While performing at FloydFest – a local music festival in her hometown of Floyd, Virginia – in 2018, budding singer-songwriter Morgan Wade managed to pass one of her CDs to the technician guitar for Jason Isbell and Unit 400. The tech kindly turned it over to Sadler Vaden, the band’s guitarist, who was immediately struck by Wade’s gritty vocals and transparent writing style. The two quickly connected and began working on what would become Wade’s quiet storm, “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 more.”
“I started playing the song at gigs, and it was the one song you could say to everyone,” Wade said. Billboard. “I knew we had a crowd favorite.”
After officially releasing the song as a single in January 2021, Wade and his team focused on selling to independent record stores, as well as steadily increasing fan engagement through Facebook Live performances. . All the while, the song made its way through indie and American-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 said.
The success of “Wilder Days” on the whole playlist allowed Wade to lean into a multi-genre approach on his 2021 debut album, Reckless, which she released independently in partnership with independent label Thirty Tigers. The 10-song collection featured a synthesis of arena-rock, pop, country and Americana, and touched on topics such as longing, grief, mental health and addiction. The album also gave “Wilder Days” another shot at breaking into the country charts.
With a debut album and rapidly growing success, Wade began to flesh out her team: she signed with WME after Vaden introduced her to Central Reservations executives, then signed 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 both sides of the story of a major label: it’s either the cautionary tale or the overnight tale,” says Sparr. “She had interest from all the major labels.” Wade adds, “A lot of people say, ‘You don’t want to go to Nashville. You have to be careful with people in the industry. But I was lucky to surround myself with good people.
Among these is Randy Goodman, president and CEO of Sony Music Nashville. “[He] we contacted him personally and coerced him into many steak dinners,” Sparr says with a laugh. “It’s your concern with a major label, that you’re going to get lost in a system, or a mass of people. There is one aspect of competition that concerns you. But in all aspects of his career, [Sony] assessed where it was and how they could add value to it, social media, DSPs, retail, advertising.
“I didn’t know what I was going to be up against as the head of a major label,” Goodman said. Billboard. “I thought to myself, ‘Are they going to see me as Darth Vader from the big label who wants to change her?’ That’s the first thing she asked me. I said, ‘You might be a big fish in the Americana pond and a big fish in the country pond, but I see you as a world star.'”
Wade’s deal with Sony Music Nashville’s Arista Nashville imprint was announced last August, and Goodman says the original plan was to let the buzz around “Wilder Days” continue to grow before officially promoting it to country radio. That changed when Sony Nashville executive vice president, artist promotion and development Steve Hodges said a few key national stations — including WDSY Pittsburgh, WKHK Richmond, WUSH Norfolk, KYGO Denver and KPLM Palm Springs — the were already playing, whether the label was ready or not. .
“We pivoted our original thinking because it’s unusual for a new artist – especially a young female artist – to have that kind of attraction from key programmers in major markets,” Goodman said. “Why would we back down on that? So we sent it on the 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 “Wilder Days” a new boost, leading to a new high of No. 36 in its 27th week on the Country Airplay chart dated May 7. As the song builds, Wade looks to the future – and is hard at work on his second album.
“I don’t want the second project to fail and I still 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 trust the process, it will come.”
A version of this story will appear in the May 14, 2022 issue of Billboard.