Some people, as they get older, become increasingly critical of the state of contemporary music. Not me, though– I’ve always had an opinion, and I don’t mind sharing it. The controversy around rock n’ roll has raged since even before Elvis first shook his pelvis on TV, and each generation since has claimed innovation or the truest identity. In recent years, R&B and Hip Hop have felt a division of the ages while pop music always goes with the flow, rises and falls with the tide of youth. As it should, I suppose. By its very nature, pop music is destined to fade with the sunrise, and new teenagers are waking up every second. But country music has always seemed to be made of sterner stuff. At least it used to be. Of course, what country music is or isn’t has been viciously debated since Jimmie Rodgers first sang about a train, and once again, opinions vary. That’s why I enjoyed talking to Whitey Morgan. He doesn’t mind sharing his opinion either, and his country music philosophy is simple: Work hard, play good songs. I believe if we adopted that ethic across all genres of music… Well, what a world that would be.
AI- Let’s, immediately start talking about this new record, Hard Times and White Lines. You went back to the Sonic Ranch. What pulled you back to that room to make this record?
WM- The last record we did there, it came together so easily. It was just a low-stress environment, which is good for me. I’m not a big fan of the studio as it is, so any place they can make me feel comfortable– and where I can put out a good record– is, of course, going to draw me back in. There’s just something about Sonic Ranch… It’s in the middle of nowhere and there’s just no distractions and the staff’s great. All the studio rooms are great, all the mixing consoles are the real deal. As far as the pros and cons list, the pros list is pretty long for that place.
I read where you said that Hard Times and White Lines actually sounds like a “Whitey Morgan record”. Have you reached a point now where you think you have defined what you sound like? And for anybody who’s just reading this and isn’t familiar– and is just coming to a show for the first time– what would you say is the “Whitey Morgan” sound?
It’s a classic, 70’s era country sound. Imagine if Waylon was born in Texas and then moved to Detroit in his teens and was into some of that louder, more aggressive music but also still had the country sound at heart– which is kinda my backstory story. My grandfather came from the south, showed me how to play guitar when I was young, and then when I grew up, in my teen years, like every kid in his teens, you’re pissed off at the world, and your music’s a little more aggressive. And then when I finally grew up in my 20s and fell back in love with country music again, that’s where that all came from. But as far as the sound, I always tell people it sounds like 70’s country with a harder edge and a little bit louder amplifier.
Since I happened to be sitting here in Georgia, you originally called your band, The Waycross Georgia Farm Boys. Where did that spring from?
It’s funny I still get this question. I don’t know where the hell it says this online! At our very first, not our very first show, but one of the first shows I played with one of my new guitar players, who’s promoting the show… That week we were learning some new songs, and there’s a song off of one of Waylon’s records [about a] Waycross, Georgia farm boy [“San Franciso Mabel Joy”]. So because we didn’t have a name for the band, it was just Whitey Morgan. And I always felt we needed a name for the band– like you know, Merle Haggard and The Strangers. We just needed a band name! I showed up to the show and he had put that on the flyer! Whitey Morgan and The Waycross Georgia Farm Boys.
And now it’s followed you!
It does have a good ring to it, but I have no connection to Georgia. And what’s funny is it’s been 16 years or something since that was on that one flyer for that one show! Somebody must’ve put it online somewhere, and next thing you know, I’m still answering questions about it this is many years later!
You’ve been carrying some of your new songs around for a little while before making this album. Was that kind of in the same philosophy of Mike Ness and Social D– where you play the songs live until you figure out what the fan favorites are and then you go cut ’em?
We used to do that more in the old days. I think we only did a couple of the ones off of this record? We were playing the same material for so long, it was just nice to get some new material in the set. It makes the boys in the band enjoy the stuff more. It’s like actually getting that new energy in there. So we added a couple, I think a little earlier than what we normally would, but that was the main thing– just to get some new stuff in there. We knew we were going to cut those songs already. We were just looking revive that set a little bit with some new stuff. I can’t wait to start adding more of these songs off this record.
