Country singer Morgan Wade was looking for the spotlight. It found her.

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Country singer Morgan Wade was looking for the spotlight. It found her.
Morgan Wade in Chicago, Aug. 4, 2023. The rising musician is disciplined about her sobriety, fitness and songwriting — but a bond with a reality-TV star has thrust her into an uncontrollable world of fame. (Lyndon French/The New York Times)

by Jon Caramanica

NEW YORK, NY.- The day before Morgan Wade was set to perform at Lollapalooza for the first time, the country singer-songwriter was in a Chicago hotel gym at around 10:30 a.m. It was arm day: regular curls, hammer curls, triceps pushdowns, lateral raises, dumbbell presses, face pulls and shoulder presses. She stopped after around 45 minutes, but only because it was actually her second session of the morning — she’d been up for hours, and had already done another 90-minute workout, and also ran 3 miles.

“It’s just been something healthy for me to be addicted to,” Wade, 28 and slathered in tattoos, said of her fitness routine, sipping a chocolate Muscle Milk she’d grabbed from a vending machine for a quick boost of protein.

For the past couple of years, Wade’s music career has been ascendant. Her 2021 album, “Reckless,” was a critical favorite in progressive country music circles, and “Wilder Days,” its stoutly aching breakout single, became an unlikely mainstream country crossover success. “Psychopath,” Wade’s second album and first on a major label, will be released Aug. 25.

In almost every other way, though, the past couple of years have been destabilizing: the erratic schedule, the increasing obligations to the music business, a slate of health struggles, the full-scale immersion into the public spotlight. And Wade, who has been sober for six years, has been finding ways to cope: therapy, fitness, clean eating, reading, journaling.

In recent weeks, those tools have been stress-tested at a profound level, as Wade has found herself the subject of prurient tabloid interest regarding her seemingly unlikely connection with Kyle Richards, one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Online chatter that the women might share a romance has taken Wade from CMT to TMZ in record time.

“Trust me, I’ve Googled it, man,” Wade said the prior night, backstage before a midnight gig at Reggie’s Rock Club. “I’ve Googled how to deal with the beginning stages of fame. The Wikipedia articles on that aren’t very helpful.”

When Wade was performing acoustic gigs at FloydFest, the roots music festival in her Floyd, Virginia, hometown, in the late 2010s, that she might someday be simultaneously navigating the rollout of her major label debut and the public dissection of her personal life might have seemed unfathomable.

But even then, Wade was deeply disciplined. She took music seriously, writing and performing her own songs long before meeting Sadler Vaden, who plays guitar for Jason Isbell and has become her go-to producer.

“She already had taken on the challenge of addiction when I met her. And she was in sobriety,” said Mary Sparr, Wade’s manager. “I saw in her that she had already had this huge challenge and chose to go ham, you know?”

Vaden, who first saw Wade in a video performing her track “Mend” on a flatbed truck, described her as something akin to “a country Melissa Etheridge,” noting how the specificity of her gritty and reedy voice locates her in a country lineage, which frees her to make music that’s more eclectic and less hidebound.

“Reckless,” which contained songs that Wade had written over several years, had the lightly bumpy texture of a scar that’s never quite healed. Wade’s voice is rich and sinewy, and it can sound like a scold and a plaint all at once. “Wilder Days,” which made it into the Top 40 on the Billboard country chart and was certified gold, got her signed to a Nashville major label, but she is in no way a country centrist. She has opened for Luke Combs, Chris Stapleton and Ashley McBryde, all on the genre’s more stylistically earthy side.

When it came to beginning work on “Psychopath,” Wade was feeling pressure, self-imposed, to follow the success of “Wilder Days.” The first batch of songs was recorded last summer, but Vaden sensed she needed some more breathing space. “We have to just make an album that we are proud of,” he said he told her.

Her manager was concerned, too. “She was burning herself out really bad,” Sparr said. “She’s the type that will say yes till the end of the world and work herself to the death until she hits that boiling point. We’ve had to mitigate her drive in those cases to give herself some more balance.”

The songs from a second batch, recorded in January, are both heftier and more assured, playing with emotion, or genre, or both. The chirpy “Fall in Love With Me” is in this set, as is “Alanis,” which directly takes on the difficulties of a female performer enacting her whole self in public. “Losers Like Me” is an agitation about small-town life that recalls Kacey Musgraves’ debut single, “Merry Go ’Round.” And “27 Club” is a cutting song about dodging the worst fate, and still being unsure of what comes next.

During that stretch of time, Wade and Richards were forming a friendship. Richards discovered Wade on the radio and followed her on Instagram. Wade, ever the skeptic (and who had never previously watched “Housewives”), messaged her to ask why. They got close quickly. Soon, they had a Wordle group chat, including fellow Housewife Teddi Mellencamp Arroyave and Richards’ friend Jenn Leipart. Richards began filming content for a documentary about Wade’s life, both onstage and off. The two posted photos together working out in the gym, and one of Wade sitting in Richards’ lap. Wade performed at a charity concert Richards had organized to benefit the National Alliance on Mental Illness. (Wade will also appear in the upcoming season of “Real Housewives.”)

