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Drinking Songs, And Then Some 

Whitey Morgan's independent streak makes him a must-hear modern country outlaw

click to enlarge Whitey Morgan headlines The Bartlett on Wednesday, July 29
  • Whitey Morgan headlines The Bartlett on Wednesday, July 29

If you're unfamiliar with Whitey Morgan, it'll take you roughly 10 seconds of listening to his new album Sonic Ranch to get the gist. That's the point when the Michigan native's baritone kicks in, after a few tasty guitar chords, on a tale of a lonely man seeking solace in a bottle.

"I gave up on running 'round / She gave up on me," Morgan sings. "I gave up the cocaine / Now it's just me and the whiskey."

Spending the past eight years or so on a perpetual tour in venues including traditional honky-tonks, punk-rock dives and theaters means that Morgan isn't likely to be alone with that bottle very often. His fan base has grown exponentially as he's toured the same towns over and over, word of mouth spreading the news that there's a young artist in town who evokes the sound — and more important, the attitude — of his childhood influences: Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, Bobby Bare and other icons of so-called "outlaw country."

Morgan covers all three of those artists on Sonic Ranch, his third studio album and the first on his own label, Whitey Morgan Music. Jennings' "Goin' Down Rocking" evokes images of dusty barroom floors with its mid-tempo swagger, and Van Zandt's "Waitin' 'Round to Die" is an epic ballad slathered in pedal-steel, given the perfect urgency by Morgan's voice.

"I've played so many covers over the years. There's always those that when you sing them, you can feel them," Morgan says of picking others' songs to record in an interview from the road. "They can seem like something that would come from you, that you would write."

Indeed, the covers are some of the new album's highlights, but Morgan originals like "Me and the Whiskey" and "Good Timin' Man" stand strong right alongside those legends' tunes. Morgan and his band, the 78's, took five years between studio sessions — time spent extricating himself from a bad label deal and touring nonstop — and the time and effort he put into making Sonic Ranch his best album to date comes through loud and clear.

Morgan partly credits his decision to record at the remote Texas desert studio that gave the album its name for its excellent sound. It's a 3,000-acre complex where the band slept in haciendas, ate with other musicians and took full advantage of the studio's retrofitted equipment. It's hard to imagine the soaring steel guitars and roundhouse piano licks sounding much better.

"It's kind of a middle-of-nowhere place where you can chill out and create," Morgan says. "It's nice and secluded. If you have an issue, you can get away. You don't go sit in some damn studio waiting room or on the street."

Morgan's intensity comes through the phone line when he talks about jump-starting his label to put out Sonic Ranch. He notes that plenty of labels came calling when he got out of his old deal, "but most of them didn't want to give me anything I couldn't do myself." And he sure wasn't going to have any label suits take a cut of his earnings for doing virtually nothing. That's the DIY attitude Morgan takes from his working-class hometown of Flint, Michigan, and from the punk rockers he grew up idolizing along with the country greats.

"I've been doing this way too damn long on my own, and I'm not about to give it away," he says, noting that some bands spend $1,000 a day on a tour bus. "I'm out playing 200 nights a year. I'm not paying $200,000 for a bus!"

While Morgan's renegade spirit and independent nature keep him tied to the punk roots of his youth, the move to country as he got older was natural. His grandfather was a bluegrass picker and gave him his first Gibson guitar, and the traditional country sounds he makes now are a natural extension of that gift.

"The older you get, the more you appreciate what the songs are about in country," Morgan says.

For those who claim to hate country music based on what the mainstream Nashville scene is shoveling out to the world, consider Morgan an ideal introduction to how good the genre can be in the right hands. ♦

Whitey Morgan and the 78's • Wed, July 29, at 8 pm • $18/$20 day of • All-ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • • 747-2174

Young Artists Doing Country Right, and an Album to Sample

Lydia Loveless, Somewhere Else

Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (playing Knitting Factory Nov. 10)

Nikki Lane, All or Nothin'

The Delines, Colfax

Justin Townes Earle, Harlem River Blues

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