Play that country music, Whitey

Whitey Morgan and the 78’s pay visit to Rockstar Pro Arena

By Tim Anderl

Photo: Whitey Morgan and the 78’s will perform April 18 at RockStar Pro Arena

Whitey Morgan’s forthcoming album, Sonic Ranch, is an outlaw country-influenced, bare knuckle barn burner that tells the rough and tumble tales of Morgan’s Flint, Michigan upbringing and the colorful characters he’s met along the way. Recorded in Texas with Ryan Hewitt (The Avett Brothers, Red Hot Chili Peppers), the predominant messages of the album are perseverance, passion and never giving up or taking crap from anyone. And they are messages Morgan and his band deliver rather convincingly, because they’ve experienced the struggle.

Dayton City Paper recently spoke with Morgan about his songwriting, hometown and recent performances with Bob Seeger.

When did you first realize you had an affinity for songwriting?

Whitey Morgan: I don’t know if I ever “realized it.” I have just always played music and knew that if I wanted to be successful I had better be a great singer or songwriter, or be decent at both. People seem to like my songs so I guess I’m doing something right.

When did you adopt the Whitey Morgan moniker?

WM: Not sure exactly when it was. I knew I would always use Morgan, though, because it’s my grandfather’s last name and he taught me to play music at a young age. As far as “Whitey,” It was the only nickname I ever had in school. It was a mostly black elementary school in Flint, Michigan, and the name just came from my schoolyard friends and foes. I figured it sounded better than my real name and would be easy for people to remember.

Are the characters that exist in your songs based on non-fictional accounts of people you’ve known?

WM: The things and people in my songs are definitely from my own life. I usually start out writing about real experiences and then add in some fiction to make the song come together. I have had people ask, “Are you doing OK? The songs on your album sound like you aren’t doing so well.” That tells me I must be selling the stories pretty well.

Flint, Michigan seems at once both an appropriate and unlikely residence of a country songwriter. Did you have many peers there?

WM: There are generations of southern transplants up in Flint. My family along with a lot of my friends’ families came up to work at General Motors. As far as peers go, I didn’t really have any doing what I was doing back then.

Was the account of Flint in Michael Moore’s movie “Roger & Me” pretty accurate? Is it still accurate or is the city on an upswing?

WM: Flint definitely got a lot worse in the decade after the movie. The last five years or so, it has been getting better. Downtown has made a resurgence with restaurants and shops popping up, and the university has expanded. It’s great to see people out and about in downtown again.

Making the latest record at Sonic Ranch had such a lasting impact that you named the album after it. Can you tell me about that experience?

WM: Sonic Ranch is an amazing studio just east of El Paso, Texas. It is built in old adobe buildings that are scattered all over a huge pecan farm that butts right up to the border fence. It was such a great laid back desolate vibe that makes you feel like you are on vacation, not working your ass off on a record. The staff is all made up of local ladies that make your meals and do your laundry and treat you like family. I can’t wait to get back there and do the next one.

Where did you develop the inspiration to cover Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around To Die”?

WM: It was actually my manager’s idea. I have always loved that song, but had never considered recording it. Once I tuned the guitar way down and started singing it, I knew it would work. It has such a darkness to it already and tuning it down made it feel even darker. Once we added in the drums, we knew we were on to something. I’m very proud of that song.

What did Ryan Hewitt bring to the table that may have had a transformative effect on your original ideas?

WM: Ryan was a perfect addition to the studio team. He brought to the table an amazing ability to sonically make things sound huge, but raw and real at the same time. He was good at pushing me to do what I have always done, but push me a little farther past my comfort zone. We worked great together.

The record was released via your own imprint. Has doing it yourself been an extra burden or did you want that kind of freedom?

WM: Definitely not a burden. I have been doing it alone and with my manager all along. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I doubt I will ever go back to a label.

What was it like opening up for Bob Seeger?

WM: It was unreal and sometimes I still can’t believe we were invited back 10 times by him and his crew. They are an amazing family and make it easy to be up there on the big stage.

The hard work is paying off – you were cited by Rolling Stone as one of the artists you need to see at SXSW 2015. Is that validating for you?

WM: It feels good. It has been a long uphill battle for lots of years and more miles than I can count. I owe a lot to my team. They are the best, hardest working guys out there right now. I look forward to the future.

I get out of bed excited everyday, even if it starts with a 15 hour drive cross country. I can’t imagine doing anything else till they put me in the ground.

Whitey Morgan and the 78’s will perform Saturday, April 18 at 7:30 p.m. at RockStar Pro Arena, 1106 E. Third St. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. The New Old-Fashioned will also perform. For more information, please visit whiteymorgan.com.

Tim Anderl is the web editor and a contributing writer at Ghettoblaster Magazine and maintains his own music blog at youindie.com. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Anderl at TimAnderl@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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