Getting to the spirit of Outlaw country

Music in Muscatine

Photo courtesy of Whitey Morgan and the 78's Facebook.

By Rod Peck

I grew up on the Outlaw country movement of the 1970s. People like Waylon, Willie, Merle and Hank, Jr. were among my mom’s favorites and were household names in our home, but by the mid-80s I had quit country because by that time it had become too poppy for my tastes. A few years back, the Outlaw style began to gain popularity again, with artists such as Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Aledo, Illinois’ own Margo Price leading the way. On Sunday night, Dec. 15, I believe I got as close to the true spirit of Outlaw country as you possibly can these days when Terri and I attended a concert by Whitey Morgan and the 78’s at Iowa City’s Wildwood BBQ & Saloon. Let me say it now: Whitey is the real deal!

The first thing that struck me once we had our seats was an electric piano and a steel guitar on the stage along with a pair of guitars. The steel especially caught my attention, because this instrument, Hawaiian in origin, seems to be the one that separates hard-core country fans from those of modern country. When I’m talking music with someone who says something along the lines of “I like country as long as it’s not that twangy stuff,” I know right away that we’re not on the same page, as the steel guitar, along with the fiddle, is where the twang comes from. Duke Ellington once said about Jazz that “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” and I have adapted that saying for country: “it don’t mean a thang if it ain’t got that twang.” I was already filled with anticipation before we got there, but let me tell ya, I got really excited when I saw that steel guitar!

It took all of about two seconds into their set for me to realize that my expectations were not only going to be met but exceeded on all levels. This is especially significant in that Terri and I decided to go to this show only the day before and were not at all familiar with Mr. Morgan’s songs when he and the 78’s took the stage. Obviously, it’s not ideal to go into a concert unfamiliar with the performer’s music, but I’ve found that if you like ’em, you like ’em, regardless. The first thing that got me into the music was the particular sound of the band. One of the reasons I had quit country in my early 20’s is that while Waylon Jennings undeniably is the one man responsible for wedding Rock ‘n’ Roll with country and doing it right, in the long run, his influence may have done more harm than good, because most of the people who came after him simply couldn’t pull it off. It’s one thing to rock; it’s quite another to be country. Mixing the two is a tricky business; to really rock and still be real country requires a knack that very few have mastered, and herein lies the most important secret to what makes Whitey Morgan and the 78’s a great band.

Another aspect of WM and the 78’s that I enjoyed was the seemingly genuine camaraderie and sincere joy in music the band members displayed. What especially tickled me was that quite often during the instrumental breaks, Mr. Morgan would move over to the side of the stage where steel guitarist Brett Robinson was layin’ it down, and the two seemed to get into a groove all their own. Each member of the band is excellent individually, and clearly they have honed their collective skills into a cohesive unit that, while their sound clearly and unashamedly recalls their heroes, carries its own distinct stamp, as well.

Mr. Morgan also picks his covers quite effectively, which was great for Terri and me, not knowing much of his music beforehand. Among them were Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got To Memphis” and Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” Especially good was WM & the 78’s rendition of the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Fire On The Mountain,” on which Mr. Morgan’s voice really did justice to the great MTB singer Doug Gray’s vocal power and understated emotional intensity.

As for Mr. Morgan himself, he not only has the voice to carry a show on his own musical terms, but he also impressed me greatly with his stage presence. This man knows that the career path he has chosen is hardly middle-of-the-road; he also knows that what he is doing is good. With this knowledge, he understands that not everyone is going to like his music, but that those of us who do like it really like it! So, his stage persona is that of a man who knows what he’s about and has no need of pandering to or posturing for the audience in order to get cheap applause.

Whitey Morgan and the 78’s have been around for 15 years now and never make it to the top of the charts, and somehow that seems fitting. However, I recall recently-departed Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter once saying he was glad the Dead weren’t super-successful early on, as it would have screwed them up. And, come to think of it, the GD were around over 20 years before they achieved big-time chart success, so here’s hoping Mr. Morgan and the 78’s can follow in the same career trajectory and become big stars in the coming new decade. I purchased CDs of their two most-recent albums, 2015’s Sonic Ranch and Hard Times and White Lines from 2018, and now I’m ready to sign up for their email list. I guess that makes me a new convert!

Concerning the Wildwood BBQ & Saloon, after some initial confusion over their ticketing system, Terri and I have really come to love the place. You just need to know that you must reserve a table in addition to buying reasonably priced general-admission tickets if you want to enjoy a sit-down dinner of their awesome BBQ. Terms like “roadhouse,” “honky-tonk” and “joint” are fitting, but only in the best and classiest way possible, and they book the best in under-the-mainstream-radar entertainment. It’s located just off the Herbert Hoover Highway east of Iowa City at I-80 exit 249. Be sure to check the place out in 2020!