Whitey Morgan and the 78’s cut a distinctive appearance, one that could mislead audiences, such as those at the band’s recent concert at Rams Head Live. Many of the players in this talented modern-day honky tonk band look like ex-football players gone hippie — big, bulky bodies with long hair and bushy beards.
If you looked at this band and only saw corn-fed boys from Flint, Michigan, you’d be sorely mistaken. Whitey and his band displayed boatloads of musical talent at Rams Head Live on Saturday, with a musical style that drew from a capacious knowledge of not only honky tonk and outlaw country, but also heartland and southern rock.
Saturday’s concert marked my first trip to Rams Head Live, and I found the venue absolutely charming. With its exposed brick, one feels like Poe’s ghost might just be next in line to order a drink. I have a physical disability issue, and the staff could not have been nicer and more helpful in accommodating me with a seat for the show.
Whitey and his band played loud and raucous, but they also played in themselves, and they worked with their excellent sound techs to keep the sound clear and sharp. Every word of Whitey’s lyrics came out crisp and clear. Even with two electric guitars, the acoustic didn’t get lost at all; I could hear the notes, the chords, and even the percussive effect of the strings. As a live band, the 78’s work like a well-oiled country-rock machine.
Stream Hard Times and White Lines by Whitey Morgan and the 78’s on Spotify:
Whitey bridges the sonic divide between honky tonk and rock ’n’ roll by addressing the post-industrial decline of his native Flint, Michigan. His song, “What Am I Supposed To Do?” takes the perspective of a displaced career factory worker, and one can clearly see the influence of Springsteen in it. Whitey directly covered the Boss, with “I’m on Fire” (a popular cover, also done by Town Mountain), and the deep cut “Meet Me Down in Atlantic City.” Thematically, ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid” fit in perfectly. The new song hails from Hard Times and White Lines, the fourth studio album by Whitey Morgan and the 78’s, which was released last year on Bloodshot Records.
Reaching more into the country tradition, Whitey pulled out a couple of other covers, one well known and one more obscure. The band put its own stamp on Tom T. Hall’s standard “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” which has been covered by everyone from Bobby Bare, Sr., to Rosanne Cash, to the Avett Brothers, to Buddy Miller to Solomon Burke. “Where Do You Want It?,” written by Dale Watson, tells the story of outlaw country legend Billy Joe Shaver provoked to shoot a man in the face. Ironically, Billy Joe once sang, “It’s hard to be a Christian soldier when you’re toting a gun.”
Whitey’s original songs thrilled the crowd every bit as much as the dynamic covers. In true honky tonk fashion, the band had no shortage of drinking songs: “Another Round,” “Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue,” “Bourbon and the Blues,” and “I Ain’t Drunk, Just Drinking.” “Cocaine Train,” focused on another substance, might be seen as a cousin to drinking songs. Other songs included “Bad News,” “Back to Back,” “Honky Tonk Hell,” and “Tired of the Rain.”
Opener Red Shahan also put on an excellent set. Red’s sound really translated well to a bigger stage. I interviewed Red early in my writing career; his major-label debut, Culbertson County, was my second album review. It’s exciting to see Red doing well and playing progressively larger stages.