There's a common misconception that being country is a Southern phenomenon. If that were true, Flint, Mich. native Whitey Morgan might be playing in a garage punk band rather than fronting the best outlaw country band in all of Michigan. (It's a low bar, but still.)
Like many Flint residents, Morgan's heritage is elsewhere. His grandfather was a Southern transplant who chased an auto factory job north. He brought along his culture and played guitar in honky-tonks and country bars throughout the area. When Morgan was 8 years old, his grandfather taught him his first chords and set the groundwork for a lifelong love of country music. Of course, like many young men, Morgan's first reaction was to hate the music he heard growing up.
"I was a typical teenager," Morgan, who was born Eric Allen, says. "I wanted to play loud and fast, and was in a couple punk bands during my teen years. Then I kinda got into Southern rawk stuff, and then when my grandpa passed, I started playing country. I inherited his guitar and all his records. Listening to those old vinyl records of my grandpa's really brought me back. Then I started to realize these were all the songs he taught me to play. I didn't know their names until I had those old-time records in my hand."
Morgan still plays his grandpa's Gibson J-200 guitar and keeps his legacy alive with a country sound deeply informed by the music of Johnny Paycheck, David Allan Coe and, particularly, Waylon Jennings. Morgan's deep baritone is reminiscent of Jennings' voice, as is the numerical name for his backing band — Morgan's is the 78's, Jennings' was the 357's. In Morgan's case, the number pulls double duty as the original vinyl rpm and the year Morgan thinks country went pop. He and his band perform at Puckett's Farm Equipment on July 21.
Morgan didn't discover Jennings right away, instead stumbling across his music on the way through old Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Jimmy Martin. When Morgan heard Jennings' legendary Honky Tonk Heroes, he knew he had found his inspiration.
"For me, Waylon was a lot closer to what I'm used to playing — like a full band, real big backbeat stuff. It was definitely a smoother transition than trying to do the stripped-down Hank stuff," Morgan says. "And the Waylon stuff is so much simpler. His band was geared toward keeping it simple. For me, that was perfect. That's what I still try to do now. It's all about the rhythm section, the big vocals and some picking in between, and you have a show."
True to form, Morgan's music is fueled by alcohol, broken hearts and a love of old-school country music. He slams pop country on his song "If It Ain't Broke." He indulges a little Western Swing while listening to George Jones in an empty bar on "Turn Up the Bottle." He goes on a three-day heartbreak-fueled bender on "I Ain't Drunk," where he declares, "I ain't drunk, hell, I've just been drinking." For the terrific "Memories Cost A Lot," Morgan brings some Tex-Mex textures to a meditation on pimping your pain.
Since forming in 2005, Morgan has released a pair of albums — Honky Tonks & Cheap Motels released in 2008 and a self-titled release in 2010 — while enduring a significant number of lineup changes. The latest brought in longtime Shooter Jennings bassist Ted Russel Kamp and drummer Tony Dicello, whom Morgan describes as the best drummer he's ever had. "He's solid on and off-stage," Morgan says. It's something Morgan can appreciate, having drummed during his teens.
The band changes are part of an overall strategy leading up to the release of Morgan's third album, which he sees as a make-or-break proposition. "Everything is building toward this next one," he says. "This is the one that's going to count and will either take me to the next level, or I'm going to keep doing the same 200-seat clubs."
To that end, Morgan is actually planning a trio of albums he hopes to release within the next year. The first is a live disc scheduled for fall. The second is a studio album of country covers with spare accompaniment — something he's wanted to do for a long time.
"It's something different. It's not a party album," Morgan says. "I took a lot of old songs and slowed them way down, made them darker. It's very much me in a room with a lot of that old-sounding, dark reverb. It's just my guitar, some steel guitar and maybe some Hammond organ. Just to give it a dark flavor... When those songs slow down like that, you drop them a key, they have a different feel, a different vibe."
In the meantime, Morgan and his crew continue working up new songs in anticipation of hitting the studio toward the end of the year, with the third new album hopefully being released in the spring. They'll be incorporating a few songs into the set at Puckett's, as well as a couple new covers. (The last album featured a terrific countrified take on Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire.")
"That's a good thing to do every couple months, change things up. It's a little more fun for us too," Morgan says.
The funny thing is, Morgan feels that the band is generally better off the less they know.
"The songs I like best and the ones that people like the most seem to be the ones that we learned in the studio and kind of had to make up the lead stuff on the spot," says Morgan. "My guys aren't as experienced as a lot of national cats that have a million tricks up their sleeve. We're kind of stuck with our limitations, which to me makes a great band. When you know what you can do and you do the hell out of it, that's what I like about bands."
Whitey Morgan and the 78's with Polecat Fisher & The Rank Strangers. $8-$10. July 21. 9 p.m. Puckett's Farm Equipment. www.puckettsfarm.com.