Whitey Morgan Shows His Classic Bonafides at New York City’s Midtown Live
When Waylon Jennings released his Honky Tonk Heroes album in 1973, he codified the connection between the strain of country known as honky tonk and a spirit of rebellion: tough tunes for tough-talking characters. The music still exerts the same hold on the imagination in country today; it’s generally the sound the genre’s singers lean on when they want to announce that they’re dissenting from the mainstream.
But some dissenters get more attention than others. The man who gets the lion's share is Sturgill Simpson, who showed his classic credentials on High Top Mountain (2013) and Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (2014). But Simpson is not an army of one -- he’s not even the first to embrace this recent wave of neo-honky tonk. Whitey Morgan, who releases Sonic Ranch on Tuesday (May 19), put out his first album in 2008. The title? Honky Tonk and Cheap Motels.
Morgan doesn’t have Simpson’s Kentucky background -- he’s from Michigan -- but if anything, that makes him more of an outsider, a better fit with the inaccurate and overly simplistic dichotomy -- outlaw or not? -- that still dominates most of the writing about country music. Morgan, who played in New York City Thursday night (May 14), likes his honky tonk brusque and raucous, with loud guitars that kick up dust around his coarse bark. He speaks about the music with reverence; in an interview last month, he declared, “It’s about living, loving, and believing in the songs.”
There’s a punk-like zeal in his mission.
But all the noise acts as concealer, because in his music, Morgan generally plays the role of a doomed man. Again and again on Sonic Ranch, this singer finds himself hurtling toward unavoidable disasters. He knows they’re coming, but he’s powerless to avoid them. Take “Low Down On The Back Streets,” where he sings “I’ve seen that look in your eyes / I know I can start to count the days / till I have to fix this heart of mine.” There’s not an ounce of resistance there, just inevitability. The same can be said of “Waitin’ Round To Die” or “That’s How I Got To Memphis:” the tense betrays his lack of agency.
Morgan’s show, which took place a few days before Sonic Ranch is due to hit stores, approximated an album-release show, but you wouldn’t know it -- the singer played only a couple of songs from the new album. (Rebelliousness!) Backed by his band the ‘78s, which included five beards, four denim shirts, three guitars (including a pedal steel) and a number of cowboy hats, Morgan plowed through a blistering set of tracks from his last two records, sprinkled liberally with covers: Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck, Merle Haggard, Townes Van Zandt and even Bruce Springsteen. (Morgan turned “I’m On Fire” into convincing honky tonk way back in 2008.)
This was a focused, ferocious performance: Morgan and company took songs like “Where Do Ya Want It?,” a grim, amusing track about deciding where you’d like to be shot, and “I Ain’t Drunk,” a joyful tune about extreme inebriation -- by no means timid on record -- sped them up, and injected them with extra punch. This is not a novel approach to live music, but plenty of groups fail to execute even this basic concept. Morgan and the ‘78s especially enjoyed slowing down the tempo for a moment to rip through big chord changes in unison, forcefully displaying the sort of cohesion and power that’s more common at hard rock shows.
Importantly, the bruising approach did not come at the expense of beauty, which is as important to country music as ruggedness, though it gets less consideration. Two of the guitarists harmonized regularly with Morgan, adding sweet details on top of all the churning riffs. The scruffy vocal blend added a warm buoyancy to “Memories Cost a Lot.”
“Memories” gently chastises those who seek to over-romanticize this music: the pain described so well by so many country songs is often grounded in real-life experience. “Don't envy me for what those records say,” Morgan sang. “Hell, that ain’t nothin’ but my misery on display.” That’s as good a definition of country as you’re likely to find, and a reminder of the source of this music’s power: not the rugged posturing, but the tender feelings.