The public adjustments have not all come smoothly. “She told me at the NAMI event she almost wanted to leave at one point — she was like, This is so stressful,” Richards said in an interview. “I realized and appreciated later her hanging in there for me.”

In the first week of July, news of Richards’ separation from her husband, Mauricio Umansky, hit the internet. Suddenly, Wade was being floated as a possible factor in the split. Strangers began dissecting her music, her lyrics, her past struggles with addiction and depression.

Wade was at her family’s home in Virginia at the time. For three days, she didn’t get out of bed, she said. Sparr checked in like clockwork. “She was calling me like once an hour or every two hours and being like, What am I going to do? What are we going to do?” Sparr said. “She’s programmed to want to take an action. She wants to fix things. And, you know, sometimes there’s not anything to do but let time do the work.”

Wade even skipped going to the gym. “For her to not go to the gym, I was like, OK, this is not good,” Richards said. “I’ve never seen her in two years not do that.”

She continued, “I carried some guilt for having her be a victim of this because of me. I felt like it was collateral damage and I felt guilt about that, you know?”

The gossip even traveled to Wade’s family; her grandfather suggested that land prices in their small town might go up. (“He has a damn flip phone!” Wade cackled.) Her 5-year-old half sister asked her why she was crying so much.

“I seriously thought I was going to have to go to a rehab just preventively, to keep me from doing something stupid,” Wade said.

Slowly, she got back on her feet. She returned to the gym, and set up twice-weekly therapy sessions. Getting a taste of public scrutiny, she said, made her regretful of the judgment she used to hold about celebrities. She tried to encourage her family and friends to see that she had now become the object of the kind of dismissiveness with which they had once regarded the famous. “You have to give people a little bit of grace,” Wade said.

“I’m just a private person. I’ve always been just kind of quiet. And so when all this kind of came out, I was just, it felt like everything had been stripped from me,” Wade said anxiously, but with a touch of resentment. “And then too, your orientation, your sexuality, all that is just being discussed online by random people that don’t even know. It’s heartbreaking.”

Sparr encouraged Wade to get offline, and to treat her relationship with social media “with a similar urgency and with a similar seriousness that she did with sobriety.”

But Wade also had, depending on your perspective, either an ace up her sleeve, or a liter of gasoline about to spill onto the fire. In June, she had filmed a video for “Fall in Love With Me,” the cheeriest and poppiest song on “Psychopath.” The video features a slowly unfolding romantic rapport in a shiny “Desperate Housewives”-ish exurb between Wade, depicted in tight workout gear, and an infatuated neighbor, who watches longingly from a window in the house next door.

The neighbor is played by Richards.

It was inspired, in part, by avid Housewives fans who had already been speculating about their friendship online. “There was already a little bit of Reddit fodder — I call it fan fiction — about Kyle and Morgan,” before any of the “TMZ stuff happened,” Sparr said.

The clip is playful, cheeky, a welcome blast of good mischief. “I’ve actually, my entire life, weaseled my way out of kissing someone on camera,” Richards said. Even though there’s a strategic millimeter between their mouths in the video’s most steamy moments, “This is the closest I’ve ever gotten, and it’s, spicy enough, I guess, that I would consider that breaking that streak.”

The power of the video, far beyond the tabloid tease, is the conventional frankness with which it depicts same-sex attraction. Coming from an artist signed to a Nashville major label, it is deeply striking.

“There was never any pushback from the label,” Sparr said. “But the greater feeling of everyone I talked to was like, I can’t believe you guys are going to pull this off.”

There, again, is Wade’s discipline at work, steadily walking a path few before her have tried, emphasizing the representational value of the video while also toying with the story, real or imaginary, of her and Richards’ bond. And having been on the receiving end of scrutiny for the past several weeks, Wade has finally emerged on the other side, emboldened.

“I don’t know why we’re in this day and time where we have to speculate about people’s sexuality,” she said, emphatically. “That is not appropriate at all. Like, let anybody be what they want to be — it’s none of your damn business.”

She has more pressing things in front of her — an ultramarathon in November, just a couple of weeks before she is scheduled to undergo a double mastectomy (following a positive test for a BRCA mutation, a genetic risk for breast cancer). And she has already written a dozen songs for her next album.

“Back to basics,” she said of the challenge of articulating the new, post-spotlight version of herself. “Taking elements of who I used to be and those core fundamental things and finding out like, Hmm. What I believed then and thought then, that part of me doesn’t exist anymore.” But, she added, there are some things “that I’m going to keep that didn’t die.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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