Raised in the Ryman

UPDATED 09/14/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/14/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

The moment had been carefully planned. Country crooner George Morgan had agreed that toward the end of his performance at the Grand Ole Opry that night in 1973 he would look off into the wings at the youngest of his five children, 13-year-old Lorrie, and see if she wanted to join him onstage to sing "Paper Roses." "He said, 'If you feel like you can't do it, just shake your head no and I'll sing another song. If you want to do it, give me a nod,' " she recalls.

As it turned out, Lorrie was too nervous to do either. Looking out at the crowd seated beneath the stained-glass of windows of Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, she just shrugged. Then she steeled herself, walked onstage and started singing. The crowd went wild. "I got my first standing ovation," says Lorrie, who with three platinum albums and a string of hit singles like "Out of Your Shoes," "Something in Red" and "What Part of No" has enjoyed many others.

But more than any audience reaction, Morgan, 35, will always treasure the memory of her father watching her perform publicly for the first time. "I'll never forget looking over at him and seeing big old tears just coming down his face," she says wistfully.

Two years later, George—who was best known for his 1949 hit "Candy Kisses"—would die at age 50 from complications after heart surgery. And Lorrie would set out to follow in his footsteps, first as a backup singer for George Jones and then as a solo artist. "After he died when she was just 16, she just had to do it," says Lome's mother, Anna Trainor, 63. "Lorrie was a daddy's girl."

And country music was a doting godparent. "Lorrie always came with her father to the Grand Ole Opry," Trainor continues. "She stood in the wings and ran all over the place backstage. They all knew who she was." Although Morgan can't remember the first time she set foot in the Rayman—from which the Opry was broadcast each Saturday night from 1943 to 1974—even as a child she sensed that she was watching country music history in the making. "I would be in the wings or sitting on the stage while my dad was performing, and I knew I was in a special place," she says.

Throughout those years, Nashville luminaries, including Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn and Minnie Pearl, filled her head with dreams of stardom. "I remember Minnie walking into the Opry with a pretty dress and her hair all fixed," Morgan says. "She'd go in that dressing room and come out in a plain little gingham dress and that hat with the price tag hanging off of it and just start raisin' hell. She would become one of the guys, and I said, 'That's what I want to be.' "

By the time Lorrie was 12, George had presented her with her first guitar, which she taught herself to play. Though he didn't push her to perform, her father encouraged her talents. When he came off the road—he never had a tour bus, Lorrie says, but "drove himself in a car until the day he died"—she would sit at the dining room table and sing for him. "How he made time for all of us is beyond me," says Morgan. "He could be everything for us, no matter how tired he was."

She feels the same way about her mother. "We talk about everything, from sex to fairytales," Morgan says. "She's shown me how important a mother is in a family. She always kept my feet planted firmly." It's the examples her parents set that Morgan has used in trying to juggle her own career demands and the needs of her children, Morgan Gaddis, 13, from her brief marriage at 20 to steel guitarist Ron Gaddis, and Jesse Keith Whitley, 7, from her marriage to Keith Whitley, who died of an alcohol overdose in 1989. (A third marriage, to Brad Thompson, Clint Black's onetime bus driver, ended in divorce last year.)

She also wants someday to find the kind of relationship that her father shared with her mother. "I remember hoping that after 20-some years, my husband would kiss me the way my dad kissed my mom," she says. She still calls recent beau Troy Aikman, quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, "the love of my life," although their relationship reportedly fell apart over tabloid scrutiny and Morgan's inability to have more children. (She underwent a hysterectomy.) "There is no one right now I'm giving my heart to until that one man, that one particular man, comes back and says, 'I'm ready to take your heart and give mine to you,' " she says.

In the meantime, she has her music and a budding acting career to focus on, after starring in a 1993 made-for-TNN movie, Proudheart, and a CBS pilot, Loralei Lee, about a cop who moonlights as a country singer. And when loneliness hits, she can head out to the Opry. In 1984 she was inducted into that tightest of Nashville clubs by her father's close friend Bill Anderson. "That was a great night," she says. "I was teary-eyed thinking of my father, wishing he was there. He would have been so proud."

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