Whitey Morgan is not really thinking clearly.
“I’ve been drinking margaritas for three fucking days,” he says, calling from outside the Airbnb in Pensacola, Florida, that he rented for a few rest days on tour. He and his band, the 78’s, have been hanging out there grilling, consuming alcohol and relaxing before heading back out on the road to support his new record, Hard Times and White Lines, and he’s feeling a little of that post-tequila fog.
Booze and beach-bum cloudiness aside, clear thinking — in the vein of picking your lane and sticking to it with all your might — is part of what defines the music of Whitey Morgan. While some artists crave reinvention from album to album, or experiment with ephemeral trends, the Michigan native has been true to his core for the past 20 years: and that is rowdy and righteous country music. It’s why Hard Times and White Lines doesn’t try to move the needle. There’s no experimenting with crazy new textures, no partnering with some out-of-the-box producer (Morgan tackled those duties himself). It’s just another Whitey Morgan LP, made to simply be better than the last. And in a world where ideas come a mile a minute in the form of 280-character bursts, that’s a damn fine thing.
“If what you are doing is good, and you become comfortable with it, some people would call that complacent,” Morgan says. “But I think it’s not always a bad thing, because it’s who you are. You don’t have to try and reinvent yourself with every record. People either say you’re doing the same old thing, or you change too much. Well, which one do you fucking want? I can only be one or another, and I’m not trying to change. I’m 42. This is me. If you don’t like it by now, don’t buy the next record, because it’s going to sound pretty damn close to the same. And I’m proud of that.”
Morgan, who grew up playing in punk bands, has been making tried and true hard-edged honky-tonk since the age of 19, when he inherited a stack of records and an acoustic guitar from his grandparents. In the years that have followed, he’s become a tireless road warrior and champion for traditional country music with a Southern rock edge that eschews the pressures of Music Row. That focus has paid off: in August, he clocked his first show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
His conviction to stay the same, however, hasn’t always applied to his personal life: sometimes, shit happens. In the past five years, Morgan saw plenty of it — a divorce, a penchant for drinking that got a bit out of control, and the vocal wear and tear of so many nights on the road. But he also saw plenty of light, too. He remarried and had a child, spending time with his family in the California town where they made a home. Fatherhood’s definitely had an impact on his newfound steadiness in “all the obvious ways,” he says.
“I think I have more focus,” he says. “On not being such a mess on the road, and on the stage, and on life in general. Trying to be a better dad and a better businessman, and plan for his future. Not just my short one.”
Morgan’s not really one for confessional songs, but he does grapple with those ideas of aging and responsibility on “Carryin’ On,” a cover of Dale Watson’s “Carryin’ On This Way.’ As has become his tradition, Morgan takes a song already known to some (or, other times, many, as he did with ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid”) and reinvents it as his own.
“The first line: ‘good morning fella, you don’t look too good today,’ damn,” he says of “Carryin’ On.” “I remember when I turned 40 and that song, it’s really speaking to me right now. Maybe it’s easier for me to pick someone else’s song, where I have already had time to contemplate what it means to me, and how it connects to my life. So that’s definitely something I have been doing recently. I’m thinking more about how the songs make me feel. It feels like he wrote it for me, and that’s the kind of shit I love to play if at all possible.”
“I get a lot of shit because I do a lot of covers, but Waylon Jennings did like two originals per record”
Though Morgan wrote about a third of Hard Times and White Lines himself, recorded at Sonic Ranch in Texas, he’s still a believer in the country tradition of those covers, and the importance of incorporating musical interpretation into his catalog. Sometimes, that means tracks from ZZ Top, and sometimes it means using material written by his own band (like “Wild and Reckless,” by his steel guitar player Brett Robinson). There’s certainly no shortage of posturing about self-written songs afoot these days, particularly when it comes to criticism of Music Row, but Morgan knows that bringing to life the work of others is actually one of the genre’s truest customs.
“I get a lot of shit because I do a lot of covers,” he says. “But Waylon Jennings did like two originals per record. George Jones barely did. Now you have Sturgill [Simpson] and Jason Isbell and Brent Cobb, all these great writers who write all their own songs, so people are getting used to that. So people say, ‘Why doesn’t he write all his songs?’ But I’m fucking in love with more than the shit I write. Whatever I am connected to emotionally is what I am going to put on my record.”
What Morgan wrote himself, though, is equally as stirring as those covers — some of which he composed with the help of Travis Meadows, like “Tired of the Rain,” “Bourbon and the Blues” and the perfectly-chugging meditation on divorce, “Around Here.” The songs, along with gritty, hard-livin’ tracks like “Honky Tonk Hell,” capture quintessential country scenes — the weariness of the road, the loneliness and the pain — while “Hard to Get High” describes the agony of heartbreak so deep even drugs and booze won’t work.
With a long, scraggly beard and music to match, Morgan’s been long referred to as one of the new “outlaws.” Back when he first started, he identified with that moniker, but as more and more artists, like Margo Price, Cody Jinks, Chris Stapleton, Nikki Lane and Simpson, have been able to pave careers without conforming, he feels less and less tied to it at all.
“Back then, nobody gave a shit about us or any of the good Seventies country music,” he says, remembering the days when he first began his career and bookers wouldn’t even know who Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings were. “Now that what we are doing — me and Cody Jinks and Sturgill and Jamey [Johnson] — it’s become popular. To me, the term ‘outlaw’ doesn’t make any sense anymore. We are becoming more mass appeal, and that mass is more open-minded. Even if they are not big country fans, they are real music fans. We don’t have to put labels on it, because it’s crossing all these genres. The outlaw thing, it ain’t what it used to be, and that’s a good thing. Because we’re winning.”
Morgan remembers a time a decade or so ago, when he and Stapleton did shows together at small venues. Now, he’s playing the Ryman and Stapleton’s in arenas, cutting platinum records. Most importantly, albums like Hard Times and White Lines are finally getting heard beyond just a diehard fan base.
“We’re winning,” he repeats. “Maybe not the war, but the battles.”