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Sara Morgan is a small-town girl chasing a big-time music dream

Sara Morgan will appear at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Industry Video Bar inside the Uptown Theater before the Loretta Lynn concert at the Uptown. Carl Butler performed with her recently.
Sara Morgan will appear at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Industry Video Bar inside the Uptown Theater before the Loretta Lynn concert at the Uptown. Carl Butler performed with her recently.

Despite the title of one of her favorite songs, Sara Morgan has been to Nashville. She spent two whirlwind days there in September. And she met her country music heroine, Loretta Lynn.

“I went to the (Americana Music Awards),” Morgan said. “And she was the first hand I shook in Nashville. She was sitting in a pew in the Ryman (Auditorium), next to Vince Gill. I freaked out and swallowed my tongue. All I could say is, ‘You’re why I write songs.’ Then I walked away, crying.”

She might get a chance to meet Lynn again this weekend. Saturday night, Morgan will perform in the Industry Video Bar inside the Uptown Theater before Lynn headlines a show on the Uptown’s main stage. Nikki Lane will open that show.

“I haven’t seen (Lynn) perform a whole concert, so I’m excited about that,” she said. “And I hope I get to meet her again.”

Even if she doesn’t, Morgan already has gone far in her music journey for someone who didn’t start performing in earnest until last year.

“I was living by myself on the Plaza back in 2010, and one night I was really bored so I picked up my guitar and wrote a song,” she said. “I sent it to a friend and she liked it, so I sent it to a guy I knew who was a producer. He said ‘Come on in to the studio.’ Of course, I was terrible.”

Morgan was born in McGehee, Ark., but moved to Kansas City when she was about 10. She graduated from Olathe North High School in 2007. She has played music most of her life, starting with the saxophone when she was 10 and continuing in high school, where she studied music theory.

She would move back to her native Arkansas in January 2011, write more songs and work with that producer friend, Jason North, who has since become one of her guitar players. Eventually she accumulated enough songs to record a full-length album of country-flavored songs.

“I remember saying to Jason, ‘I’ve recorded a country album, but I’ve never been to Nashville,’” Morgan said. “He said, ‘You need to write a song about that.’”

So she did, and “Never Been to Nashville” became one of six songs on the EP “Let Me Get There,” released in 2013. Morgan was living in Fayetteville, Ark., then but returning to Kansas City every other weekend to work at Community Connections in Overland Park, an agency for developmentally disabled adults. She was also playing live a lot more frequently, mostly at coffeehouses, here and in Arkansas.

Last summer a friend invited her to a show at Knuckleheads, which changed everything.

She was introduced to Diana Ennis, a programmer at community radio station KKFI (90.1 FM), who has since become a friend. It was Ennis who invited her to the AMAs.

“I spent a few moments talking to her,” Ennis said. “I knew I was hosting ‘Womansong’ on KKFI shortly thereafter and asked her to come in and play live in the studio. I had no idea whether she was good or not.

“I subsequently went out to YouTube and watched some of her videos and was completely taken with the total package. She’s pure, honest talent, naive to a fault and has the gift of writing a song with a hook. What most drew me to Sara was her ability to tell a good story. And her vocal range is remarkable.”

Morgan’s style is primarily country, though she writes in several other styles. She gets compared to Colbie Caillat and to Norah Jones a lot, for a good reason: “In junior high, Norah Jones was all I listened to.”

But at times she can sound like Miranda Lambert did when Lambert was in her early 20s — folk with country accents and a light twang.

Though she sings almost entirely original material, she drops in covers now and then, like Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.”

The night she met Ennis, Morgan was also introduced to Frank Hicks, who owns Knuckleheads and who invited her to perform two weeks later in the room in the back of the club that holds about 55 people. (It’s known as the Retro Lounge, the Living Room or the Gospel Lounge.)

“I was terrified,” Morgan said. “I’d never played a show where tickets were sold beforehand. I was still kind of nervous about talking to people on stage. So I decided I was just going to sing and whatever happens, happens.

“Halfway through the show, the room was packed, standing-room only. It was amazing. Frank asked us back for two or three shows after that.”

She has performed at other venues, including the Uptown Arts Bar, VooDoo at Harrah’s North Kansas City casino and a corporate event for Wal-Mart in Bentonville, Ark.

Along the way she has met plenty of people willing to assist or encourage her. One is guitarist Carl Butler, who curates the weekly Carl Butler’s Gospel Lounge service at Knuckleheads and has become a friend and colleague.

“He’s one of my go-to guitarists,” Morgan said.

Another is Jeff Porter, a singer/songwriter and member of the Rainmakers.

“I first heard her at a house concert and was immediately impressed with her complete ease onstage and her voice,” Porter said. “Her voice is very honest, not affected in any way. Her intonation is spot-on.

“She has a very good grasp of the craft of songwriting, she understands how to turn a phrase lyrically and her sense of melody is exquisite. I mean, some of her melodies are just beautiful and go where you don’t expect. She’s also a pretty dang good guitarist.”

Morgan, who estimates she’s already performed about 100 times this year, said she is still figuring out whether she wants to be a performer and a songwriter or just a songwriter.

“The constant performing is exhausting,” she said. “I love doing it when I’m in it, but it’s before the performance that is really hard. So I’m trying to pinpoint what my strong suit is and go from there.”

Ennis thinks performance is one of Morgan’s strong points: “I’ve seen her go from an intimidated and self-deprecating young girl to a confident front woman capable of opening for national touring acts.”

Morgan hears she should probably go to Nashville if she’s really serious about performing or songwriting. But she’s holding off on that. She moved back to Kansas City this year, and for now she’s happy where she is.

“That one time I was in Nashville wasn’t really real,” she said. “I met so many amazing people. And I’m a small-town girl from the middle of nowhere in Arkansas. So it was really exciting and kind of overwhelming.

“But at the same time, Kansas City has really embraced me. I don’t feel like I’m supposed to leave here.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

Saturday

Sara Morgan will perform at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Industry Video Bar inside the Uptown Theater. Admission is free. The entrance is on the east side of the theater. Her performance will precede the Loretta Lynn show at the Uptown. Doors open for that show at 5:30 p.m. Nikki Lane opens at 6:30 p.m. (Wanda Jackson will not be performing; illness has forced her to cancel.)

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