Since he first started playing outlaw country back in 2005, Flint, Mich. native Whitey Morgan has certainly witnessed the honky-tonk resurgence firsthand. With that, he’s also seen crowds at his shows diversify as well.
“My favorite part of this band over the years has been the broad fan base,” Morgan says. “[We play to] everyone from little kids to old people—from hipsters to metalheads. It’s great.”
Morgan will visit the Vogue on Thursday, Nov. 8, fresh off the release of his new album Hard Times and White Lines. Beforehand, we caught up with him for a phone interview.
NUVO: You’re from Flint, Mich. What was it like to come up playing country music there?
WHITEY MORGAN: I started out mostly playing with my grandfather. I’d learn country songs at his house. I was at his house quite a bit when I was a kid. My parents were going through a divorce, and I moved into a house with my mom right next door to my grandpa. So when she was at work, I was always over there playing guitar. The first time I picked up a guitar was probably when I was 8, and the first songs that I learned were country songs.
I never really played out until my early 20s, and that was mainly in and around Detroit. Surprisingly, there was a really good [country music] scene happening back then, and there still is. There are a lot of old rock ’n’ rollers and shit that love country music. After they stopped doing their rock ’n’ roll thing, they started bands and were playing on Tuesday or Wednesday nights at smaller bars, just because it was a new style of music.
As far as Flint, there wasn’t a country scene when I was growing up. But when my grandfather was young, there was a huge country scene in Flint because of all the factories. All the southern boys like my grandfather came up to work at the factories in Flint. All the factories were surrounded by bars, and half of them were country bars.
NUVO: Who were some of the artists that your grandfather introduced you to?
MORGAN: He put tapes on when we were in the car, but I never really paid attention to who it was because I was pretty young. He passed away, and he doesn’t realize the influence he had through his record collection that I inherited when I was 18. That’s what turned me back to country. I started listening to these records, and then I would say, “I remember singing that song with him all the time.” They were just songs that he loved and always played.
It was a lot of bluegrass. He was a big fan of Jimmy Martin. And then on the country side, there was a lot of Conway Twitty and a little bit of Merle and guys like that. He was really into Chet Atkins. My grandpa was a really good flat picker. I think the first time I heard “The Wild Side of Life” was the Hank Thompson version through my grandpa. Everybody has obviously covered it since, but that was the version I grew up knowing.
NUVO: Indianapolis just had a honky-tonk bar open up called Duke’s. Have you seen a resurgence of love for outlaw country in recent years?
MORGAN: Yeah. I played my first show when I was 22, so that was 20 years ago. Only the super hipster kids that were into out-there shit were digging country music back then. We’re talking right before Johnny Cash did his first thing with Rick Rubin, which I think sparked this whole thing we’re doing now. And then in 1999, Mike Ness of Social Distortion did two straight-up country records. So that introduced legions of punk rock Social Distortion fans to all these guys he was covering on these records. Little things like that slowly grew [the resurgence].
Now, more often than not, somebody likes the old-school shit rather than the other way around. In my mid-20s, I’d tell someone, “I’ve been obsessed with this live Waylon Jennings record,” and they’d be like, “Who the fuck is Waylon Jennings?” Now, everybody fucking loves Waylon and all that shit.
NUVO: Talk to me about the process that went into making your latest record Hard Times and White Lines. Was it at all different than the process with previous records?
MORGAN: It was pretty much the same. I put ideas for songs together a lot when I’m on the road. I don’t really write a lot, but I’ll come up with ideas and jot ‘em down. And then, I try to come back to them later. On this record, when I came back to them and it was time to really start hammering out some songs, my manager wanted me to try writing with some other people because he knows what a procrastinator I am when it comes to writing. I’ll just have all these ideas, and I never quite get around to putting pen to paper.
We researched some like-minded dudes that I thought I could write with. So that was kind of different for this record. I have a bunch of co-writes on there, but it was a good thing. I think it definitely made the songs better. It made my life a little easier. It actually made me enjoy the writing and recording a little bit more because I didn’t feel like it was 100% on my shoulders to write all these songs. Once we did finish the songs, it was business as usual.
NUVO: You’ve said this album is not as straightforward as previous Whitey Morgan releases. What do you mean by that?
MORGAN: It’s a little broader of a stroke I guess. It’s not right up the middle as far as traditional country. Growing up in Michigan, you hear a lot of guys like Bob Seger on the radio that just write those great classic American rock ’n’ roll songs. There are a few songs that lean more in that direction. Nobody is going to listen to it and say, “Wow, this is fucking out in left field.” It’s not a big difference, but it’s definitely not as straight down the middle as the last record.
NUVO: You recently moved to a parcel of land near Yosemite in California. What have you liked about being based there?
MORGAN: It’s just a good recharge for me. I met a girl on tour. We were coming through the northern part of California and played a show up in North Fork, California, which is right at the southern gate of Yosemite National Park. It’s a small town, and I just love small towns.
I know everybody around town, and they know me. My wife and me do a lot of parties at the venue she bought when she first moved here. It’s obviously a complete 180 from Flint. Most of my life, I didn’t like California because I had only ever seen L.A. traffic and all that shit. I came up here, and it’s a completely different world.
NUVO: You’ve played Indianapolis several times over the years. Does the city have any personal significance to you?
MORGAN: Indianapolis is a fucking super important part of the whole Midwest blue-collar area. It’s a great rowdy town, and I’ve never had anything but fun there every time. We played HI-FI about two years ago. During the show or just after the show, somebody got pushed through the glass window next door. And then, somebody sent me a picture of some fan with glass [from the broken window] and a Whitey t-shirt. I was like, “Jesus Christ Indianapolis, I love ya. You’re a rowdy-ass town.”