“Did you know that Flint, Michigan, once had a thriving honky-tonk country music scene?” Chris Shiflett asks in the newest installment of his Walking the Floor podcast. This week, he sits down with road warrior Whitey Morgan, whose ragged, roughhewn country has more in common with the outlaws of Waylon Jennings’ generation than the bros of the 2010s. In a genre still ruled by big-budget labels, Morgan has found rare success as an independent artist, cracking the Top 40 with last year’s self-released Sonic Ranch and building his audience on tour, where his band averages more than 200 shows per year. Shiflett and Morgan’s 45-minute conversation is streaming below. Here’s five things we learned from their chat.
1. Whitey Morgan owes his country career to his late grandfather.
Growing up in middle Michigan, Morgan was a teenage metalhead, fascinated with the speed, swagger and hard-driving heft of bands like Slayer and Metallica. The music left a permanent mark on him. “I was in my share of punk-rock bands, indie rock and metal bands,” he remembers. One year shy of his 20th birthday, though, Morgan’s grandfather passed away, leaving behind a Gibson acoustic guitar and a vinyl collection filled with country classics. Morgan was blown away by the directness of those country songwriters, who didn’t need guitar amplifiers or a backup band to pack a punch. “Country can be done just on an acoustic guitar,” he says. “If you mean it, it works. That’s the first time I realized that.” Fascinated, Morgan spent years learning how to play songs from his grandfather’s collection, paving the way for a country career of his own.
2. Honky-tonk music is having a renaissance in Michigan, thanks to a group of tattooed songwriters who, like Morgan, mix punk roots with a country sensibility.
“We started doing this ‘Honky Tonk Tuesdays’ thing in this little tiny bar that maybe held 100 people,” Morgan tells Shiflett, referring to the since-shuttered venue in Ferndale, Michigan — Club Bart — that helped give Whitey Morgan and the 78s an early launching pad. His band wasn’t the only group to hit the Bart stage, though. “Within the first six months, it was packed every Tuesday,” he adds. “Then, out of the woodwork, players started coming — players that are old rockers, and that’s what they’re doing now. Vince [Dombroski] from Sponge — that’s all he does now. He’s in a country band now. He’s one of the first guys I ever played a gig with. We used to do shows together all the time, right after Sponge stopped hitting the road as hard.”
3. Once signed to Bloodshot Records, Morgan is an independent artist again … and he prefers it that way.
“I just didn’t want to have any ties to a label. At the time, we were out there busting our ass, playing 225 shows a year. We were making plenty of money for me to record. I didn’t need any studio money, any advancements, any of that,” he says. “I just felt like I could do it all myself. I could hire a publicist myself when the album came out, to do what [the label’s] person was doing … I’m just a control freak. I want to make sure stuff’s being done right. I don’t want it being done by a third party.” These days, Morgan runs his own business with help from a manager and a booking agent.
4. Country cowboys are everywhere – even overseas.
“We played the Rendezvous Festival in France,” Morgan remembers, relating a highlight from his band’s European tour earlier this decade. “You’d think you were at some biker rally in South Carolina or something.” Although half a world away from the roadhouses and honky-tonk dives of his home turf, Morgan found himself playing to country fans who looked a lot like Americans. “I remember these dudes from Spain who came up,” he adds. “They looked like they just stepped out of a Johnny Paycheck album cover from 1975.”
5. With 2015’s Sonic Ranch out for nearly a year and a half, the workhorse Morgan is feeling the urge to record something new.
“According to old-school country standards, I should already have another one out,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t know how all those guys did that shit!”