Country is one of western music’s most derided genres. It’s defined by its clichés: insular, beloved by one particular redneck portion of the US of A – it’s hardly surprising few want to dabble in its peculiar twang. And there’s not much out there to combat the myth either – modern country music is in something of a lull, and often lives up to the exact stereotypes that derailed it: the barstool blues now carried on solely by the blanded out likes of Seasick Steve or the bloodcurdling toe-tappers that fill the musical interludes of FOX News broadcasts – full of head-nodding, pure blooded patriotism; the acceptable face of bigotry. But Whitey Morgan and the 78’s dabble in a particular brand of the genre that spits in the face of such saccharine pap: outlaw country, the original badassery, the hip-hop of the Wild West; and he does it just service.
Outlaw country was once the natural home of the musical rebel. Heavy rock took the mantel for a time but was always too campy to be a true heir – for guys like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams and David Allen Coe, their off-the-tracks way of life was all too real, imbued with a dark humour and tear-in-your-beer sentimentality.
Amongst the genre’s ranks include some of music’s very best, such as Springsteen’s Nebraska, Young’s Harvest, and in Cash’s Live at Folsom Prison, perhaps the best live album of all time. Hip-hop truly took the reins at the tail end of the eighties, and most certainly a few years later with the emergence of gangster rap. While Jay Rock traps, Johnny Cash once “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Like gangster rap, there’s a playbook: different drugs, different drinks, empty bars rather than strip clubs, but it’s a heritage Morgan inserts himself into without leaning too heavily on the greats of the past.
“Some country albums rank amongst music’s very best”
Sonic Ranch, his fourth record, makes it clear with the opening track that he’s playing straight into that ethos. “Gave up on runnin’ out, she gave up on me, and I gave up the cigarettes – now it’s just me and the whiskey” captures the down-and-out humour of outlaw country in a beat; Whitey doesn’t sing these broken words with a sigh but a jubilant sneer. In fact he says just that on ‘Ain’t Gonna Take It Anymore’ in which Whitey describes a series of scenes in which he’s cornered – his girlfriend goes through his phone braced to call him out, a man finds him checking out his girl – at which point he just proclaims “if I’m going down tonight: I’m going down drinking!” It’s a hilarious moment on an album in where there are a fair few and Whitey, though not with the most distinct voice in country, delivers them with aplomb.
Sonic Ranch is by and large a musically jubilant album; the hooks are sticky as hell, to the point where after a few listens you’ll know the words far better than a more obtuse album would have you remember after twenty. ‘Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue’ is a notable example, as is ‘That’s How I Got To Memphis.’ That particular closing track stands as a timely high point for the LP, Whitey absolutely nails the Bobby Bare song, producing the most achingly-sweet-without-being-saccharine track of the year so far not written by Father John Misty. The sentiment of the song and the variations that appear before each repetition of the refrain are pure romance; “If you love somebody enough, you’ll follow them wherever they go/that’s how I got to Memphis…If you love somebody enough you’ll go where your heart wants to go/that’s how I got to Memphis.”
Not that the album doesn’t indulge in some of the more sincerely dark places into which outlaw country has been prone to venture in the past either. ‘Good Timin’ Man’ is a bit of a tearjerker, in which he takes a break from living up to the country clichés by inverting them: about the times when he’s down and fighting with his lover and drowning in his sorrows but he “puts on his guitar and sings ‘Cheatin’ Again’ and again” because his fans expect him to be “that good timin’ man”. Regardless, the darkest spot on any album that features a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Waitin’ Around To Die’ will always be that song; and on Sonic Ranch it receives quite a revamp too. The track is thick and slugging and heavy, swelled out with some pedal steel and featuring an absolutely divine pair of steel guitar solos towards its rear end. The playing across the whole album is impeccable, the final track opening with the sort of riff Tame Impala might lay to wax.
“The sentiment of ‘That’s How I Got To Memphis’ is pure romance”
Somewhat predictably though, while deciding to partake in a genre as defined by its boundaries as country, the weakest spots on the album come when Whitey less channels the soul of his influences as straight regurgitates them. The album enters a slight lull in the middle with (the even dull sounding) ‘Leavin’ Again’ and ‘Goin’ Down Rocking’ which tell the same brand of story as the album rest but don’t charm and humanise in the way he so succeeds to elsewhere. All in all though, Sonic Ranch is a glimmer of hope for country fans, that more of this quality might be coming our way. The LP acts as a timely reminder of all it can be, Whitey’s challenge for the next record is to keep the old train rolling forward.
Liam Inscoe – Jones
Liam is currently listening to ‘Neat Neat Neat’ by Damned Damned Damned