"Whiskey Glasses" singer Morgan Wallen appeared on the NBC reality competition in 2014

By Jeff Nelson
October 02, 2019 01:00 PM
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He has two No. 1 hits under his belt today, but five years ago Morgan Wallen was a small-town singer who found himself on The Voice.

The son of a Baptist pastor, Wallen was born in Sneedville, Tennessee. Growing up in the church, he was raised on gospel music, as well as classic rock, from the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynrd to Led Zeppelin. But music didn’t become a passion until Wallen was 19, when he had to give up on dreams of playing college baseball following an injury.

“My dad had a guitar that he gave me. I went to Walmart and bought a chord chart and hung it up in my room, and I was just trying to figure out how to play the guitar and put words with what I was learning,” says Wallen, now 26.

RELATED: Introducing PEOPLE’s 2019 Ones to Watch: 18 Actors and Singers Whose Stars Are on the Rise

Morgan Wallen
John Shearer

For more on Morgan Wallen, who appears in PEOPLE’s annual Ones to Watch portfolio, pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands everywhere Friday. 

His life changed in 2014, when his mom signed him up to appear on The Voice.

“I didn’t even know what The Voice was,” Wallen says of the NBC singing competition. “That whole experience kind of kick-started me a little bit.”

When he was on the show, Wallen was on Usher’s team before being stolen by Adam Levine, but he was eliminated during the “Playoffs” round. Looking back on the experience, Wallen appreciates his time on The Voice — but is glad he didn’t advance further.

“They wanted me to sing pop music, and I wanted to sing country music,” he says. “But it was a big first step — I guess that’s the first time in my life where I realized that maybe I actually have a shot at this.”

In addition to having some creative differences with people on the show, Wallen thinks he was too green to begin a lasting career if he were to have won.

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“I’m thankful for that time. I’m thankful for how it all turned out,” he says. “And honestly, I’m thankful that I didn’t win because it gave me a chance to take a couple years after that show and really figure out who I was as an artist and get the right team around me. When I got there, I had no clue what I was doing.”

Once he left The Voice, Wallen signed with a management team and label — and put the time in honing his songwriting skills.

“I think that the best music and the music that people relate to the most is the honest music that people feel themselves in it,” Wallen says. “That takes time to figure out; that takes time to write. So those couple of years after that show were really, really important to me. And I’m glad that it happened the way it did.”

Slowly, his star began to rise in Nashville.

In 2016, his debut single "The Way I Talk" cracked the U.S. Country Top 40; a year later, Wallen scored his first No. 1 hit with the Florida Georgia Line collaboration "Up Down"; and last year, he released his first LP, If I Know Me, then hit No. 1 again with his solo smash "Whiskey Glasses."

“I think sometime during the peak of ‘Whiskey Glasses’ is when I realized: ‘Man, this is really starting to happen. People are not not just singing these singles, they’re singing every song on my album and really invested in what I’m doing,'” recalls Wallen, who is up for new artist of the year at the Country Music Association Awards in November.

RELATED: Go Behind-the-Scenes of Morgan Wallen’s New Video for His Song ‘Whiskey Glasses’

As for the future: Wallen is on tour with Luke Combs; he’s working on his sophomore album; his latest single "Chasin' You" is climbing the charts; and his genre-blending collab with Diplo, "Heartless," could become a crossover hit.

Wallen adds: “I’m excited about what’s next.”

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