Interview by Colton Davis
He won’t describe himself as an outlaw, but he ain’t no saint, either. Whitey Morgan and the 78’s have steadily gained national attention with their loud and aggressive take on honky-tonk. They are set to play SXSW on March 20th and were recently named as one of Rolling Stones “21 Country Music Artists You Need To See”. I was lucky enough to catch Michigan native Whitey Morgan between shows and ask him a few questions.
How did music start for you?
My grandfather played guitar when I was a kid. He and my parents listened to a lot of music when I was a kid, so it was always around. I started playing guitar when I was real young, probably eight or nine. My grandfather taught me some chords and some old country songs. That’s where it all started.
How did growing up in Flint, Michigan shape you as a musician?
I get this question a lot and it is really hard to pinpoint. I don’t think there is an obvious way that it has influenced me as far as that goes. I would say that it has affected my aggressiveness towards music. I’ve played a lot of hard-edged stuff. When I was a teen I played a lot of punk and heavy rock and roll. That definitely shaped the sound that I have now. The sound that I have now definitely comes from that being in my background. In Michigan we are known for our loud rock and roll and aggressive attitude when it comes to music and life in general.
Were there many people around you that had similar tastes?
Not really. I had a couple of friends that grew up similar to me with parents or grandparents that listen to country music. A lot of people from Michigan did come from the south to work in factories so there is a lot of that in our backgrounds. The past generations have a lot of southern transplants, so I definitely had a few friends who were like-minded in that way, but for the most part I did not.
I know that you are not into the “studio thing”, where are you most comfortable?
Definitely on stage. Recorded music is one thing, but playing it live in front of an audience is where it’s most real. I also love live albums, it’s anytime you get one chance to make an impression. In the studio you are doing several takes and making it just right, trying to make it the best representation of your music. Playing live takes a long time get the sound you are going for but it doesn’t always come out perfect live. It’s not just you either, it’s the crowd. If the crowd is responding and positive you are going to put on a different show. Each night is its own. It’s different every night and you can try to put on the same show, but the fans, the room and the sound are going to dictate that for you. You have to just let it go because you are not always in control. Unlike when you are in the studio, you can turn the knobs and make it sound how you want. I can go on and on about that but let’s not do that.
When you go on stage do we see an everyday version of you or is it another side of you that people don’t normally see?
That’s a completely different person. It has to do with the music, I also tend to have a few drinks before I get up there so that loosens me up and turns into a different person that may say or do things I might not normally do. Again with the energy of the crowd, that will turn me into a different person also. So I can try all I want to try and keep myself in control and tone it down, but the crowd dictates it and I like it that way. I don’t want people to go and see the same show every night.
What is your biggest struggle musically?
My biggest struggle musically right now is to retain a passion and love for what I do because I work so hard. It’s a battle between home and the road. It’s a tough balancing act, but a good crowd and new material changes all that. You can get burned out, but the thing that will restart that fire is new music or new fans. It’s a crazy cycle that goes around and around. One day I won’t even want to look at a guitar and the next day I won’t put it down. It’s just a struggle going back and forth.
Do you think that “outlaw country” is a good way to describe your music?
These days it seems like an easy label to throw on it because I have long hair, a beard and play louder. I don’t subscribe to that label because the original meaning of that title was from the 70’s. It came from guys like Waylon and Willie, and Johnny Paycheck who went against what their record label wanted them to do and did it their own way whether the label wanted them to or not. They used to joke around and call themselves outlaws in Nashville because of that. So to me, I’m not on a label in Nashville and most of these guys that call themselves outlaws aren’t either. Nashville doesn’t know who the hell they are. How can you buck a system that doesn’t even know you exist? Anyone who goes against the grain is labeled outlaw, but when you are going against a system that doesn’t really know who you are, you aren’t butting heads with them because they don’t know who you are. How is that really going against the grain? You are just doing it your own way. There is no system that you are going against because they don’t know that you exist. I don’t like the title or the bands that it lumps me in with. We are a honkey-tonk band. We play songs about drinking, cheating, heartache and being in bars. To me that’s what that title means.
As you have shuffled band mates and been in many different projects have you learned anything about yourself or your preferences?
I have definitely learned to be a stronger leader, a bandleader. It’s hard to really say, I didn’t realize that I could work this hard at something this long and see it pay off. I didn’t think that I was capable of really achieving that until I got the group of guys that I have with me now. I didn’t really realize that I was going to be able to take this to the next level until I got this whole team. It just always seemed I was so far away from any type of success because five years ago I was playing to ten people in every city across the country except for a few select Midwest towns that we did pretty well in.
Before they make their stop at SXSW you can catch Whitey Morgan and the 78’s at The Cabooze on May 8th in Minneapolis. They are promoting their upcoming album Sonic Ranch, due out May 19th. This will be their third studio album and second with Bloodshot Records. If you want to keep up with Whitey check out his website at http://whiteymorgan.com/ .