their time and talent in Merle’s honor and to raise money for The Garden of The Senses, a garden that had plaques that read in braille so the blind could read about the plants. After the event, Cliff got a call from a lady who attended and she was asking when the next “MerleFest” was. Now it has grown into a yearly festival put on in the mountains of North Carolina that SE System provides sound, lighting, video, and staging at the end of April each year.
In ‘92 S.E. Systems outgrew their building for the second time and changed their location to Greensboro, NC in a 10,000 sq ft building and then rented the building next to it which was 6,000 sq ft. They eventually ran out of space in those to building and moved to their current location 2000 to a 57,000 sq ft building, and at the time they bought it Cliff thought they would never be able to fill up, but now is overflowing with various production equipment, for SE Systems to use at jobs along with equipment in their showroom for their customers. One of the acts SE Systems met and would do sound for when they were in the area was Alison Krauss. In 2000 the movie “O’brother Where Art Thou” was released along with the famous soundtrack to the movie, that featured musicians like Alison Krauss herself, Emmylou Harris, The Stanley Brother, and many more notable people. The soundtrack was just as popular as the movie, almost all the musicians who were featured on the soundtrack of the movie agreed to a tour together called “Down From The Mountain”. Denise Stiff, who was Alison’s manager at the time called Cliff up and asked if they would be willing to run the sound for the ‘Down From The Mountain” tour, Cliff agreed and went on the road again, but this time with Alison Krauss and other Legendary bluegrass and traditional players. After This tour, Cliff became Alison’s Production manager and engineer while on her solo and/or band tours. They did that for a few years then a second tour for the “O’brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack got put in the works, this was “Great High Mountain” which was a variation of the “Down From the Mountain” tour. The last few years Cliff has gotten off the road due to health issues caused by kidney problems and was put on the donor list for a kidney transplant. In 2016, after countless friends got tested and turned down to be a donor, one of their friends was a match and in November underwent kidney transplant surgery with no complications.
Today SE Systems is still growing and doing jobs for all different types of events. They have the sales group where they handle all the sales in both the Greensboro and Charlotte stores, the production crew that does concerts and handle the sound, lighting, staging, video, and anything else that is needed at the event. Then they have what they call the installation side where for example last year they re-did all the interior speakers for the Bank of America stadium. Both of Cliff’s children work for the company now, along with 35 full-time employees and 30 part-time employees. His son is head of fabrication building all the road cases and anything else needed for a job. His daughter traveled with Cliff while on tour with Alison Krauss and would be Cliff’s go to for anything he needed. She mixes Front of House, Stage monitors, and mixes orchestras along with other shows and ball games as well.