Album Review – Whitey Morgan & the 78’s “Sonic Ranch”

whitey-morgan

Whitey By God Burly Beard Ornery As Hell Whiskey Shootin’ Telecaster Twangin’ Morgan.

Of the underground and independent honky tonkers I’ve had the pleasure of covering over many years, nobody has worked harder, and nobody has put in more miles than than Whitey. There’s been some that have shot to major fame seemingly overnight like Sturgill Simpson, others that seem to ride a boom and bust pattern like Leon Virgil Bowers, but Whitey Morgan is a case study all to his own.

Like rolling Buick sedans off the assembly line in Flint, Michigan one after another, day after day, year after year, not stopping to take breaks or reveling in little victories, but winning fans over one at a time, night after night, tour after tour in America’s derelict honky tonks until the word of mouth grew into a rumble, the crowds went from nearly empty to nut to butt, Whitey Morgan is now like a locomotive at full speed barreling down the tracks. Get in his way, and you’re liable to get trucked.

Whitey digs his fingernails into honky tonk music with such an unrelenting ferocity, purpose, and abandon that some might find it downright intimidating. And through all the hardscrabble luck and restless touring, he’s still been able to assemble one of the hardest-pounding honky tonk bands on the planet in the 78’s. There’s so many Waylon wannabees and Paycheck impersonators in country music these days lurking in local bars and living online, you damn near need a cattle guard to get through them all. But when Whitey comes to town, the sea parts. No regalia, no posturing is necessary. Once Whitey strikes that first chord of Johnny Cash’s “Bad News,” you know it’s on.

The one chink in Whitey Morgan’s armor has always been a discography of note; one that lives up to his live performances. Not that it’s ever slowed him down. Like many honky tonk performers, the best place to behold him is in the honky tonk itself. His first two studio albums are good for a few spins if you’re hankering for some Whitey between shows, but this is music best heard with beer flowing and sweat beading on Whitey’s brow.

whitey-morgan-78s-sonic-ranchSonic Ranch thought, it delivers something that Whitey Morgan has been lacking: The definitive Whitey Morgan & The 78’s album. No offense to the other projects, including his recently-released live album and the acoustic only Grandpa’s Guitar that after a half-decade dry spell for releases makes Whitey feel downright prolific lately, but Sonic Ranch is the effort that captures the energy and heartbeat of what a Whitey Morgan performance is all about.

There’s already been some whining about the amount of cover songs on this album, especially since there’s only ten tracks. But this is a common misconception about country, especially when it comes to “Outlaw” ranks of folks that think you can only write your own songs to be legit. Even Willie and Waylon covered the songs of others commonly, but just like Waylon and Willie, some of Whitey’s originals become the standout tracks. Whitey Morgan isn’t a songwriter in the traditional sense. He’s a hony tonk warrior who writes some songs when he can.

Besides, the covers of Sonic Ranch are just so damn good. And you shouldn’t be ashamed to claim them as your favorite part of this album if that’s the case. Since Whitey uses more recognizable songs for his non-original tracks compared to when an older artists might have cut something by some no name songwriter lurking around Nashville or Austin, it draws more attention to them. But these are timeless songs that deserve some revitalization.

Townes Van Zandt’s “Waitin’ ‘Round to Die” has been done, goodness, I don’t know how many times, but Whitey damn Morgan may have just delivered the best version. Scott H. Biram’s “Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue” may be recognized by underground roots listeners, but as one of Biram’s best country efforts, it was worthy of another rendition by Whitey. And I’ll be damned if Bobby Bare / Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got To Memphis” doesn’t bring back memories of the best of early 80’s country. It was an unexpected but very welcome change of pace for Whitey, and is one of the album’s best tracks.

But the red meat for the wolves is still here in ample quantities. “Me and the Whiskey,” “Leavin’ Again,” and “Ain’t Gonna Take It Anymore” will give the core Whitey listeners in their signature “Fuck Pop Country” T-shirts what they’re looking for. Meanwhile Sonic Ranch has more acoustic moments than some might anticipate with songs like “Good Timin’ Man” and “Drunken Nights in the City.”

Too much consistency has always been one of the challenges for Whitey. He does what he does so well, and it’s what the crowd that’s starved for the old Outlaw honky tonk sound demands, it’s been hard for him to evidence much latitude. But to become more than just the hardest-working bar band, he needed to stretch his sonic palette. There’s still plenty of songs here about whiskey and screwing up your life, but he also opens up some new threads that don’t just give this particular album some spice, but could open up new avenues for Whitey in the future. The pounding bass drum and screaming steel guitar will always be there, but extending his wingspan is the way Whitey can continue to grow and expand his audience.

Named for the legendary studio compound outside of El Paso, TX known for coaxing some of the best recordings out of artists in their career, Sonic Ranch is the missing piece in what was already a well-apportioned arsenal of honky tonk firepower.

1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.

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