Three native sons impacting Nashville’s Country music scene

Sylva native, John Morgan, who started playing with the local Mountain Faith Band at age 10, is making a name for himself in Nashville, Tenn.'s country music scene.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Three friends, two from Franklin and one from Sylva, are making their mark on the country music scene in Nashville, Tenn. Their music roots are steeped in tradition and bluegrass, and their family roots run deep in the Appalachian Mountains. 

Sylva-born John Morgan is the frontman for a group of musicians that includes

Bass guitarist and Franklin native Caleb Bates, (in front) works with long-time friend, fellow band member, and singer-songwriter John Morgan in a Franklin recording studio in their younger days.

childhood friends Caleb Bates and Rob Ricotta, both of whom were raised in Franklin, and a new member, Joey Maliszewski, a guitarist who hails from Tennessee. In the past few years, the three Western North Carolina friends have found such burgeoning success in country music that they gravitated to where the action is: Nashville. Yet, Morgan, Bates, and Ricotta have held fast to their towns of origin – visiting family and friends as much as their increasingly busy schedules allow. 

From Bluegrass to Country

Twenty-seven-year-old Morgan grew up in Sylva in a musically talented extended family. He learned to play the mandolin, bass, banjo, and guitar as a kid, and by age 10 was making music with his cousins in the nationally recognized bluegrass-genre Mountain Faith Band (now known as Summer and Bray). For eight years, he played locally, nationally, and even in Canada – until he went off to college. It was while he was in college in 2015, that Mountain Faith Band competed in America’s Got Talent. 

Documentarian Ken Burns’ “Country Music” series focuses on how bluegrass is the foundation for country music, and Morgan agrees. 

“I was always a country music fan, but bluegrass gave me my musical roots,” he said. “Bluegrass is one of the best genres to plant your roots because it stems to so many different kinds of music; blues, jazz, rock, bluegrass, and country have some of the same chord structures. And bluegrass enabled me to become a strong picker and player.” 

His “biggest influence” in country music was Keith Whitley, who died in 1989, but who had “a similar transition” from bluegrass to country as Morgan has experienced. Morgan explained that his musical talent led him, like Whitley, into writing music and singing. Four years ago, he moved from Sylva to Nashville, Tenn., to become entrenched in the country music scene. 

“Being an artist has always been my dream – my end goal. Song writing is a huge step in getting in that direction. I take it seriously. I love performing [singing and primarily playing the guitar] and songwriting equally.”

Morgan said he has not put out a full album yet, but he and his band have released a growing list of singles, most recently, “Friends Like That,” released in

During last year’s “Rock and Roll Cowboy Tour,” country music star Jason Aldean often invited John Morgan on stage to perform a song with him.

the latter part of 2022. And his songwriting has captured the attention and support of well-known country music performers, including Jason Aldean, who has two number one songs written by Morgan – “Trouble with a Heartbreak,” and “If I Didn’t Love You,” which Aldean sings with Carrie Underwood. And, last year, for 40 dates, Morgan and his band were a part of Aldean’s “Rock and Roll Cowboy” tour. It was the first full music tour for Morgan, Bates, and Ricotta.  

“It was a good learning curve for us,” said Morgan. 

A highlight of most performances on the tour was that Aldean asked Morgan to pick a song so they could perform it together on stage. “‘The Truth’ is one of my favorites,” added Morgan. “I got to sing that with him for most concerts. It was a good tour. And I have been fortunate enough for my songs to be on his last album, which is a double anniversary edition for [Aldean] as an artist.”

Last year, Morgan also landed a spot on NBC’s “American Song Contest” and advanced to the semi-finals with his original song “Right in the Middle.”

Musical Bonding

It was in the Myriad Media Studios (which became Backlot Cinema) in the Franklin Plaza, that Morgan and Ricotta solidified their friendship. They had known each other since middle school, but working together to record music in the studio resulted in them becoming “good friends.” Morgan and Bates had been acquainted even longer, since elementary school. 

“Rob moved to Nashville a year before I did, and I slept on his couch until I got my own place,” said Morgan. “Caleb moved about two years ago, and he slept on my couch for a bit.” 

Ricotta, the band’s drummer, said he realized from a young age that music was

Rob Ricotta, who hails from Franklin, is garnering success in country music currently as a drummer with his long-time friend, John Morgan.

his calling. 

“I had fairly good rhythm,” he said, “and both of my parents, Bob and Nancy Ricotta, can sing and play instruments. They were aware there might be the musical bug in me also. So, my mother started me on piano from 7 years old until I was 12 years of age.” 

While he quit piano lessons because he said “I was tired of practicing,” he approached his parents at age 14 and told them his true desire was to play the drums. “My father came home with an old jazz drum kit one day, and I never looked back after discovering this brilliant instrument!”

“John Morgan spurred the musical gifting in me,” Ricotta added. “And, Robert Browning with Sheets to the Wind Music Publishing, made sure John succeeded in starting demos at Myriad Media. I also have to thank the churches and youth groups in which I was a small part. Individuals such as Kevin Ford, Patrick Moore, Andrew Gouge were so helpful in spurring me on in music with a Biblical foundation.”

