Modern Outlaw: Whitey Morgan Shakes up Country
Listen Up Toledo | 07/31/2013
He tries not to let it piss him off anymore, but as Whitey Morgan and I discuss the state of modern music, you can tell by his razor-sharp analysis that synthetic bubblegum-pop radio country —a genre plagued by pretentious twang and about as much emotional depth as a Sesame Street song — still bothers him a bit. But, while he'll deconstruct it, you won't hear him complain about it, because that's not who he is. Hailing from Flint, Whitey and his 78s have been making a lot of noise with their rooted outlaw honkey tonk, keeping their noses to the grindstone and embracing a blue collar, work hard, play harder road warrior lifestyle. Bob Seger has noticed. Whitey has opened for him twice on select Midwestern dates, including the Huntington Center in Toledo. And he's about to swing back into town this Saturday, August 3, at the much smaller Mainstreet. Toledo.com caught up with Morgan to talk about Bob Seger's friendliness, how you have to dig to find good country music and why there are knuckle dents on his equipment trailer.
You spend a lot of time on the road and you're known to put on one hell of a show — what's the key to keeping the set lists fresh and the energy up for you, the band and the fans?
Well, the main thing we try to do is not keep the same covers in the set every night. We do, I'd say, maybe 75 to 80 percent originals and about 20 percent covers. A lot of times it's just something we have been listening to on the road, a song that we are all liking. And we say, 'Hell, why don't we learn it and start playing it.' That keeps it fresh for us. But, also, just the little things: ya know, we'll take an old original that we have been playing for five years or whatever and add a new guitar part in there just to bring some new life into it. As far as the live show goes, we really don't need a whole lot of motivation to keep the energy up and keep it interesting for us — the fans pretty much do that on a nightly basis. They are the ones that make us push harder and go to another level.
Is there a cover song that you have recently been playing that you are particularly drawn to?
We have been doing a Johnny Paycheck song, "11 Months And 29 Days," for about seven months now and that's been really fun; it's a bit of a different sound than what we do. It's got kind of an old 70s blues groove to it. Lately we have also been doing some George Jones, since he passed. Maybe we'll throw in some ZZ Top; like an old B Side. Nothing too obvious.
I saw a video that you posted on Facebook of you playing that Paycheck cover ["11 Months And 29 Days"] backstage at the Bob Seger show in Toledo?
Oh, yeah; I forgot all about that. That was right when we started playing it. We usually work them up in the smaller venues and they might not be perfect every night, then, five or six times in, we'll play them in the important shows. That was probably the fist time we played that at a big show.
How long did you guys open for Seger? Did you do a string of dates?
Yeah, this last tour he did, we did four or five dates. And the one that he did last summer, we did four or five also.
Being a Michigan-based band, opening for a Michigan legend had to be pretty neat.
Oh yeah, man; it was great. I have opened for a lot of big-name, newer country stars — their whole organization is so stressed-out and tense backstage. Bob Seger's people have been doing it for so long…there's not a lot of urgency to anything. They were just like, 'We know what we are doing, here are your times, we'll see you in a half hour.' There was nobody getting on you, making sure you do this or that. It was a real mellow, well-oiled machine.
Did you get a chance to kick it with Seger?
Yeah, the first tour, maybe the third show in or so, I got to go backstage after my set, before he played, and talk to him for like 15 minutes. The cool thing was, the next tour, this past spring, he was actually pretty instrumental in getting us on the show. Him and his people, you know, they knew how easy we are to work with. It was cool because he would come through the hallway and we would be there hanging out and he would always say hi and he would call me by my name. It's good to know that he actually knew who his opener was every night, not just going through the motions.
What are your thoughts on the current state of country music?
I used to get upset about how terrible, contrived and phony it was. They basically take these guys that come straight off the karaoke stage and, if they are good looking enough, they write some songs for them and put them on the road. I try not too even think about it anymore; there's nothing I can do about it. I just got to go out there and do my thing. For the most part, these people who like new country, also like us; we cross over pretty well, from the hardcore traditionalists that only listen to old school stuff to the soccer moms that don't know shit about country music and listen to Rascal Flats. They might be at a show and we're not really what they are there to see, but they still dig us anyway. We dip into about every scene, even the real hipster kids. We'll be out in Portland or one of those hipster towns — and we still pull the good old boys from outside the city — but we'll also pull the hipster guy that was at an indie-grindcore show the night before. Ten years ago I played in bands where we played to one type of crowd and this band is definitely a lot different.
Are there any contemporary country artists that you're fond of at the moment?
There are a few of them out there that I respect all the work they have put in over the years and I can't really say that I dig their style of music, but, as far as that goes, I can appreciate certain things about guys — who you won't find on the playlist on my iPod — like Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley and Keith Urban. They're real musicians and they work their asses off. They came up from nothing. But I really don't dig their sound and style; it's a little too polished up. It's not my thing. I would like [modern country musicians] a lot better if they all didn't have the same sound. They are using the same damn studio and the same steel player and the same drummer and all the same digital plug-ins. That's why every album sounds exactly the same. That's why when I listen to the radio, not one song in an hour will catch my ear.
What about the grittier side of Nashville, with the young alt-country singer-songwriters like Justin Townes Earle and Jason Isbell?
Oh yeah, I love Justin Townes Earle. He's probably one of my favorites as far as alt-country. I've got all his stuff. I definitely dig Jason Isbell. I like Drive-By Truckers, which is the band he came from. There's a lot of stuff going on in a lot of different places. That's the thing: you have to look for it. I always compare it to people complaining while walking out of Olive Garden in the middle of Manhattan, saying that there is no good Italian places in Manhattan anymore. You just got to look for it. It's not going to be where the majority of the people are.
I saw the other day, when you posted a picture of your equipment trailer on Facebook, someone commented on the dents. You replied, "Real ass country music comes with rowdy nights." Any particularly good stories in terms of how the trailer got its scars?
It started out as me, maybe three years ago, being in a bad frame of mind…just a lot of stress — that was when we were losing money on the road. I would come out of the gig and just lay a couple of punches on the side of the trailer and get in the van and kind of relax and chill. It was basically taking frustration out back in the day, but these days the fans have taken to it. They saw me do it before or they ask me where the knuckle dents are from. Now a couple of those guys come outside and they want to lay a few on the side of the trailer. It's kind of turned into that. I don't even do it anymore, because I know what happens: you hit it a couple of times and your knuckles swell up and almost look like a damn baseball. It's pretty funny watching these big boys come out there and hit it a couple times and then the next day they send me a picture of their hand. It's like, I told you not to do it, man. Yeah, that's how that stupid shit started.
Whitey Morgan & the 78s play Mainstreet Bar, 141 Main St., on Saturday, August 3. 9pm. $8 advance; $10 door. For more information, visit http://innovationconcerts.com.