The following appears in the February issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
He lives on a sprawling Tennessee farm, but Craig Morgan’s home is a quick drive from Nashville’s bright lights of the honkytonk joints of Broadway Street, the Times Square of the country music cosmos.
But when Morgan, who has 17 singles that have reached the Billboard country charts – including a No. 1 hit and six more in the top 10 – wants to literally get away from it all, he heads to Alaska.
And while he finds it funny that his cabin in the Interior gets better cellphone service than his Tennessee property in Dickson, 40 miles west of Nashville, it’s about as wild a setting as a diehard sportsman like Morgan could ask for when he wants to unplug from his hectic life of making music, hosting an outdoors television show and running a family business back in the Volunteer State.
“It’s one of those deals where if you’re there, you know that you truly are in the depths of Mother Nature,” the 53-year-old says.
He’s been hunting and fishing in Alaska for roughly two decades, though he’s owned his cabin for just about three years. The Last Frontier is one of Morgan’s first choices to satisfy his outdoor cravings.
“Oh, god. It was probably 20 years ago I guess for my first visit. And since then we’ve done everything from fishing to hunting to cruises,” he says. “And I’ve been from the lowest southeast point to all the way up to the Yukon. So I’m just absolutely fascinated with that part of the world. It truly is the Last Frontier.”
GETTING TO MORGAN’S HIDEAWAY isn’t super easy for anyone who wants to tag along on one of his trips. Fly into Anchorage, then either board a floatplane for a 50-minute flight onto a lake adjacent to the cabin, or fly to Talkeetna and drive three hours on a gravel road to the end of the line for a 6-mile, 4½-hour walk or – in winter – snowmachine journey to get there.
“It’s off the grid completely; there’s no electricity, no running water. The closest town is Talkeetna. Actually it’s Trapper Creek, but I don’t know if Trapper Creek is considered an actual town,” Morgan says.
So yeah, this getaway allows him to really get away. That’s what this intrepid hunter was looking for when he began getting serious about investing in an Alaskan home (“It’s more of a trapper’s cabin than a house,” Morgan says). It took him about year and a half of looking around to finally settle on what he owns now.
He says it’s actually easier to get there in winter via snowmachines. But it’s exactly what he hoped for: a place in the wilderness in one of his favorite outdoor playgrounds.
“I just wanted a place to go that we could call ours. It’s quite an effort to get there, but when you get there it’s just an awesome thing. And I’ve always wanted to be a bigger part about what’s going on there,” Morgan says.
He identifies himself as far more of a hunter than an angler, but the nearby lake is teeming with trout, Arctic char and grayling, so he makes sure to have fishing gear close by. Yet it’s the big game and other wildlife as the main event that keeps him occupied when there is a season open during his visits.
Morgan’s native Tennessee is chock-full of sportsmen and -women who secure their tags and stalk everything from deer to turkeys to black bears. And his assignments as host of a TV hunting show have sent him all over the map. But Alaska is Alaska and there’s no other place quite like it.
“The thing that you really understand is the gravity and intensity of Mother Nature when you’re up there. You don’t get that when you’re in the woods in Illinois or Iowa or Texas, or anywhere else because you know that you can generally walk in some direction and come across some form of civilization,” Morgan says. “In that part of the world, you can walk in some direction and may walk for a month and not come across civilization. If you go in the wrong direction, you might never find it. It’s just a super-intense outdoor experience.”
And what Morgan loves about the Last Frontier is it’s the last place you want to be if you run into trouble. Not that he’s eager to be in harm’s way, but it’s the thrill of the unknown you’re walking into that attracts the Lower 48 outdoors lover to these parts in the first place.
On one trip, one of Morgan’s buddies suffered a deep gash while they were cutting wood, which could have been a lot more serious if they weren’t prepared.
“We were 45 minutes from getting anybody to help us. So you have to be extra careful. An accident up there can turn from a simple one into a catastrophic event pretty quick if you’re not careful,” he says.
The cabin has only a generator for power, so satellite phones and emergency medical equipment come in handy in a beautiful but potentially hazardous front yard.
“You can have the most peaceful moments in your life sitting atop a mountain, and then in 15 minutes have the most horrific experience as you’re going down that mountain,” Morgan says. “And that terrain can absolutely beat you up. It will just take you before you know it. So many obstacles that just make you truly appreciate how that moment of beauty can turn to something ugly.”