Well, that leads me to my next question. You have always been extremely vocal about how you feel about pop country artists, the songs that they choose to record. You are a songwriter, but you also put a premium on choosing the covers that you sing. For instance, you did one of my favorites, Dale Watson’s “Where Do You Want It?”. And on this new album, you got “Just Got Paid”. How do you decide which of the songs you’re going to do? Does it just come down to how you’re feeling at the moment? Or what’s going to be the most fun for you and the boys?
It’s a combination of many things. The things that you said, but also– will it work? Will it draw in fans? Will fans appreciate a different version of something that they are already used to. It’s hard to cut some of those classic tunes that are so embedded– in the way they were done originally– in people’s brains over the last however many decades. A song like “Just Got Paid”, it wasn’t like a huge ZZ Top song, but it’s definitely one of their more popular deep cuts. Just that guitar riff alone! I just like taking stuff and making it grow and making it sound a little more like us. And it’s challenging too. It’s cool when you can take a song like that and think, “Well there’s no way we could get away with that!” Well, what if I just changed this a little bit here and this little bit here, and next thing you know, it sounds like a Whitey Morgan song! And I think people are really going to dig that one. I can see all my good ol’ boy fans that fucking just got off of a long day at work, and they’ve been waiting to see us for two months and that song comes on, you know? That’s the way I see it! You said something about that before, about what the fans dig and if the boys are going to dig it? That song’s got a certain energy about it. It will definitely be fun to play live. I can’t wait to play that one live!
What’s the best country song that you won’t play live?
That’s a good question. I’ve never had this question… People ask me to play this song all the time, and I tell them I don’t think anyone should ever play this song– Johnny Paycheck, “Old Violin”. I don’t want to hear anybody ever sing that song except for him. I don’t know… There’s just something about it. It really gets under my skin when people think they can sing that song. Unless you are at a point in your life where you can call yourself an old violin? When I see a 22-year-old-kid singing that song? That doesn’t make any sense to me. That’s an earned song to sing.
I think that’s another thing about country music that gets overlooked, particularly in the mainstream category, where there is not a sense of ownership of what you’re saying. It’s like once it gets thrown out there, it’s out there and then it’s gone and then they move onto something else. Do you feel like you are contributing to a legitimacy, to an inherent feeling in country music that does not exist on country music radio?
I hope so. That’s kind of a hard question to answer, but all I can really say is that I hope so.
You did some collaborating with Travis Meadows on this record. What were your thoughts on that team up?
I thought it was good. I know Travis, he’s been through a lot of shit in his life. I know that he’s got great songs in him– and I know that sometimes he gets tired of writing for some of the more pop side of Nashville. When I first sat down with him, we hadn’t met each other before, and the first thing he said to me was that he was just looking forward to being able to write unfiltered. Just write some stuff with me that would make sense to me, what I’m all about. And then I said the same thing to him. I said, “Well, I know with the shit you’ve been through…” I think that’s a good combination of writers. He gets it. He wasn’t trying to write some catchy, tailgate, fucking dirt road song for me or whatever-the-hell any of that shit is they write. That really pisses me off! There’s a lot of stuff that’s cool to write about that these dipshits have ruined, you know? You can’t use the words “back road” or “dirt road” or anything anymore in any songs because these motherfuckers have ruined it, you know? (Laughs)
Do you prefer writing alone or are you diggin’ the collaborative efforts?
I like it as long as I got the right person there that’ll steer me down the right road. I usually come into a session like that, like with Travis or anybody, with at least an idea of an overall theme for a song. Like, “Oh, we should write a song that conveys this message.” And a lot of times I’ll have a chorus written or half of a chorus. I usually come up with the hook part of the song first and then we kind of build around that. In my experience, that’s the easiest way to do it. If you try to start writing with a verse then it’s like, “Okay, where the hell is the chorus gonna go from here?” (Laughs) I’ve had a lot of songs that have ended with one person! I’ve never finished them because it just doesn’t have the direction. Once you write that chorus, man, the rest of it’s pretty great.
Do you have a dream writing partner that you would like to work with in the future?
