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The WDVX Blue Plate Special – 6/20 – Noel McKay / Josh Morningstar

June 20 @ 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm

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When preparing for an album, some songwriters carve out specific times in a day to sit down and work on music. Not Josh Morningstar. The Maryland native is constantly writing songs—while he’s driving, while he’s on the road, while he’s at home—and stockpiling ideas for future tunes.

“I’m pretty much always writing in some form or fashion,” he says. “It’s not like, ‘Okay, June 1, I’m going to sit down and I’m going to spend the next 10 days writing a record.’ That’s not really how I operate. I just write, and write, and write, and then eventually, I’ll hit a point where I decide, ‘Okay, I probably need to record and release something.’”

Luckily, that meant Morningstar had plenty of options as he approached Josh Morningstar, his Late August Records debut and first full-length since 2018’s The Plea. Morningstar went through the abundance of recordings on his phone and picked out his favorites, the ones that he thought would go well together. “There’s some storytelling on there,” he says. “There’s love songs on there. There’s some funny songs on there. I really wanted to show the different aspects of who I am as an artist and as a songwriter—and this group of songs really represents that probably better than anything I’ve done. These songs come from my heart and my mind.”

That naturally translates to a diverse album that encompasses blazing honky-tonk with a sinewy groove (“Get By (We’re All Just Tryin’ To Make It)”), smoky blues rock with subtle organ shading (“Livin’ the Dream”), and conspiratorial folk music (“To Seek the Devil”). The songs’ arrangements are concise and elegant, decorated with just enough shading and texture to tease out subtle emotional nuance; for example, gentle piano and percussion cushion “Anywhere With You,” while desolate pedal steel and fiddle drive “Even As a Ghost.”

Morningstar recorded the album at Nashville’s Pentavarit Studios with Jay Tooke, a producer who formerly played with the Steel Woods. The two became friends after crossing paths on the road; Morningstar, who much prefers playing live to being in the studio, thought Tooke could make the recording experience an easy one. “I wanted as laid-back of an environment as possible,” he says, “and I knew Jay was a pretty laid-back guy, so I knew he’d be good for that.”

Morningstar’s instincts were right: The pair spent just two or three days laying down tracks and then an additional day polishing off three more songs. “After the first day I knew that it would be a good fit,” Morningstar says. “If a studio environment is very uptight and too professional, I feel very out of place. So it was really just Jay and I in there for the most part, and I could just be myself and try things. It was the right way to do it.”

Songwriting-wise, Morningstar was also selective about his co-writes, collaborating with Brent Cobb (“Livin’ The Dream”), Hayes Carll (“As Fast As She Can Go”), and Kendell Marvel and Waylon Payne (“Eyes on Forever”), and covering “Baltimore Jack” by Rorey Carroll. The result is an album brimming with relatable characters and lyrics that read more like rich, elegant prose. “Anywhere With You” is about treasuring what matters in a relationship—being together—while the earnest “Even As A Ghost” wears its romantic heart on its sleeve. Elsewhere, the main characters of “Get By (We’re All Just Tryin’ To Make It)” make bad decisions but are treated with empathy, as the song is a pointed critique of society’s power imbalances. “To Seek The Devil,” meanwhile, is a cautionary tale about sacrificing your morals or integrity to make dreams come true.

“Each one of those songs on the album comes from my life in a different way,” he says. “No, I didn’t meet my future self in a bar, like I say in ‘To Seek the Devil.’ But that song comes from the frustration of being an artist and feeling like you’re spinning your wheels. ‘Baltimore Jack’ is about a pretty notorious hiker on the Appalachian Trail. But even in that, I could see parts of myself.”

That Morningstar was here and present to record these songs was a blessing: In March 2020—just as the COVID-19 pandemic started—he nearly died due to an infection that arose after a tooth extraction went awry. “I went into the hospital and the world was normal,” he says. “I came out of the hospital and everything had changed.” In the last few years, he’s also dealt with the painful experience of losing friends and loved ones. Morningstar opted not to include the songs that dealt directly with these matters, preferring to hold them for a later date. “They were at the end of the record,” he explained, “and the end of the record felt more downtempo than I wanted it to be. But there’s lines and parts through all of the songs that reflect those losses.”

Other moments on the album provide levity—such as the jaunty opening track “The I Can’t Write A Song Song,” a lighthearted, stream-of-consciousness acoustic song that confronts his bouts of writer’s block with wry, good-natured humor. “I sat down one day and got very frustrated because I couldn’t write a song, and then I just started writing exactly what the song is,” he says. “It really didn’t take too long to do; it just came pouring out of me. Those are my favorites when I’m writing, the songs that feel like they come from somewhere else and you’re just a conduit.”