“In everything else that we do, for the most part, you feel like you have a sense of control a little bit and a sense of security, I think, to some degree. In Alaska all that goes away. You know that you are not necessarily at the top of the food chain in where you’re at and what you’re doing.”
CRAIG MORGAN GREER’S FAMILY made do with what it had in their Tennessee home. Kingston Springs is a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it town of about 2,000 along Interstate 40 west of Nashville. Craig’s family – like many in that part of the country – had a passion for hunting. But it was far more than just the sport of it that got his parents outside.
“As much as they enjoyed it and that was it was local and on public land, it was really for the meat,” Craig says. “My family and parents weren’t trophy hunting; they were hunting for the meat.”
“We were eating organic before organic was a term. But it was out of necessity more than a choice. When you’re born into a lower-middle class income family, you have to do those kinds of things. So we grew up eating wild game or pork from pigs that we had raised ourselves. We had a better idea of what was going into our bodies than most.”
That lifestyle never left Morgan’s mind as he progressed on into his own path – first during 17 years in the Army and then his singing career that elevated him into a fixture on the Nashville music scene.
“Now I’m in a position in my life where I can afford to go buy what I want to eat, but I choose to hunt because I know the meat that I’m getting is going to be better for me,” he says. “It’s going to be cleaner. We try to use that term a lot in our house: eating clean. But it was very much a part of my life and still is, probably more so today than it was then.”
As his career took off, Morgan’s outdoor roots scored him a gig as host of Craig Morgan: All Access Outdoors, which chronicles fishing and hunting adventures from around the globe.
Among his most memorable episodes was a Northern California turkey hunt with friend and former major-league baseball player Ryan Klesko.
“We donated a hunt with he and I to the (National Wild Turkey Federation), and I’ll never forget the lady who bought the hunt; she was so excited to be out hunting with Ryan and I,” Morgan says. “We all killed turkeys and it was just a phenomenal hunt (near San Francisco). It was awesome because we hunted for a few days and then got to visit all the wineries.”
Indeed, those early days of subsistence hunting with his family in rural Tennessee spawned quite the dedicated sportsman.
And around the turn of the century, he cut his first album to kick off a successful career that’s included 17 singles that reached the Billboard country charts and a No. 1 hit, “That’s What I Love About Sunday,” that tops his discography.
Ironically, making records, touring, hunting in exotic locales around North America and abroad and all the other perks that go with celebrity status have complicated Morgan’s personal life.
“My family is always going to come first and a lot of people would question that, just because of the amount of time that I spend with them, which is so little,” he says.
“But I tell my kids all the time that I make a choice as a dad to make certain sacrifices in order that they and my wife and family are better off. And one of those choices was choosing this occupation, which requires me to be away from home a lot.”
The Morgans have also started a family business, the Gallery at Morgan Farms in their hometown of Dickson. They make various items out of recycled and reclaimed materials (the UP TV network is working on a series revolving around the family juggling an already hectic schedule to make the business work).
But having so much access to the beauty of the outdoors has also been a blessing in that Morgan’s family has joined him on so many of his outdoor adventures, both on camera and off (he and his wife Karen Greer had four children but lost their son Jerry to a tragic swimming accident in 2016).
When asked about his favorite episodes of Craig Morgan: All Access Outdoors, while he’s enjoyed the tributes to veterans – Morgan’s Army background made it only natural that’s been heavily involved in giving back to the troops through charitable causes – his mind came racing back to his family, where his own hunting passion’s roots grew.
“Probably my favorite hunts to do throughout the filming are the ones that I do with my family, in particular my kids. I’ve always loved spending time with them in the outdoors and trying to educate them on the process,” Morgan says. “And I have something that a lot of people that get to do that don’t, and that’s the footage of it. So I get to go back and re-experience that with my kids, which is a real blessing.”
IF THERE’S ONE ALASKA adventure Morgan is still hoping to cross off his bucket list, it’s to harvest a muskox (he also wants to hunt one of those near-mythical creatures in Europe someday if not in Alaska).
“A friend of mine just did it and the reason why they loved it was the weather. There’s nothing like hunting in the Arctic,” he says. “It’s a little more entertaining, weather-wise. But I would suffer the cold in the Arctic for a muskox.”
