Motor City outlaws

Oct 1, 2008 at 12:00 am

"The roots of country music," Whitey Morgan says, "are despair, pain, sorrow and anguish expressed through song."Since he hails from perpetually depressed Flint, it's probably fair to say that Morgan has seen his share of despair — and it's this "white man's blues" approach to country that makes his raw, open and honest music so eminently listenable. Still, he stops short at defining his music as "pure country."

"I would describe it as perfectly reflecting where I come from," he says. "I've been through every kind of band there is — from rock to metal to indie. I've played every kind of music. Obviously, country is where it all started for me, but it's still hard to say that this is a country band. Because it's not just a country band. Coming from Detroit, there's always going to be a little bit of rock in there. For me to give an authentic interpretation of what I'm trying to do, I can never say that it's just country. For instance, I can't go to Texas and tell them that we're a country band because they can tell by how loud we are onstage that there's something else going on. We're from Detroit, and you can't get away from where you come from."

It's certainly true that Whitey Morgan and the 78's sound both "country" and "Detroit" at the same time ... and that's no mean feat. Let's face it: This isn't Kentucky, although it's from the bluegrass state that Morgan's grandpa journeyed to the Motor City many years ago.

"He's the one who taught me how to play guitar. And in order to learn, I was forced to learn how to play those [old country] songs because that's what he played — Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash songs. I didn't even know what I was listening to! I was just listening for the chord changes. I'm like 8 years old and I'm listening to these songs, not knowing what they're about or anything. But I knew I've heard my grandpa play them and sing them a million times. My grandpa played guitar in bands all around Michigan after he came up here from Kentucky in his early 20s, back when he was still a hell-raiser. Then he met my grandma, had kids and settled down. By the end of his life, all he played was gospel and bluegrass."

Honky Tonks and Cheap Motels, the stunning debut album from Morgan and his band the 78's, has just been released through Small Stone Records, an underrated area label normally associated with international stoner and metal bands. Morgan insists, however, that the coupling was more than a marriage of convenience.

"We got a call from them about appearing on a compilation that they put out called Sucking the '70s, which was all '70s cover songs," he says. "Scott Hamilton, the head of Small Stone, said that he had room for one more band on there. We ended up recording Van Halen's "Runnin' with the Devil." I didn't think that would ever work. But we started messing with it and the next day, we recorded it and it turned out pretty cool. That was the first association I had with Scott. The next thing I know, I get a call from him saying that he's thinking of putting our record out!

"Scott said he was looking for a new challenge. He's been putting the same bands out through the same distribution to the same fans for so long. It says something about the guy that he's willing to work and do something new. We have a lot of shows lined up and a lot of opportunities to sell a lot of records. Many of the bands on his label self-destruct and then he's left with 5,000 copies of their album. But I'm always going to be doing this. I'll be 60 or 70 years old playing some bar somewhere, and I'll have copies of this record to sell."

It's safe to say that the country scene in the metro Detroit area is blossoming at the moment, what with many local bands excelling in the genre, including several of the bands playing this week at Morgan's CD release party and other rising stars such as Doop & the Inside Outlaws. (This despite the best efforts of someone like American Idol fop Josh Gracin, who's obviously trying to hold real country music back.)

And 78's guitarist Jeremy Mackinder agrees with the sentiment: "There's something going on where everybody seems to have made a transition. Maybe it's because the people we're hanging out with now are a little bit older and maybe it comes with maturity. We're doing a big show in November, which is going to be all Detroit country bands. There are eight of us on the bill. Whether or not all of the bands are pure country, it's there in some sense."

Morgan believes that, as with grunge in the early '90s, the growth of the Detroit country scene coincides with a simmering frustration at the city's ever-present, post-White Stripes "rockstar syndrome."

"The thing is that everybody is really starting to dig this kind of music because they're realizing that it's one of the last real genres of music," Morgan philosophizes. "There's no bullshit, no ego. It's just about the music and the people singing it. They're just singing about shit that's real to them. I do think people are getting sick of these 'rock stars' in Detroit. OK, you've had your CD release show and there were a shitload of people there. But a lot of these people are just assholes to deal with. They're not going to have those fans for too long.

"Vinnie Dombroski is one exception. He can play a Sponge show with 5,000 fans there who adore him. Then the next night, he'll go play a shithole with [his country band] the Orbitsuns. There'll be like 10 people there — but every person in the place is having a great time and Vinnie is having the best time of everybody. And that's how it is with me; I love to get up there and just play. It's always about the music. I think people are really grabbing onto the country thing because it's just a good time when you come to a show. There's a hardcore group of fans that come out to shows but I think there's a lot bigger group of people who no one knows about that just sit at home and listen to the stuff."

In the end, Morgan's take on country is as emotion-stirring and wildly exciting as anything heard in rock 'n' roll lately. No shit.

Saturday, Oct. 4, at the Lager House, 1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-961-4668. With the Deadstring Brothers, Shotgun Wedding and Cleveland's Not So Good Ol' Boys.

Brett Callwood is a freelance music writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]