A few hours before a show at a venue called Trout's in Bakersfield, California, Whitey Morgan has slipped around the corner, finding a quiet bar spot away from the locale he'll be playing at that night, getting some space before he performs in front of a hundred or so people on a Sunday evening. His arms are covered in tattoes and he's got one of those long wild Civil War beards that took years to imperfect. From the other end of the telephone line, you can hear him ordering a drink, a 90 proof Kentucky bourbon.
And so it's God bless Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Paycheck and Merle Haggard, washed down with anything that doesn't have any particular care for "over slicked up Nashville style" pop country. While his incredibly smooth baritone voice may sound a lot like Waylon Jennings, don't call him an outlaw. He's not a particular fan of that label. After his band, Whitey Morgan and the 78s, has traveled in a van across white hot central California, across a dried-out landscape of troubled endless agricultural acreage, coming all of the way down from a show near Yosemite National Park, he's taken a few moments to set the public record straight.
"I don't know what the hell it means," Morgan says of the outlaw brand. "Outlaw? Is that some loudmouthed dude that gets on stage insulting the fans?"
As a soft-spoken, introspective sort who is polite as they come, he's done some analysis about the categorization. Yes, it's strange how a musical territory he's now defined by has a system that requires hierarchical identifiers as cool as a metal file drawer. One of the chief promoters of an art form typically more aligned with a rural, purist acoustical spirit, with pedal steel guitar to make you weep, is a technological wonder broadcasting from a satellite in space.
"That station on Sirius XM Radio announces, 'You're in outlaw country,' " Morgan says. "The only way that makes sense, to me, is that everything they are playing is outside the mainstream country genre, bands that don't have a mainstream niche." Pretty ironic, he says, "that a system that gave these guys millions of dollars, you gotta ask, who are these guys rebelling against?" Or then, on the other had, for all the wannabe outlaws out there: "Don't pretend you are rebelling against a system that doesn't even know you exist."
Morgan's course as a professional musician has been toward outright independence. His first studio album was amply recognized by the Detroit Music Awards for "Best Country Vocal Performance," "Best Country Songwriter" and "Best Country Album." When the Flint, Michigan, native signed to Bloodshot Records after establishing a reputation in the Midwestern honky-tonk scene, he found that despite reaching No. 64 on the Billboard country charts, the album didn't really get the kind of support he was looking for. Taking the label to court, he got free of those arrangements and declared himself a freelancer. After establishing his reputation with such songs as "Bad News," "I Ain't Drunk" and "Waylon's Still the King," this year he became the winner of The Ameripolitan Awards "Outlaw Country Band of the Year." Based on this kind of what he calls "word of mouth" momentum, with social media sites such as Facebook "kicking ass," he and the 78s established a Kickstarter.com campaign to raise $35,000 to record a new album. He received $52,000. Now the new record is almost complete, he says.
"I'm all on my own now," Morgan says. "I'd been on Bloodshot for two or three years, but now I've hired a good agent and have good management. I've got distribution and in the end, it was the best thing for me. I've busted my ass on the road now for three years and I have a bank account. Things are going great. When the new record comes out ... it's all recorded. We are getting the mixes mastered; we are getting close to post-production."
Getting back to the whole outlaw movement, since, after all, Morgan didn't give the Ameripolitan award back, it's worth noting that Wikipedia.org offers a most excellent, sound, downright sociological insight: "The fundamental opposition between law-and-order authoritarianism and the image of 'outlaw' authenticity ... has structured country's discourse of masculinity since the days of Jimmie Rodgers." Basically, the outlaw category is a reaction to a softened Nashville sound, a general reaction to an overculture determined to move out of the honky tonk and into stadium shows.
Of course, Morgan has a more colorful way to put it: "Songs about drinking, fighting and cheating."
He tries to keep his roots intact by remembering how his grandfather, a bluegrass picker from Kentucky, encouraged him to become a vocalist.
"He really pushed me to try to sing," Morgan says. "I was pretty shy then, still kind of am. Anybody who knows me knows I have to have a few drinks before I get up to the microphone."