The history of country music has no shortage of characters hit by hard luck: the hard-working man who can’t seem to make ends meet, the heart-of-gold drunk who just can’t seem to put down the bottle, the woman who wants to do right but ends up, time and again, doing wrong. No matter the tragedies at the center of the songs, in most cases those characters come off like just that – characters; inventions of either a particularly gifted songwriter looking to spin a tall tale or a lazy one looking to pad out an album. But in the case of Whitey Morgan, those characters – the drinker, the troublemaker, the struggling, hard-working man – all seem arrestingly real.
That’s largely because the stories on Sonic Ranch — a big, nasty, whiskey-slugging, bare-knuckle bruiser of a country record – are pulled from Morgan’s own back pages.
A native of the economically depressed city of Flint, Michigan, Morgan practically bleeds straight into each of the album’s 10 songs, making for a kind of rough-and-tumble honky-tonk noir record that can pack the dance floor while doing Bukowski proud. Morgan opens the record at a loss – “I gave up on Jesus/ When momma gave up on me/ So much for the family life/ It’s just me and the whiskey,” he growls in the album’s opening moments – and spends the rest of it fighting to keep the rest from being wrenched away, bottle by his side, fists clenched. “If I’m going down tonight,” he defiantly sings, “I’m going down drinkin’.”
Credit most of the album’s fighting spirit to Morgan’s childhood in Flint. A teenager who, in his own words, “got my ass kicked on a daily basis,” Morgan witnessed the toll the city’s troubled economy took on the people closest to him. “I experienced Flint through my parents and relatives,” he explains. “A lot of them lost jobs at General Motors, and I saw a lot of factories close and get torn down.” Despite the turmoil, Morgan’s family was close. “We never dwelled on the negative. My mom always had dinner on the table and my dad worked everyday for GM to make sure there was always food. They never let on that things were getting bad, ever. Growing up in Flint ignited the ‘never give up’ attitude I apply to every part of my life. That’s what you learn when you grow up in that town. You also learn that you don’t take shit from anyone, ever.”
Morgan’s certainly not taking any shit on ‘Sonic Ranch.’ On the grizzled, smoky cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Goin’ Down Rocking,” he digs his heels in against anyone who would dare try to steamroll him. On “Low Down on the Backstreets,” over staggering piano and glistening apostrophes of pedal steel, he’s pushing back against a broken heart with country songs and dancing girls. And on the harrowing cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Waitin’ ‘Round to Die,” he’s staring down mortality with his jaw set and his eyes narrowed. “I have loved that song since the first time I heard it,” Morgan says. “It’s a dark masterpiece that looks in on a not-so-perfect, but not uncommon, life story. I did my best to put my own heart, soul and experiences into my version. I had a vision of making it sound as if it could be the score for the next Sergio Leone classic.” Morgan achieved his vision; with its ominous, shadowy guitars and spectral lap steel, the song serves as the album’s grim, potent centerpiece.
Even in its lighter moments – the holler-along revelry of “Ain’t Gonna Take It Anymore”; the tender ‘Good Timin’ Man,” which tackles the pressures of love and persona – Sonic Ranch embraces the grit while maintaining a determinedly unvarnished sound. Much of that has to do with the relaxed atmosphere in the studio that gives the record its name. “My manager told me about this place he had been to outside of El Paso called Sonic Ranch,” Morgan says. “That was a real departure from the usual studio vibe. My manager knows how much I do not like the ‘studio’ thing — I never feel comfortable. This was exactly what I needed: a laid-back place with great gear where we could make a great record.”
More than just the physical environment, though, Morgan also needed a producer he could trust. “We needed someone that could get the big bad sound we wanted, that wouldn’t slick it up Nashville style. We also needed someone that would push me to my limits and not let me settle. We found that guy when we found Ryan Hewitt.” Together Hewitt, Morgan and his band crafted a record as big on heart as it is on attitude. It’s a record about loss and pain, but also about picking yourself up and pressing on, fighting to get what you want, and then to hold on to it for dear life.
“The goal for me on this album was to keep moving forward musically, and try to give the fans my best album yet,” Morgan says. “I don’t really look at the big picture, I just always try and outdo myself.” On Sonic Ranch, he’s done exactly that.
“I grew up on 80’s hair metal,” Alex Williams says with a laugh. “My dad listened to Cinderella and Ratt, so that was my musical upbringing until I was about 16. That’s when my grandparents played me ‘Dreaming My Dreams’ by Waylon Jennings and ‘Red Headed Stranger’ by Willie Nelson.
“It would be hard to overstate the importance of those records on Alex Williams’ life. After hearing them, he traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic, dove deep into classic country music, and, most importantly, began writing his own songs. Roughly a decade later, Williams is releasing his debut album, ‘Better Than Myself,’ and much like Willie and Waylon, he’s doing it on his own terms.”It seems like there’s a lot of people out there just trying to get through the day,” reflects Williams. “They’re working a job they don’t love or following somebody else’s dreams just because it’s safe and it keeps them comfortable. I didn’t want to be like that.”
