At this point, the honky tonk formula is battle-tested and mostly impregnable; stick to the rules, and you’re bound to come out with something solid. Whitey Morgan has quietly been a leading modern practitioner of the form, even though he comes from Michigan, not Nashville, and he has not been appointed a savior of tradition by the increasingly powerful Americana lobby. Over the course of three albums, especially 2010’s Whitey Morgan and the 78’s, he covered the usual topics — breaking laws, breaking hearts and various forms of alcohol-assisted tomfoolery — with rumbling authority as his drummer thwacked away and his bassist laid down plump, swinging riffs.
This is also the stuff of Morgan’s latest, Hard Times and White Lines. His voice, always on the low and resonant end of the spectrum, appears to have gained even more bottom-of-the-barrel qualities. Morgan wrote or co-wrote almost everything, and he stuffs these songs full of the usual details. In the second track, he is advised to change his “whiskey ways,” but in the next number, “Hard to Get High,” he’s hitting the bottle even harder. Jukeboxes, neon and angels make multiple appearances, and every time a relationship is mentioned, it either just fell apart or it’s on its way to rupture.
Hard Times and White Lines has all the requisite kick: There’s a vicious cover of Z. Z. Top’s “Just Got Paid,” and at several points, it sounds like Tony Dicello might be using a lead boot to play his kick drum. There’s also plenty of attractive pedal steel playing, especially in “Carrying On,” a cover of Dale Watson that bears faint hints of Glenn Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind,” and “Wild and Reckless,” a cheeky and actually quite restrained portrait of man on the brink of collapse. This album lacks the equivalent of “Memory Costs a Lot,” a Whitey Morgan and the 78’s track that seemed plucked from the mind of Billie Joe Shaver. But Morgan sticks to the rules, and the rest takes care of itself.