The Real Deal: Whitey Morgan and the 78’s

Country music fans, perhaps more than those of other genres, suffer from a sentimentality disorder. No matter their generation, they long for the good old days when country was country. They want nothing to do with pop-country or bro-country or any other hyphenated outcropping of the form. If it ain’t Cash, Haggard or some other outlaw legend . . . well, it ain’t the real deal. That’s an understandable position to hold if examined solely within the context of Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and other mainstream country acts. But, if they were to look a little closer, they would find a bunch of incredibly talented artists making the kind of music that Johnny and Merle would be happy to call their kin.

That’s where Whitey Morgan’s music lives — somewhere in that contemporary outlaw country distance between Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. Born Eric Allen, the country singer-songwriter took up the “Whitey Morgan” moniker 10 years ago when he decided to give the local honky-tonk scene something to talk about. The hard-scrabble lives of the unemployed factory workers who were his neighbors in Flint, Michigan, gave Morgan something to sing about. Morgan knew that you didn’t have to come from Texas or Tennessee to write and sing country songs. After all, there are working-man struggles aplenty in Michigan, too.

To support a couple of indie and local label releases, including 2008’s well-received Honky Tonks and Cheap Motels, Morgan and his band spent a lot of time on the road — playing up to 200 shows a year. The effort paid off when, in 2010, Bloodshot Records picked them up for Whitey Morgan and the 78’s, a set that was recorded at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, New York, and continued to earn him accolades from fans and critics, alike.

Though the themes of his songs remain the same — whiskey, women and wandering — Morgan’s solid touring and new release, Sonic Ranch, should put a full stop to any speculation that this is a ginned-up tribute band. With Morgan’s booming baritone leading the charge, these guys crank up the Telecasters and get it done. Whereas Simpson might be the thinking man’s outlaw, Morgan is the working man’s. There’s no Jesus playing “with flames in a lake of fire” here, son. No, sir. Instead of singing fanciful meditations, Morgan’s telling it straight and true. “I gave up on running ‘round. She gave up on me. I gave up on the cocaine. Now it’s just me and the whiskey,” he sings in the album’s opener, “Me and the Whiskey.”

These boys aren’t hell-bent on reliving some bygone days of glory. They are making their own because, like Waylon and Willie, Stapleton and Simpson, Whitey Morgan is the real deal.