The modern-day Waylon Jennings, Michigander Whitey Morgan, is back with his first album in three years, Hard Times and White Lines. It follows 2015’s Sonic Ranch, named after what’s becoming an increasingly fond recording studio in the middle of the desert in Tornillo, Texas, not far from El Paso. This one was also recorded there. Since that recording though, Morgan has moved from his Flint, Michigan home to a parcel of land near Yosemite in California where he now lives a more rustic existence with his wife and son.
The lifestyle change is somewhat evident in this album, where he veers from his heavy guitar driven signature outlaw country sound to embrace a more mainstream country approach on a few tunes. Morgan says, “It’s not like my vision happened overnight, I’ve been chipping away at it forever. It’s slowly evolving and it’s going in a little bit different direction. It’s not so straightforward anymore. This record definitely has a wider path, it’s broader, but it still sounds like a Whitey Morgan record.” Later he admits, “I’ve been drinking a little bit less and I got my kid at home now I’ve been enjoying playing music so much more the last couple of years.”
Featured here are collaborations with noted songwriters Travis Meadows and Ward Davis along with a cover of ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid.” His band, The 78’s, is comprised of Brett Robinson (pedal steel), Joey Spina (guitar), Alex Lyon (bass), and Eric Savage (drums). Their gritty, amped-up rock is blue-collar and holds a well-oiled approach that is well suited for the classic sound and topics of classic outlaw country. It’s anything but subtle as gleaned from such titles as “Honky Tonk Hell,” “Hard to Get High” and “Wild and Reckless,” for example.
You may have heard the two singles already released from the album. “Honky Tonk Hell” is the opening track, replete with power chords as Morgan seems to be indecisive about entering a den of iniquity. Lines ringing through the chorus are “The doors are always open, and you’re welcome inside,” later making comparisons to the Heartbreak Hotel. It may seem attractive but ultimately, it’s haunting. The other single, “What Am I Supposed to Do” was written by Detroit-based singer-songwriter Don “Doop” Duprie. This one’s for his home state, decrying the plight of auto workers who have lost their livelihood. Thus the chorus “What am I supposed to do, Lord, when this is all I have ever known?”
He alternates the hard-driving outlaw songs with some that follow more a straight-ahead country path. They include “Around Here,” Carryin’ On” and “Tired of the Rain.” Robinson’s pedal steel is especially brilliant throughout. “Carryin’ On” seems to be rather self-confessional as Morgan talks to a friend about growing up now that’s he forty with a wife and kids. He carries that mode into “Fiddler’s Inn,” where his lyrics talk about “drinking and wasting his time.” “Tired of the Rain” is simply a beautiful country song about and unshakable love gone wrong. Fittingly he closes with ‘Wild and Reckless,” knowing he needs to give up the hard living life but not quite willing to let go with lines like “There’s a guitar on my shoulder, a drink in my hand? One keeps me from falling/the other helps me to stand.”
Morgan and his band prove once again that they are among the very best among the small legion of those carrying the outlaw country banner these days.