Lorrie Morgan's career got off to an auspicious enough beginning: The daughter of Grand Ole Opry mainstay George Morgan, she first sang on its stage when she was 13 and received what she maintains was the first standing ovation given at the Opry in 25 years.
The years between that glowing evening and the now 30-year-old singer's current country hit album, "Leave the Light On," were filled with hard work and obscurity. But the triumph of the album's success has been overshadowed by the death, shortly before its release, of her husband, country singer Keith Whitley.
Whitley had been considered one of the most promising figures in country's new traditionalist movement, a promise borne out by the posthumous success of his "I Wonder Do You Think of Me" album. Whitley lost a long battle to alcoholism last May 9, when he was found dead of alcohol poisoning.
Within a week of Whitley's funeral, Morgan was on the road in his old tour bus, fulfilling concert obligations, including a show Monday at the Crazy Horse in Santa Ana. She has performed 16 days a month since then, both to support her family (a 2-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter) and to seek another kind of support.
"It has definitely helped me to be able to sing on stage and express myself emotionally," Morgan said by phone on a rare day off in Nashville. "I think when tragedies happen a lot of people go to therapy, psychiatrists, whatever, because they need to have someone to talk to. There's thousands of people a night that I get to talk to, by way of my music."
On the liner notes to "Leave the Light On," prepared before Whitley's death, Morgan thanks her husband for "teaching me how to sing with heart and giving me reason to." She said that his memory and her loss continue as a influence on her singing.
"I just feel more emotion in my music now than I ever have. I think a loss like this effects someone's whole life, and it definitely effects the way I sing. I don't know that it's going to effect what I look for in a song, because I don't think that for the rest of my life all my songs should be about Keith and me. Life goes on. But I know there will always be some songs where I'll say, 'I want to do that, it reminds me of Keith.' "
As the daughter of George Morgan, she practically grew up backstage at the Opry. "It was a dream come true for me. I didn't want to go out on dates on Friday and Saturday night, because I wanted to go to the Opry with my dad. I learned a lot being in the heart of the music business and made some of my best friends there."
In those years she worked as a songwriter and demo artist for a major country publishing firm, in a bluegrass band at Opryland and had some minor chart successes in 1979 and 1984. She also had ample chance to experience some of country's less sunny sides.
"In school I sometimes felt I didn't have music in common with other kids. While they were doing their homework and stuff, I was singing in nightclubs, dealing with drunks and trying to make my way in the music business."
"I definitely think that the hard-living attitude of country music is changing," Morgan said, "I just hate that it is stopping a little too late for Keith. I think back when Keith and others were growing up, all they heard about in the business was the wild drinking, the hard living. That was supposed to be cool. . . . I think now you're not going to happen any more if you're that way. There's too many talented people that are straight, and handle their music better than that, that can take your place."