‘Better Than Myself’ is a distant cry from the sugary pop hybrids currently dominating country radio airwaves, and as far as Williams is concerned, that’s a good thing. He’s part of a new breed of upstart outsiders, writing music that at once sounds both modern and traditional, channeling the raw, authentic sound that’s made stars out of outlaw singers and red dirt rockers. His live show is a force to be reckoned with, earning him dates with everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Hank Williams, Jr., but he’s equally at home in the studio. Fat, twangy guitar tones, honky-tonk pianos, and swirling pedal steel lay the framework for Williams’ blend of vintage country and southern rock, and his lived-in baritone breathes genuine life and depth into his based-on-a-true-story brand of songwriting.
“This record represents the last ten years of my life,” says Williams. “My thoughts, my feelings, everything that I’ve been through, it’s all in these songs. It’s what I’ve wanted to say for a decade.”Williams was born just outside Indianapolis, in the small town of Pendleton, IN. After graduating from high school, he relocated to Nashville for a short-lived stint at Belmont University, but he quickly dropped out after realizing he could learn more about life by hitting the road and experiencing it than he ever could in a classroom.
“I played some in Nashville and did the Broadway thing, and I played locally around Indiana some, too, but my first real gigs were in Texas,” remembers Williams. “I went down there because my cousin owned this shrimper bar on the Gulf coast where I could play. That was a big part of what got me so into Texas and all those Texas songwriters like Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Billy Joe Shaver.”
Williams had a band with some of his former college classmates, and by the time he was ready to make the leap and go solo, buzz about the group had caught the ear of Big Machine Label Group’s Julian Raymond. While Big Machine might be best known as home to crossover stars like Taylor Swift, Raymond’s illustrious pedigree as a GRAMMY-winning songwriter and producer included work with old school greats like Glen Campbell and Hank Williams Jr., and he sensed something special in Williams.
“I was worried,” remembers Williams. “I was 25, leaving this band, and I had no idea where my career was going to go, but Julian gave me a chance. He invited me to come by and start recording demos of my songs, and we probably ended up doing 50 or 60 of them. We kept slimming it down, but I kept writing.”When it was time to head into the studio for proper recording sessions, Williams and Raymond pieced together an all-star band featuring some of Nashville’s finest musicians: drummer Victor Indrizzo (Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris), keyboard player Matt Rollings (Lyle Lovett, Mark Knopfler), bassist Joeie Canaday (Leann Rimes, Steven Curtis Chapman), pedal steel player Dan Dugmore (James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt), and guitarists Tom Bukovac (Don Henley, Stevie Nicks) and J.T. Corenflos (Dolly Parton, Alan Jackson).With Raymond at the helm as producer, the band recorded live on the studio floor and wrapped basic tracking in just two days. The result is a rollicking throwback chock full of wit and wisdom, colored throughout by Williams’ fierce streak of independence. Album opener “Better Than Myself,” which features harmonica legend and longtime Willie Nelson bandmember Mickey Raphael, sets the stage perfectly, as Williams sings, “Truth be told in every note I play / Truth be told I don’t care what you say.”
“One of my old bandmates was pissed at me one time and he said, ‘Man, your songs are better than you are,'” Williams remembers. “That was hard to hear, but I had to save the line. I wrote the song in the back room of a venue before we played one of our last shows together, and it really felt like this new beginning for me.
“Williams has never been one to pull a punch in his deeply personal songwriting. On the fingerpicked “Pay No Mind,” he imparts hard-won insight about what (and who) really matters, while the folky “Freak Flag” is a devil-may-care ode to being yourself, and “Little Too Stoned” laments the loss of the authentic in favor of our society’s obsession with the latest trends and fads. Elsewhere on the album, the hard-charging “Hell Bent Hallelujah” offers up a profane prayer for some good news, the infectious “More Than Survival” insists on living a life that’s more meaningful than just getting by, and “A Few Short Miles” draws inspiration from a figure Williams met during those early days onstage in Texas.
“There was a fisherman down there who rescued an old acoustic guitar from a dumpster after a hurricane came through Galveston,” remembers Williams. “One day I was in the bar restringing my guitar and he knocked on the door and gave it to me. It was really inspiring getting to know him, and a lot of things he said to me made it into that song.
“Perhaps the most personal track on the record, though, is “Old Tattoo,” a stirring ode to Williams’ grandfather and the strength of his mother and grandmother in the face of his passing. “Time don’t heal / It’s just fadin’ like the floors of an old saloon,” he sings. “You can hide the pain away / Even if it’s carved right into you / Like an old tattoo.
“It’s an arresting moment, and an apt metaphor for a songwriter with the ability to lodge his melodies and lyrics deep beneath your skin. Forget fame and fortune, hits and hype. As far as Williams is concerned, the legacy you leave behind with the ones you care about most is the true measure of any man. With that in mind, and with a debut album as good as ‘Better Than Myself’ under his belt, it’s clear that Alex Williams is here to do more than just survive.