Inside the Slow-Burning Country Hit – Billboard

While performing at FloydFest — a local music festival in her hometown of Floyd, Virginia — in 2018, then-aspiring singer-songwriter Morgan Wade managed to pass along one of her CDs to the guitar tech for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. The tech kindly handed it off to Sadler Vaden, the band’s guitarist, who was immediately struck by Wade’s gritty voice and transparent songwriting style. The two quickly connected and started working on what would become Wade’s quiet storm of a hit, “Wilder Days.”

“As soon as I heard it, I knew the song had wings,” recalls Mary Sparr, Wade’s manager. “It resonated so much that we knew if we just put the momentum behind it, it would resonate even further.”

“I started playing the song at shows, and it was the one song that you could just tell everybody connected with,” Wade tells Billboard. “I knew we had a crowd favorite.”

Morgan Wade

Morgan Wade photographed on April 25, 2022 in Nashville.
Eric Ryan Anderson

After officially releasing the song as a single in January 2021, Wade and her team focused on selling it at independent record stores, as well as steadily increasing fan engagement through Facebook Live performances. All the while, the song made its way across indie and Americana-leaning playlists to more mainstream roundups on DSPs. “It was another nod that the song could live in the country world, the rock world, the indie pop world,” Sparr says.

The playlist-spanning success of “Wilder Days” allowed Wade to lean into a multi-genre approach on her 2021 debut album, Reckless, which she independently released in partnership with indie label Thirty Tigers. The 10-song collection featured a synthesis of arena-rock, pop, country and Americana, and addressed topics including desire, heartbreak, mental health and addiction. The album also gave “Wilder Days” another chance to break through on the country charts.

With a debut album and quickly growing hit on her hands, Wade began adding to her team: she signed with WME after Vaden introduced her to executives at the booking powerhouse, and later inked a publishing deal with UMPG Nashville. But she and Sparr were determined to stay away from a major label deal until they knew they had found the right home.

“You hear two sides of the major label story: It’s either the cautionary tale or the made it overnight tale,” Sparr says. “She had interest from every major label.” Adds Wade: “A lot of people say, ‘You don’t want to go to Nashville. You gotta be careful around industry people.’ But I’ve been fortunate to surround myself with good people.”

Morgan Wade

Morgan Wade, left, and Mary Sparr photographed on April 25,2022 in Nashville.
Eric Ryan Anderson

Of those is Randy Goodman, Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO. “[He] reached out personally and we forced him into many steak dinners,” Sparr says with a laugh. “That’s your concern with a major label, that you’re going to get lost in a system, or a mass amount of people. There’s a competition aspect you are concerned about. But in every aspect of her career, [Sony] assessed where she was at and how they could add value to it, from social media, DSPs, retail, publicity.”

“I didn’t know what I was going to be confronting as the head of a major label,” Goodman tells Billboard. “I thought, ‘Are they going to see me as Darth Vader from the big label wanting to change her?’ That was the first thing she asked me about. I said, ‘You could be a big fish in the Americana pond and a big fish in the country pond, but I see you as a global star.’”

Wade’s deal with Sony Music Nashville’s Arista Nashville imprint was announced last August, and Goodman says that the initial plan had been to let the buzz around “Wilder Days” continue to build before they officially promoted it to country radio. That changed when Sony Nashville executive vp, promotion and artist development Steve Hodges said a few key country stations — including WDSY Pittsburgh, WKHK Richmond, WUSH Norfolk, KYGO Denver and KPLM Palm Springs — were already playing it, whether or not the label was ready.

“We pivoted our original thinking because it is unusual for a new artist — particularly a young female artist — to have that kind of pull from key programmers in major markets,” Goodman says. “Why would we pull back on that? So we sent it to radio.”

Following the official radio push last fall, the track debuted on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart in early November, and Wade kicked off 2022 with the release of the Reckless deluxe version, which included six new songs. The new edition gave yet another push to “Wilder Days,” leading to a new No. 36 high in its 27th week on the May 7-dated Country Airplay chart. As the song builds, Wade is looking ahead — and hard at work on her second album.

“I don’t want the second project to flop and I always want to have a song like ‘Wilder Days’ that people connect with, but I also know you can’t force it,” Wade admits. “If I just trust the process, it will come.”

Morgan Wade

Morgan Wade photographed on April 25, 2022 in Nashville.
Eric Ryan Anderson

A version of this story will appear in the May 14, 2022, issue of Billboard.

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