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.