If you’re a hardcore country fan (that is to say, not a fan of Nashville Hat Acts), you’ve probably accepted the lack of attention and appreciation paid to the genre by the music blogosphere and print media. That said, this Fall, a few baby steps have been taken to bridge this long-standing gap: most notably, the Jamey Johnson profile and an eight, uh, circle review of his The Guitar Song in the October issue of Spin. And, really, there’s more in common between indie rocker and hardcore country dudes than either group may realize: shabby clothes, beat-up guitars, an obsession with authenticity – and if nothing else, they’ve got an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” thing going on, as both groups detest the slick, super polished versions of their respective genres.
But back to the matter at hand. If you devoured Johnson’s nearly two-hour epic – and really, you should, if you’re even remotely curious about the state of modern country – and still haven’t sated your country jones, Whitey Morgan and the 78’s (is that a band name or a description of one man and a stack of old singles?) are here to keep the partying going on their eponymous sophomore release. Heavily indebted to honky-tonk and outlaw country, Morgan (nee Eric David Allen) and his band have crafted an album meant to be played -– and loud -– in a shitty dive bar jukebox. And yes, that’s a compliment.
Mixing classic country songwriters -– John D. Loudermilk, Hank Cochran, Dale Watson, Johnny Paycheck -– with his own originals, Morgan celebrates all the genre’s conventions without resorting to cliché, though it gets close sometimes. It helps that Morgan hails from hardscrabble Flint, MI; he’s no carpetbagger playing dress-up country. It’s easy to believe that he’s “Bad News” on the opening track (penned by Loudermilk), escaping the hangman and leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him, or that he demands the bartender “turn up the bottle… and turn up the Jones” (George, that is) when his (Morgan’s narrator’s) wife and kids leave him on the stellar “Turn Up The Bottle”. Truly, the song could’ve been written 40 years ago, and it will invariably be covered 40 years from now. That tune holds up next to Paycheck’s “The Meanest Jukebox In Town”, where, over Mike Lynch’s barrelhouse piano, Morgan laments that “each song reminds me that she once loved me so”. Meanwhile, on “Hard Scratch Pride”, he assures his mama that he still has the titular notion while working on the production line at Chevrolet in Detroit. Wheels within wheels: the tune opens with a snippet of the Stanley Brothers’ “White Dove”, which Levon Helm covered on 2009’s Electric Dirt...and Morgan recorded this album at Helm’s barn in Woodstock, NY. Dale Watson’s “Where Do Ya Want It?” ain’t about rearranging furniture in a living room; it’s about Billy Joe Shaver shooting a man, and Morgan’s own “I Ain’t Drunk” flirts with country parody – yes, we know he’s “just drinking” – but is singlehandedly redeemed by the line “I started at five in the afternoon… about three days ago.”
If there’s a shortcoming to Whitey Morgan and the 78’s, it’s this country-parody line; Morgan’s right up against it, and as deftly as he details booze, bad women, shitty jobs and intensely personal relationship with jukeboxes -– and the world will always need these types of songs –- it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here. In the meantime, it’s more than enough to crank this record and turn up the bottle.