By Michael Davis (B.A. ’03)
By Michael Davis (B.A. ’03)
efore traveling to northern England as a college sophomore, Lauren Morrow had rarely performed in public. She began learning guitar and writing songs while in high school in her hometown of Kennesaw, Ga., but was painfully shy about sharing her music.
That changed in fall 2005, when she began a Georgia State University study-abroad program that took her to Newcastle, U.K., for two semesters. Already a committed Anglophile, she joined the program usually reserved for English and history majors already farther along in their degree programs. She had no idea the impact it would have on her life and career.
Taking the stage for the first time to perform her own songs at a tribute concert dedicated to the legendary English DJ John Peel, Morrow grabbed an acoustic guitar, sat behind a microphone in an English club and delivered a three-song set that also included “Georgia On My Mind.”
“I was very shy about playing for people and would only ever sing in my closet or for my closest friends,” Morrow says. “But when I got back from the U.K., that’s when I really wanted to start a band and play music.”
By the time she graduated, she was in her second band.
For a decade Morrow was the centerpiece of the Atlanta-based country-Americana band The Whiskey Gentry, performing alongside her now-husband Jason Morrow at more than 150 shows a year around the U.S. and Europe. The band recorded three studio albums and a live record, and appeared on the bill at festivals such as Shaky Knees, Shaky Boots and Merlefest.
Morrow’s first full-length solo record, “People Talk,” was released March 31. It’s the culmination of three years of work and a step in a new sonic direction for the songwriter, who collaborated with her husband and with Nashville-based producer Parker Cason.
The songs lean away from the country-Americana she’s known for, and showcase the breadth of her influences. While The Whiskey Gentry featured banjos and mandolins, Lauren Morrow songs can run the gamut from drum machines and synthesizers to electric guitars and swelling orchestral string sections.
“Just because I can sing country doesn’t mean I want to all the time,” Morrow says. “That’s not a lot of what I was influenced by as a child. I have a lot of ’90s alternative and indie rock influences from growing up and being in college.”
Much like she found the open arms of the Nashville music scene welcoming when she and Jason moved there in 2017, Morrow found a home at Georgia State as a student. While classmates at North Cobb High School were excited to go off to college in more traditional campus settings, Morrow had her eye on Georgia State’s downtown location.
Though she was initially denied enrollment due to a low SAT math score, she later took the ACT and was accepted. The “unintentional gap year,” as she calls it, only reinforced her desire to go to college.
“I knew that I wanted to go to Georgia State,” she says. “I knew it was the only option that would fit my personality.”
At first majoring in journalism, Morrow learned of the Joint Studies Program with the University of Northumbria in Newcastle when a high school friend, Eileen Tilson (B.A. ’05), enrolled. Morrow visited Tilson in the U.K. and changed her major to English so she could go, too.
“I made it my mission to be able to go do it, and I basically begged my way into going as a sophomore,” Morrow says. “I’d always wanted to live over there and I got the opportunity to do it for free because of the HOPE Scholarship, which paid the tuition.”
While in Newcastle with four other Georgia State students from fall 2005 through spring 2006, Morrow emersed herself in English culture while living on campus at Northumbria. It was a Northumbria student living two floors below her, James Tate, who accompanied her onstage with an electric guitar at that life-changing gig.
To this day, Morrow says, she remains close to the classmates she traveled with and describes it as a defining experience — and one that encouraged her to start her first band, Missy Gossip and the Secret Keepers, when she got home in 2006.
“Throwing yourself out of everything that’s comfortable definitely makes you grow up,” Morrow says. “The five of us are dear friends still and stay in touch with each other. It was such a sweet, special time for all of us — being scared and being weird and out of place, but also learning how to navigate living in a different country.”
Lauren Morrow and her band perform in Nashville March 31 during the release show for her full-length debut album, "People Talk." Photos by Jace Kartye.
In Missy Gossip and later in The Whiskey Gentry, which formed just before she graduated from Georgia State, Morrow honed her craft as a songwriter and developed her persona as a performer.
A student of British culture while studying abroad and deeply steeped in American culture back at home during the second year of the exchange program, when nearly a dozen Northumbria students were in the states, Morrow mined her studies for subject matter.
“Some of the classes I took at Georgia State really inspired my writing for The Whiskey Gentry,” she says, noting a professor played one of her songs for a class during a discussion of folk ballads and Appalachian music traditions.
But as The Whiskey Gentry began to end its decade-long run, an old friend plotted to help Morrow launch the next phase of her career.
Tilson, who had moved to Nashville to work in the music industry, by 2017 was vice president of marketing for Oh Boy Records, co-founded by legendary singer-songwriter John Prine and his manager Al Bunetta in 1981.
When the label was organizing a fundraising concert to help a local artist with medical expenses, Tilson saw a way to introduce Morrow to the Nashville community. She booked The Whiskey Gentry to play the show.
“I was watching them in Atlanta doing their thing and I told Lauren, ‘You’re hitting a glass ceiling there,’” Tilson says. “I just knew she had to be here, and I knew once she got here, she would love it and she would flourish. And my masterplan worked. To Lauren and Jason’s credit, they seamlessly fell into Nashville.”
Less than a year after moving to Music City, Morrow had released a self-titled EP listed among 2018’s “Best of” by both Rolling Stone and Garden & Gun magazines.
In 2019 she hit the studio again to work on her first solo full-length album. In the downtime between the production of “People Talk” and its release last month, she dropped the single “Talk Tonight,” a cover of the Oasis B-side and a nod to her 1990s U.K. influences.
To Tilson, who has watched Morrow’s career as both a friend and an industry professional, Morrow is becoming the songwriter and performer she set out to be back in Newcastle.
“England allowed us to experiment with the kind of person we wanted to be. You’re allowed to break out of the shell that everyone else knew you as,” Tilson says. “And I think England did that for her. We all sort of knew she had a gift — her voice is impeccable — and she came back ready to use it.”
Before a string of U.S. tour dates this spring to promote “People Talk,” which includes a stop at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Ga., June 30, Morrow will tour Sweden and Norway through April and May, capping off the run with a show at the Green Note in London.
“Which is a big deal for me,” Morrow says. “This will be my first headlining gig in the U.K. and it feels like I’ve been waiting for this since, well, the Northumbria program.”
Left side of top: Photo by Jace Kartye; Right side of top: Photo by Mike Dunn