When he does make his periodic pilgrimages from Tennessee to Alaska, Morgan appreciates the value in his purchase. Alaska, like his TV show and family time amid a busy schedule recording and performing music, is another facet in a life where few hours of the day aren’t taken advantage of.
It’s clear that heading north makes for a spiritual moment of clarity.
“I try to go at least two or three times a year, and I think in the last couple years I’ve been up four times a year. Every time I land in Anchorage I get this excited feeling – like a little kid at Christmas about to open up a present,” he says.
Early in 2018 Morgan is working on his 11th album and expects he’ll continue to make new music until his fans no longer want to listen. But while it’s his primary job, he really does enjoy it, likening the process to those backyard grillmasters who live for cooking that perfect steak on the barbie. Songwriting and performing feels like a hobby, and even if he’s not earning a paycheck Morgan will likely always channel his musical gifts.
Of all the songs he’s cut and hits that made the charts, the tune that makes him most nostalgic is 2008’s “Lookin’ Back With You,” in which he pays homage to growing old with wife Karen.
“When we’re sittin’ on our front porch,”
“In our cracker barrel rockers.”
“And we don’t long to dye the grey out of our hair,”
“We’ll sit and laugh and talk about all the things that we went through.”
“Yeah, I look forward to looking back with you.”
It could be sitting on a porch in a trapper’s cabin in the isolated but magnificent Alaskan Interior.
“It just talks about when we get older, and I look forward to looking back on my life – my wife and I in particular,” he says. “I don’t know if we’re quite there yet, but it’s one of my favorite songs.” ASJ
A DIFFERENT KIND OF HARVEST
There’s something about a glass of wine after a long Alaskan hunt that makes Craig Morgan smile. It’s also a reason why this country music star and outdoors TV host is now a celebrity vintner.
“I just became a wine guy who loved wine about 20 years ago. And as my knowledge grew, so did my desire to be more involved,” he says of this grape-infused project. “Having said that, I never want to own a winery. I never want to be a winemaker or nothing like that.”
Still, it’s difficult to not consider Morgan a bit of a wine savant. So when he collaborated with a company called Lot 18 to create Old Tattoo (lot18.com/craigmorgan), which is being released this winter, it only strengthened a passion for good wine, particularly enjoying a glass or two with some of the wild game this outdoorsman has harvested for years.
Old Tattoo – its American flag logo matches the ink that’s adorned on Morgan’s left arm – is flavored by grapes from Paso Robles, California, along the central coast and one of the state’s hidden gems for wine lovers.
While Morgan helped in determining the cabernet’s flavors – “hints of coffee, cocoa, currant, dark cherry, graphite and plum,” the wine’s introductory press release explained – he was mostly in tasting mode as blends were tested. But the entire approach was based upon his name being attached to as close as you can come to producing an organic wine.
And for someone who prefers to eat his own harvested game and fish, Morgan’s fascination with wine was one that was a more natural blend.
“One in particular that kind of started it was a wine called PlumpJack, which is a partner of the Cade Winery in Napa (California). The one thing that I loved about the PlumpJack was that it was organic,” he says. “It’s very rare that you find an organic wine against one that isn’t. And I just fell in love with it – a fabulous wine.”
Morgan also took to heart the message of another of his favorite California winemakers, Sonoma County residents and avid sportsmen whose brand is known as Ammunition Wines. Their reds and whites are catered to fellow anglers and hunters and specifically blended to pair with not just traditional dishes but also wild game like venison, duck and upland birds.
While Morgan’s idea wasn’t to market his wine for a specific audience – “I just wanted to have a wine that at that price point ($22 a bottle) you would be super excited,” he says – it’s clear he wanted Old Tattoo to showcase who he is as a hunter and organic eater.
When Morgan returns to his Alaska trapper’s cabin and spends some time hunting, fishing or just enjoying the solitude of the surrounding quiet, he’s never without a bottle of Old Tattoo or another favorite wine.
“My kids and my friends make fun of me that even in Alaska I have a good cab glass or at least a glass of some kind (to drink the wine),” he says with a laugh. “It may be a tumbler, but how bad is that I don’t want to drink the wine out of a Solo cup or Styrofoam cup? It has to be a glass.” CC