I don’t know if I’ve really thought about it. Some of my favorites are obviously, Kris Kristofferson. I’m really, really into his stuff. Somebody like that would be amazing. It’s almost like I would like a time machine. That’s the only way, you know what I mean? That’s the only way a lot of it would ever really happen.
With Kristofferson, he’s almost kind of like a time machine himself. To be able to sit down and write with him would be like sitting down and writing with almost everybody!
Who do you consider to be your contemporaries? Or rather, who’s out there playing the country music right now that you want to listen to?
You already mentioned him. There’s so many guys that I like for different reasons, but Dale Watson’s always been one of my favorites because he’s just stuck to like really straight traditional. He’s not veering too far left or right. And you gotta have that one guy going up the middle so that we can all bounce to the sides and still have that one guy kind of sticking to the trail. Cody Jinks is doing great stuff. I’m good friends with Cody. We’ve become real good friends over the years doing a lot of touring and shows together. We wrote one together for his last record. He’s doing really cool stuff. I’ve been really digging on Brent Cobb’s stuff. I’d like to write with him. I feel like me and him could write some cool shit.
That would be really cool for you and Brent to sit down and put something together.
Yeah. I met him a couple times out at the bars in Nashville and he’s just a good dude, you know? That’s the kind of guys I like to hang out with, man. I can’t deal with the egos and that kind of shit. I’m like bullshit repellent! I can tell in five minutes with somebody being in a room what kind of person they are, how much ego they got, how much they got their head up their own ass. There’s a lot of guys out there like that– but you know, there’s a lot of guys that aren’t. But as far as, like you said, contemporaries, that’s the dudes I’m into right now. Another guy I’ve really been getting into lately is Jim Lauderdale. Great writer. I’d love to write with him. I actually said something to my manager the other day. I was just listening to his new record and was like, “Man, I’d love to write with this guy!” He just can write! He’s such a chameleon. He can write in any style or genre. All his records are a little different than the other ones, but he’s so good at every little thing he does. I mean, it’s crazy! I met him once backstage, and he was just the most down to earth dude. He said hi to me and my wife, who happened to be at the show, and he just came up and was like, “Oh, so good. So good to be here with ya’ll!” Just like a real, good dude, man. That’s the kind of people I like to surround myself with. I’ve been doing it for too long to reintroduce myself to the shit that I dealt with 15 years ago. I’ve secluded myself from those kinds of people, which I guess is why I’m kind of on this– as my manager says– I’m on this island by myself, and I’m slowly letting people come over.
You have been very successful with your touring, with your writing, recording, and you’ve been doing all of this your way for the last few years. And you’re not alone in an independent pursuit that has been successful. Do you think artists like Whitey Morgan even need mainstream country radio today?
It just depends. I mean, I don’t think they need it. I think they need a really good team around them that can do most of the things for you that country radio used to do, which was to get you in as many ears as possible. Well now, if you’ve got a good team and they know how to work the social media and all that stuff, all the streaming– which is the big thing now and downloads. I don’t know anybody who listens to the radio! Even people that I know that like more modern country music, people that I meet– I meet people from all walks of life– but I know people who do like all that new pop country shit and they don’t even listen to the radio for that! They stream Spotify! I mean it’s sad, but I don’t know if modern country radio is really even helping those guys out as much as it used to. I think the streaming and all that stuff really is. So, of course, in my world, it’s just as important, and I think that country radio is definitely not as important. It’s not important at all, the modern pop side of it anyway, to what I do because I’m just out there touring– and that’s the thing I’ll tell any young artists. If you really want to do this, you gotta tour! You got to go out there and win these fans over, so that the next time you come back to that town, no matter if you’re on the radio or not, they saw you the last time, and you were great! And they told ten of their friends, and now you’ve got 100 people at the show. And then the next time, in six months, you got 200 at the show. You know? Hard work? There’s no way to replace that anymore. And these younger kids, I don’t know if they understand that. They’re all looking for a break. I don’t know what this big break is they think they’re going to get, but just save up some damn money and buy a van! Get some like-minded musicians in there with you! Get the hell on the road and experience life while you’re doing it! Don’t sit in one town waitin’ for it. That’s a waste of time.