Morningstar is no stranger to resilience. A recovering heroin addict with more than a decade of sobriety, he weathered challenging times (including no less than six stints in different county jails) before finding a home in music. Morningstar has toured with or opened for Todd Snider, Shooter Jennings, Bobby Bare, and Jason Isbell, and made his name as a songwriter, with tunes recorded by Sunny Sweeney, Vince Gill, and others. Along the way, he’s found a kindred spirit in outlaw country artist Cody Jinks, who owns Late August Records. Jinks has recorded Morningstar songs on every one of his records starting with 2018’s Lifers, on which he cut “Must Be The Whiskey.”

Morningstar is grateful for their business relationship—but is even more thankful for their friendship. “Outside of anything business-related, Cody is one of my dearest friends,” he says. “He is a genuinely good person, and goes above and beyond not just for me, but anyone in his life. I’m grateful to be on his record label, and I’m grateful to have had him record my songs. But outside of any of that, I’m grateful to be able to call him a friend. That means more to me than any of that other stuff.”

For Morningstar, gratitude is indeed a common theme—for songwriting, for touring, and for the opportunities that music has given him. He cherishes the songs he writes and makes every single day count. “To really understand my music, I feel like you have to see me live,” he says. “But this record is as close to seeing me live—or understanding what it is that I’m about—more than anything I’ve done. I consider myself a troubadour. I write songs. I sing them, and I pack up and go on to the next gig. That’s what I like to do. It’s what I’ve done for 20 years at this point. It’s what I’ll do, God-willing, until I’m not here anymore.”

Was born and raised in Lubbock and the Hill Country of Texas. Noel McKay has traveled the world, singing his songs and playing a self-built acoustic guitar on world stages from Nashville, TN, Austin, TX, California, Ireland, Spain, and the U.K. Noel has co-written songs with David Olney, Guy Clark, Richard Dobson, Becky Warren, John Scott Sherrill, and Shawn Camp. His songs have been recorded by Sarah Borges, Sunny Sweeney, and Guy Clark.​

Noel picked up the guitar around age nine. By fifteen, he was playing the beer joints and honky tonks in Bandera and the surrounding hill country. In the Middle of High School, he landed a job at Flying L Dude Ranch, which proved to be a great training ground. In his early twenties he met Guy Clark while playing at a festival in Kerrville, TX. They formed a friendship and Clark provided a mentorship that still resonates with Noel to this day.​

Forming a band with his younger brother Hollin was a no-brainer. The two enjoyed a long collaboration at one point finding themselves in The New York Times talking about grub on the road. The duo released four full albums (one produced by Gurf Morlix and the other by Lloyd Maines) and one EP between 1994 and 2003. Their songs garnered much attention from Texas radio and press. The legendary Ray Wylie Hubbard called them “absolutely phenomenal!”​

McKay took a break for about four years, spending time in carpentry and guitar building over at the famous Collings Guitars in Austin, TX. Noel found himself daydreaming about getting back on stage, and that’s when he recorded his first solo album, Sketches Of South Central Texas, in 2011. Around 2010, he met Brennen Leigh, and they formed McKay and Leigh, an alliance that took them around the world. They released three albums until about 2020 and were always an anticipated highlight wherever they played.​

During this time, Noel was still hanging out with Guy Clark in his guitar workshop when he built a guitar he still plays today. Sadly, Clark died before he could hear it finished, “the specific skills I learned from him are things I’ll treasure for the rest of my life,” smiles McKay. The guitar is modeled after the Martin 00-000 series, and it’s his number-one go-to acoustic.​

Moving to Nashville meant getting involved with the vast songwriter community. While he was off the road these past few years, he’s taken part in many songwriters’ rounds at various venues like The Bluebird Café, Brown’s Diner, Robert’s Western World, and his stint as host at the weekly songwriting in the round at the American Post Legion #82 in East Nashville. As many as 25 songwriters would show up to take part on a Thursday night. They would end the evening with a full show by an artist handpicked by McKay himself.​

Noel has shared the stage with the best of the best: James McMurtry, David Olney, Sunny Sweeney, Guy Clark, and Whitney Rose. Some of the stages and venues over the years have been the 30A Songwriters Festival (Destin, FL), Westport Bluegrass Festival (Ireland), Riquela Club (Spain), Hill Country BBQ (Washington, DC), Levon Helm Studios (Woodstock, NY), Gruene Hall (Austin, TX), and The Bluebird Café (Nashville, TN) and many more. He toured Florida with the late great David Olney a month before he died in January 2020.​

Two cool facts about Noel: his grandfather started a radio station in Frío County, TX. KVWG (Pearsall, TX), “The Kind Voice of the Winter Garden,” a station that played everything from easy listening to country and western and Mexican music. Two songs he co-wrote with Guy Clark are now in the archives at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN.​

Noel spends time on the road and hangs his hat in Nashville, Austin, and Spain when he’s not.



June 20
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
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301 S. Gay Street
Knoxville, TN 37902 United States
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