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Makin’ Tracks: Craig Morgan Offers a Personal Mantra With ‘How You Make a Man’

Billboard 9/20/2022 Tom Roland
© Nate Griffin

Adversity, according to an old adage, builds character.

Craig Morgan has experienced enough of it to believe it’s true. He escaped a bus fire, has pulled other people out of blazes, lost a son in a drowning accident and once broke bones in two separate motorcycle races six weeks apart – but still finished both competitions. 

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“We break bones and we get scars, but you can rest assured that that’s going to be the toughest part of you,” Morgan reasons. “It’s hard to break a bone in the same place twice because it’s so much stronger having been broke there. And the same goes with our hearts and our heads. We’re stronger people when we go through these hardships and heartaches. And I still believe that is how you make a man, that’s how you make a woman. That’s how you make a good human being.”

That’s the message in Morgan’s new single, “How You Make a Man,” a song whose chorus recognizes life’s unavoidable pain, as well as the strength required to rebound and the character it creates. 

“You’re gonna get hurt, you’re gonna get beat up, you’re gonna fail,” Morgan says. “All the things that we consider negative can and will happen to you. But that doesn’t define you. You know, ‘You hit your knees until you learn to stand’ – like the song says, get back up. Don’t let it get you down. Those things are supposed to happen.”

“How You Make A Man” was inspired by a Facebook post about the transition from restless boy to adult male. Songwriter Megan Conner thought the topic was worthy of a song, and she fashioned a series of lines under a different title, “Man Maker,” which she introduced during a Feb. 28, 2018, writing appointment at Liv Write Play, a publishing company owned in part by indie recording artist Olivia Lane. The story appealed to her co-writers: Michael August, who co-authored Erin Kinsey’s “Just Drive”; and Skip Black, credited on Edens Edge’s “Amen.”

“You’ve got to go through the dark to see the light,” Conner suggests. “You’ve got to experience the bad to get to the good. That’s what we were trying to capture in a non-cliche kind of way, saying that you have to go through the pressure to get to the diamonds.”

Black, in particular, was experiencing that reality in a personal way, enduring a rough patch in a marriage that eventually ended in divorce. He started playing an acoustic guitar figure that hung on one note, and he introduced the opening line after consulting Google.

“We were talking about the different ways you make a man, so I said – because I’m not so good with my Bible verses at all – ‘On what day did God create man?’” Black remembers. “And it was like ‘On the sixth day, God created Adam out of dust.’ Boom, there’s our first line.”

The entire first verse focused on the ways that personal instructors would explain how you make a man – in addition to the preacher’s creation story, a scientist would turn to the big bang theory, Mom might say that baby boys are a byproduct of love, and Dad would offer different advice: “Let me tell you son…”

“It was a good way to tee up that chorus,” Black suggests.

That chorus, essentially a quote from Dad about building character, featured a melodic lift and took a more commanding posture in phrasing, a contrast with the pondering cadence of the verses. And its lyrics were built on similar contrasts: “good days, bad days” and “the wars you fight, the ones you walk away from.” It’s practically a Buddhist stanza, given that one of its basic tenets – at least in the English translation – is that “life is struggle.”

“It’s being able to take the really bad, you know, and find the really good in it,” Conner surmises.

Verse 2 brought more challenge as the song’s protagonist recalls how he purchased a ring at age 22, only to lose the woman he planned it for – whether she rejected the proposal, walked away at the altar or even died is unclear. In any event, “she left a boy broken,” as the stanza’s final line puts it.

They also fashioned a short bridge, though no one remembers quite what it was, only that it didn’t really meet the moment. That nagged at Black as he sang on the demo for “Make a Man,” as they were calling it at the time. Publishing consultant Steve Bloch, asked to weigh in, thought the song wasn’t fully summarized.

“Steve Bloch is such a wise song guy,” August says. “He’s like, ‘What’s the big thing? Where’s the girl in the song? Why is this important now? To who?’ I told Skip and Megan that, and Skip literally just texted me and Megan a whole bridge, which is the bridge that’s on there now.” That version recasts all the down cycles as life lessons, noting that the singer is now “a man worth lovin’ you.”

“It just totally hit home,” August adds. “And the cool thing about it is you can interpret it as a woman, or you can interpret that as God.”

At least two artists put it on hold – one of them for almost an entire year – but neither cut it. Indie song plugger Shane Barrett stayed on it, and eventually sent “Make A Man” to producer Phil O’Donnell (Drew Parker, Aaron Watson) for Morgan. “If there ever was a song custom made for him, that’s definitely one,” O’Donnell quips.

Philbilly forwarded it to Morgan, who paused the demo after the first chorus, long enough to put it on hold. Soon after he finished listening, Morgan told O’Donnell they needed to get a session scheduled so they could record it as soon as possible.

They cut it at The Castle in Franklin, Tenn., with a band that included guitarists Brandon Hood, Jeff King and Troy Lancaster; drummer Chris McHugh; bassist Jimmie Lee Sloas; pianist Gordon Mote; and steel guitarist Mike Johnson. Two of the guitarists reworked the opening guitar to create a start-and-stop arpeggiated foundation, they nixed a Hammond B-3 part from the original demo, and they gave Johnson’s steel prominence. They also used McHugh’s power and Mote’s thoughtful piano part to heighten the drama in the bridge. Those were mostly minor changes from the guide that Black had produced.

“We just filed a couple of edges,” O’Donnell says. “That bread was buttered. I feel like we just cut the crust off and ate it. They had a great map.”

Morgan delivered the final vocal on the studio floor with the band, coordinating the interplay between singer and drums at the bridge in the process. “I always sing when we’re tracking, because I want them to know where I’m at and what I’m doing dynamically,” Morgan says. “If it works out that I’m in good vocal that day, that’s what we use. And that’s what happened on that record.”

Morgan was adamant about elongating the title to “How You Make a Man,” bringing more clarity to the song’s subject matter. Broken Bow released it to country radio via PlayMPE on Aug. 4. Its message about overcoming adversity overlaps nicely with his other 2022 efforts, including his autobiography, God, Family, Country: A Memoir, co-written with Jim DeFelice (Sept. 27, Blackstone Publishing); and the recent CBS reality competition Beyond the Edge.

“That show was another one of those moments where we’re suffering for other people,” Morgan says. “It was a good thing, and that’s what my book is about. That’s what my music is, for the most part. I have always tried to deliver that message in some way.”

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