Talking Golf & Guitars with Ken Morton Jr.

One neat thing I’ve been able to do as a result of running this site is attend the annual Golf & Guitars Charity Concert at Haggin Oaks in Sacramento. Here’s my write-up on the 2014 event.

This year’s Golf & Guitars is just ahead on May 18-19 (the golfing and general admission show happen on the 19th), with performers set to include Josh Turner, Love & Theft, Jon Pardi, Jason Michael Carroll, A Thousand Horses, Old Dominion, Swon Brothers, Michael Ray, One Flew South, Joel Crouse, Trent Tomlinson, Julie Roberts, Logan Brill, Johnny Bulford, Janell Wheeler, Lindsay Lawler, Megan Conner, Jim McCormick, Courtney Patton, and Jason Eady. Info and tickets here.

I tracked down event manager Ken Morton Jr. to waste a little of his time ahead of the big day.

(Full disclosure: He wasn’t hard to track down. He’s a friend and regular reader of this site. We also previously served together on the writing teams of The 9513 and Engine 145.)

We’re a couple weeks out from the eighth Golf & Guitars. How did this tradition get started?

In addition to moonlighting as a country music writer for Engine 145, The 9513, That Nashville Sound, and Saving Country Music, I own a golf management company that runs some public courses here in Sacramento. I had become friends with the general manager from our local country radio station and he and I had talked about combining efforts and doing a charity golf tournament and concert here on the golf course for many years.

I have the blessing of working under my father, who is a very decorated PGA Golf Professional, and his 50th anniversary here at Haggin Oaks was coming up eight years ago. We thought [there was no better excuse] to celebrate and raise a bunch of money for charity. What we thought might be a one-time thing was so much fun and the community responded so well, it’s become an annual tradition here in Sacramento and has since raised over half a million dollars for charity.

The last couple of years, we’ve added a wonderful element of a singer-songwriter showcase that’s truly a special evening of some of the best writers in the country sharing their stories in song.

We joke that all musicians wish they were golf pros and golf pros all wish they were musicians, so it’s been a great combination of the two over the years.

The artists have been absolutely wonderful, giving up a couple days of their valuable touring time to raise money for area programs like Special Olympics, Wounded Warriors, The First Tee, and a bunch of college scholarships we hand out with 100% of the net proceeds.

What’s the most logistically challenging part of putting on an event like this?

It’s the travel, probably. We run tournaments day in and day out, so that part of it is pretty normal operations for us. But we’re bringing in 40 to 50 artists and musicians from random places all around the country and usually delivering them someplace different. Their musicians might come in from somewhere different. Timing everything and then having the ground transportation to get them around town is probably the most complicated part of it all. Once they’re here in Sacramento, they are as laid back and easy to take care of as any group of people you’ve met. They all understand they’re here for the charity and no one has an exhaustive concert rider or anything like that.

I like how Golf & Guitars has an almost Fan Fair feel to it, with most performers milling around and making themselves accessible to fans during the day and after the nighttime performances. Was that part of the original idea or just sort of how it evolved?

We had hoped it would evolve like that, but not quite to the level that it has. We’ve had a couple thousand people watching the tournament on day two during the day the last few years and they absolutely love the interaction with the acts out there. I remember the first year or two, we gave Chuck Wicks and the guys from Love & Theft a video camera during the concert and the video footage that they captured chatting with the attendees was very fun.

Country singers aren’t usually known for their golf expertise and hardcore country fans aren’t always known for being practiced golf spectators. Any favorite fish-out-of-water stories from years past?

My favorite has to be with Chris Young. When Chris first played in Golf & Guitars in year two, he had never held a golf club in his whole life. He showed up in jeans, boots, and a cowboy hat, and many of his friends (and mostly Chuck Wicks) were busting his chops to no end. As fate would have it, Chris was paired with the guys from Nike Golf who had bought a corporate foursome into the event and his team won it all. Needless to say, Chris dished it back out in a very heavy way.

But there’s been lots of other very fun stories. Jack Ingram and Kix Brooks shared with me a fantastic list of traded text messages that were trash-talking at its finest.

Jana Kramer made “snow angels” in the sand trap.

My favorite Golf & Guitars story revolves around the beautiful married couple of Joey + Rory. The Feeks filmed a whole “fish-out-of-water” episode of their RFD-TV show that was great television.

They made lots of fun of themselves, but it was after the tournament that might have been my favorite part. They went back to the back of our driving range while night two of our event was going on and gave a private concert to the members of our California Eagles Special Olympics program and their families, unbeknownst to most everyone in the facility. It was a magical moment.

When Joey and Rory, their manager Aaron, and the rest of their crew made it back to the main concert, I asked them how it went. It was such a moving and emotional experience for the two of them, neither of them could hardly manage to get a word out.

Just a few months later, Joey found out she was pregnant and about nine months after our concert, she gave birth to beautiful little Indiana Boon Feek. Little Indiana was born with Down Syndrome and I can’t help but think that their performance for a few dozen of our own California Eagles kids wasn’t some sort of audition for them to be parents to a beautiful little special needs girl in front of the heavens. I’ve since had a chance to talk to Rory about it and they both feel the same way.

A lot of the talent obviously comes from who your radio partner [KNCI] can get on board, but I know your specific tastes well enough to recognize some of the songwriter inclusions like Jason Eady and Courtney Patton as your doing. Any memorable ‘ones that got away’ of people you’ve tried to book but with whom it hasn’t worked out yet?

Vince Gill is still my “big fish.” I’d love to get Vince out at the event someday. He’s a very avid golfer and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for The First Tee programs around the country. We’ve been in touch, but so far, it hasn’t worked out in schedules. Other artists that we’ve talked with before that I would love to have in future years include Chris Stapleton, Brandy Clark, Darius Rucker, Nickel Creek, the Blue Sky Riders, Drew Kennedy, Dan Tyminski, Marcus Hummon, Hal Ketchum, Randy Houser, Marc Cohn, Sarah Buxton, and Michael Martin Murphey.

Timothy B. Schmit of The Eagles went to Encina High School here in Sacramento and graduated in my mom’s class. His family still lives here in Sacramento and I’d love to get him at the show one of these years too when he’s not out on tour with the other guys.

How soon do you start planning for next year’s event?

It literally starts the day after our event ends. It’s a year-round initiative.

Anything else people should know?

Just another reminder that at the end of the day, we’re all doing this to better our community. The Morton Golf Foundation’s mission is to provide funds to programs offering a healthy outdoor recreational environment that stresses the building of lasting personal relationships while seamlessly instilling life’s core values for the youth, disabled, and under-served communities of Sacramento. Our junior programs now touch over 6,000 kids annually. That Special Olympics golf program I mentioned before is the largest in the country and programs like our Savings Strokes program, which rehabilitates stroke victims through golf recreation, now have become national models for the PGA. It just proves that a song really can change someone’s life.

For more on Golf & Guitars, visit the event website. General and VIP tickets are available here.

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