Music News & Reviews

Grandpa-inspired guitarist set to honky-tonk Harlow’s

Whitey Morgan adapted one of his grandfather’s songs on an acoustic album.
Whitey Morgan adapted one of his grandfather’s songs on an acoustic album. Punch Enterprises

Not long ago, after the day’s scheduled work was done, Whitey Morgan, modern-day honky-tonk hero, decided to put in a little overtime. He had the studio in Nashville. He had a pedal steel player on ready. He had a new song to sing.

And so Morgan, who’s cut outlaw tough enough to win a bar fight with little more more than a glare, turned the lights low, picked up an acoustic guitar and tried to keep it together long enough to record.

The song, an emotionally charged ballad called “Grandpa’s Guitar,” became the title track of an acoustic album of the same name released in December but recorded throughout last year in hotel rooms, dressing rooms and quiet moments on the road.

It’s the flip side to the always-Saturday-night live show that will hit the stage (conveniently) Saturday night at Harlow’s. The flip side to the other record Morgan and his band, the 78’s, released late last year, “Born, Raised, and Live From Flint.”

That’d be Flint, Mich., where William Morgan – Whitey’s grandfather – moved from Kentucky, one of many who made the post-World War II march north for jobs in the auto factories. William went to work in a Chevy plant, but he kept a guitar in the basement. That’s where young Whitey found it one day.

“Boy, if you want to learn to play,” Whitey Morgan sang that day in the Nashville recording studio, “start right here with an old country tune.”

When Whitey was 17 and his grandfather died, he went down into that basement and, among other treasures, found a cassette tape filled with his grandfather playing and singing.

One of those songs, “I Know You,” found its way onto the end of the acoustic album. The rest of it – songs by the Rolling Stones, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Bruce Springsteen and more – are either songs Morgan’s grandfather loved, or songs that have kept Morgan going through the 200-shows-a-year grind he’s been working for more than a decade.

Most of the songs were easy to record. “Grandpa’s Guitar” wasn’t. Morgan had only written it the day before, and he’d written it fast. “It just came out,” he said on a recent day off in Austin, Texas. “Usually I got to work pretty hard to make a song sound that effortless.”

Effortless, yes. It’s timeless, too.

“Live From Flint” is as loose, but it’s much louder and a whole lot rowdier. It sounds like growing bar tabs while Morgan and his group tear into drinking tunes such as “Turn Up the Bottle” and “I Ain’t Drunk.” It’s a throwback to the good old days of great live records: J. Geils Band’s “‘Live’ Full House” (1972) and “Blow Your Face Out” (1976), and Bob Seger’s career-making 1976 “‘Live’ Bullet.”

“I love listening to bands’ live albums they put out at the height of the band being hot,” said Morgan, who shares management with, and has opened for, Seger.

Morgan felt his band was plenty hot enough when it decided to record the live record – 21/2 years ago in the after-burn of its self-titled 2010 Bloodshot Records debut. “Born, Raised and Live From Flint” is the second and final album it’ll have out on Bloodshot. The battle between artist and label these past few years has been resolved.

“It’s not like there’s any animosity,” Morgan said. “I get used to people not wanting to work as hard as I do toward my goals.”

He and the band continued to charge down the road, and because of that, he said, are now hotter than they were in 2011. Might be time for another live record.

First, however, is the matter of the new studio record: the one he was wrapping up in Nashville when he cut “Grandpa’s Guitar.” That album was mostly recorded in El Paso, Texas, and will carry the title of the studio, “Sonic Ranch.” There’s a Feb. 21 release show scheduled in Detroit. Earlier this week, he released the album cover on Facebook.

There’s a chance “Sonic Ranch” could break Morgan to a wider audience. Sturgill Simpson, who sold out Harlow’s in November, readied ears last year with his psychedelic-tinged “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.” And they’re already often lumped together as an antidote to the Country Industrial Complex. That’s inevitable, as they both share an undeniable appreciation for the classics, for Waylon and the boys. They share another influence, too: their grandfathers. And in Morgan’s case, his grandfather’s guitar, which is still offering inspiration decades down the road.

As he sings in the song: “Ain’t we come so far, me and this old guitar.”

Whitey Morgan and the 78’s

What: Heartfelt and rowdy honky-tonk from Flint, Mich.

When: 9 p.m. Saturday

Where: Harlow’s (2708 J St., Sacramento)

Cost: $10-$12

Information: (916) 441-4693; www.harlows.com

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