Whitey Morgan keeps it real with country rock sound

Whitey Morgan

Whitey Morgan and the 78’s returned to the Cargo Concert Hall in Reno on Jan. 31.

Singer and guitarist Whitey Morgan has an unusual business plan that has proven to be extraordinarily successful: Be real.

“People can recognize bullshit pretty much right away,” said Morgan, a new-age vanguard in country music whose boots are heading on a path traveled by the pioneers who started it all.

“I think what’s happening is people are clamoring for anything that’s real,” he said. “Whether it’s straight-up-the-gut country or if it’s more of a singer-songwriter Americana or-whatever-they-call-it-style country. As long as it seems real.”

If that sounds like a jab at the multitude of sugary pop country that has been emanating from Nashville the last couple of decades, it is. Listen to a hard-driving Whitey Morgan song such as “Me and Whiskey” and it’s more like a jab followed by a left hook and a swift kick just below the belt buckle.

Morgan has a delivery and groove often compared to Waylon Jennings. But really, his style can be traced back to his grandfather’s.

After listening to Morgan’s Southern drawl on his recordings, it surprising to learn he’s from Flint, Michigan.

“Technically, the first stuff I learned to play on a guitar was country, but that was when I was 10 years old. Like most people in the Midwest, I played in a lot of punk and hard rock bands during my teen years.

“My grandfather passed when I was 18 or 19 and I inherited his Gibson acoustic guitar and his record collection. I was big time into vinyl at that point. My grandpa had sung those songs my whole childhood. I had no idea who (first) sang them. I fell in love with that stuff. I just went through a breakup, so it was perfect to hear some of those sad country songs. Now I totally get those. I just sat on the edge of my bed and played all those songs.”

Morgan, who had never previously sung lead, started a trio with a couple of others who were new to country music.

“That was it,” he said. “I never enjoyed playing music that much on stage until I started playing what I play now. It was a totally different feeling. … There was always so much aggression when I was 17 playing bass guitar or drums, just balls out angry, pissed off at your parents and the world. Then, when I played country, it was a whole other expression, a whole other feeling. I just really enjoyed it and I’m still doing it.”

“Waylon Live: The Expanded Edition,” released in 2003, became a model for Morgan.

“There are 42 songs on there,” Morgan said. “That album was the turning point. I fell in love with his style. Waylon has that energy and big warm butter voice and low town. His band is so stripped down, but tight and, man, the grooves are great.”

That album showed Morgan how to sequence a concert with varied songs from uptempo, to slow tunes to a waltz, as well as musical key changes that keep an audience engaged.

Morgan has released five studio albums, and the first to draw measurable attention was “Honky Tonks and Cheap Motels” in 2008. That’s when he settled on the band name Whitey Morgan and the 78’s. Morgan’s real name is Eric Allen.

The 78’s include guitarist Joey Spina, pedal steel guitarist Brett Robinson and bassist Alex Lyon. The drummer is either Eric Savage or Tony Dicello, who is with the band on the current tour that visited Reno’s Cargo Concert Hall for the third time on Jan. 31.

“We don’t get out there often compared to most cities,” Morgan said. “It’s a cool spot. I’m looking forward to getting back to Reno and playing for the people and getting loud and a little rowdy.”

Cargo holds about 1,000 concertgoers, smaller than many of the venues the band plays. Morgan has toured for 17 years and he said he’s learned not to adjust his sound levels to fit each site. It can affect the flow, so he leaves it up to the arena or club’s engineering crew to settle on a volume.

A challenge comes with a guitar change for the song “Waitin’ Round to Die,” which was written by Townes Van Zandt. It became a hit for Morgan, so concertgoers insist upon it. It is the only song tuned to C Sharp, so Morgan totes a Fender Telecaster dedicated to that single song.

Morgan and Spina both play Telecasters. Why?

“It’s just the tone, man,” Morgan said. “You can’t beat the tone for the type of stuff we do. It’s just a workhorse guitar. It’s the one guitar you can break it in half onstage and put a new neck on it and it will be just as good the next day. You don’t’ have to have special skills to work on those things. It’s a working man’s stage guitar, for sure.”

Telecaster also is the guitar used by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, and it’s notable that Morgan covered a ZZ Top song on his latest album, “Hard Times and White Lines.”

“Just Got Paid” is a blue-rock song, but its lyrics, especially when sung by Morgan, give it a country feel. ZZ Top recorded it so long ago, Gibbons’ beard was just whiskers. A decade later, ZZ Top crossed into Top 40 territory with the release of the album “Eliminator.” At the time, Gibbons said he was amazed to see enthusiastic teenage girls loving the music and attending ZZ Top shows. A similar phenomenon is occurring now with Whitey Morgan and the 78’s.

“That pop stuff has finally gotten so terrible and so over-the-top-corny and-ridiculous that no one can really relate,” Morgan said. “People are searching out not only what we’re doing, they’re searching out older stuff. There are so many people now who are Waylon and Merle and Johnny Paycheck fans. Fifteen years ago, they didn’t even know who those guys were.

“There is definitely a change happening. You see girls on Instagram wearing Waylon shirts and Townes Van Zandt shirts. Five or 10 years ago someone like that would never come to one of my shows. If the hip Instagram girls are into it, then something’s changing.”

— Tim Parsons

Morgan writes ballad about his old hometown, Flint

Whitey Morgan doesn’t just play authentic country music. He also really does live in the country, in a one-store town on the California side of the Sierra Nevada.

But originally, Morgan is from Flint, Michigan, the hardscrabble Midwestern city with an economy that was ruined when the automobile plants closed down. Flint was the subject in the national news in 2014 when it was revealed that the city’s water was undrinkable. Five years later, Flint isn’t in the news much. However, the water is still undrinkable.“Even after they switch it to Detroit water, I don’t know if anybody will trust it,” Morgan said. “I know I wouldn’t.”

Released in October, Whitey Morgan and the 78’s album “Hard Times and White Lines” includes a song about Flint. “What Am I Supposed To Do” is dedicated to generations of Michigan auto workers.

“It’s a sad situation and it’s not getting any better,” Morgan said. “The murder rate and the crime rate is the same as it’s been for 25 years when the plants started closing. On the side of town where I grew up, you can hardly recognize it because every other house is burned out. It’s pretty bad.”

About Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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