Ricotta said that before joining Morgan as a band member, “I would play for events, ceremonies, and in (various) bands. There were gatherings when I played for free, simply for the love of making music. Whatever scale of playing, whether it has been for four people or for thousands, I count it all as the ebbs and flows of being a ‘professional’ musician.”

Bates, the band’s bass guitarist, explained that “the key to music enjoyment for me is to be doing it with friends. I guess I never really thought about it, but all the music I’ve ever played has been with friends. It’s awesome to travel with friends and experience this with people with so many common backgrounds and experiences.”

He began playing mandolin in 2007, when he was 15. 

“I played a little guitar and bass back then, but through the years, I just kind of picked bass up here and there. I played bass in bands for a few years, but it wasn’t until I began playing bass with John that I really took it seriously. He told me I had a knack for it. When he asked me to play for him in 2020, I began actually focusing on bass instead of mandolin and guitar.”

Like Morgan and Ricotta, Bates said he has always loved music. And, once he began playing, he said, “All other hobbies took a back seat. I went to college for music ministry, but it wasn’t until John gave me this opportunity that I legitimately saw it as a career.” 

Besides music, faith in God is another factor the three friends have in common. Morgan and Bates’ parents were friends at church before the two were born. Morgan and Bates attended Victory Christian School in Sylva and Ricotta, Trimont Christian Academy in Franklin. Morgan’s cousin, Marilyn Betts, who helped drive the tour bus last year, said it was heartening to see the band members “start every tour with prayer. And I could hear them discussing the Bible when I was driving.” 

“Being a believer and child of God does inform, inspire, and motivate my music personally,” pointed out Ricotta. “Music is my therapy, whether playing it, writing it, or making it with other people. I also believe that scripture says God ‘sings over us,’ and that’s always been an amazing thought to me – that music is a massive part of how God communicates with us.”

Moving Forward

Morgan said the band “hit the ground running” when it came off the “Rock and Roll Cowboy” tour. “We are currently in the process of getting some new songs cut, with March 3 as the release date for our next single.” 

In addition, Morgan is presenting music he has written to other well-known country music artists besides Aldean. 

When he writes, he tries to keep it real. 

“Country music is that genre that focuses on real life stuff. People want to hear something real and relatable.”

While Morgan enjoys all aspects of the music process, being in the studio is a highlight. 

“I like to touch each moving part of the creative process,” he said.

Ricotta’s goal as a drummer is to always “get better at the craft of playing and writing. I plan to make my own individual significant mark on the industry and not be a copycat artist. I can be informed and inspired by other songwriters and musicians. Yet, it’s ultimately up to me to carve my own journey and to leave my own unique signature on the industry.”

Ricotta noted that the band’s association with Jason Aldean has been important in a number of ways. Yet, primarily, he respects Aldean’s willingness to connect with other artists.

 “Jason is one of the most hands-on, encouraging, and caring individuals and artists. He has inspired us to build a foundation on faithfulness and trust with our own team. He has been an unlimited resource of support to not only John, but all of us, welcoming us like genuine family,” said Ricotta.

“Jason’s bass player, Tully Kennedy, has greatly helped me improve my bass playing,” added Bates. “He’s always encouraged me. I guess one of the biggest ‘aha’ moments was when he told Rob (after he hadn’t heard us for a while) that I sounded like a totally different bass player because I had really put a lot of practice into it during that time. That was an encouraging moment.”

Although Nashville has become the city where the three friends’ music careers are escalating, Western North Carolina is still their home. Morgan married last year, and he and his wife, Hailey, have an 11-month-old daughter, Willie. 

“Sylva is home for me,” he said. “Some people in my time of growing up there were jaded because they felt trapped in a small place that didn’t offer much … felt like there were limited opportunities. But I think my upbringing there was crucial to getting me where I am now. I was supported and able to focus on what I wanted to do. Home is a reset – a chance to remember what matters in life: Family.”

Morgan’s younger brother, Bryan, worked on the “Rock and Roll Cowboy” tour as a stage manager last year. 

“And my dad, Bobby, and my cousin, Marilyn [Betts] helped drive the tour bus. And it’s my mom, Tammy, who is our prayer warrior – keeping us safe on the road.”

Recently, a music video was filmed in the Blue Ridge Mountains for one of Morgan’s songs, “Man of Few Words,” and the video will be released sometime in the spring or early summer. An EPK (Electronic Press Kit) about Morgan focuses on his Western North Carolina roots. 

Ricotta married country music artist Jennifer Hart on New Year’s Day. The couple

A Franklin native and the drummer for John Morgan’s band, Rob Ricotta, married on New Year’s Day country music artist Jennifer Hart, who he met at a recording studio; photographing the wedding was People magazine.

originally met at a songwriting session. Getting to Franklin to visit family and friends is important to Ricotta. 

“Growing up in such a beautiful place in the mountains and with true country heritage has always given me the opportunity to write about how I truly grew up ‘country,’” he said.