Whenever you find yourself thinking, "I liked the country music my parents listened to. It was so much better than this twangy frat-boy bullshit on the radio," you're probably thinking of outlaw country.
A brief history lesson: In 1972, Waylon Jennings bucked label pressure when recording his album Ladies Love Outlaws. After the record became a hit, Jennings was later joined by compatriots like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr., a revitalized Johnny Cash, and several other artists in what came to be called the outlaw country movement. Together, they eschewed Nashville's glitzy look and sound, and they sang songs with a rougher edge. They were very popular. For a while.
Fast-forward about 40 years. Nashville is arguably the music capital of America again. Pop country is incorporating dance music beats, getting played on mainstream radio, and selling millions of records. Meanwhile, there are a few scruffy guys with beards and tattoos calling themselves outlaws and trying to find success by bucking trends again.
Flint, Michigan's brightest young country star, Whitey Morgan, isn't having any of it. For starters, he's got choice words for Nashville's youngest and brightest: His best-selling T-shirts display a skeletal hand flipping the bird and say "Fuck Pop Country."
As a slogan and an ethos, it's doing well for him. "It's my top seller," Morgan says of the shirt. "Whenever I run out, people get so damn upset about it. They get their minds set on buying it before they come to the show.
"My T-shirt is specifically about these guys who don't write any of their own songs," he says. "They basically went from a karaoke stage to a stage in front of 500 people because of who they know, or god knows how they got there, but they get up in front of these people and they can't sing. That's the pop country I have a problem with."
The success of Morgan's T-shirt, not to mention his new album, Sonic Ranch, hints that he might represent a new breed of country singer—modern, but respectful of the classics.
Morgan has been grouped into a loose countermovement against the new Nashville, alongside singers like Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and Jamey Johnson, among others. The idea seems to be that the world is ready for a second wave of new outlaw country artists.
Morgan balks at this idea, as well.
"The only way to be an outlaw in the purest sense would be to be on a major label and tell the label heads to fuck off," Morgan says. "Right now, not one person has done it since the mid-'70s. So technically there are no outlaws anymore."
In the absence of a traditional Nashville contract, Morgan remains an independent artist, relying on new media to find his audience.
"People hear stuff on the radio, and they don't like it," Morgan says. "I feel almost like they've given up. They don't know where to look for [my music] online, I guess, because that's the only place you're going to find it.
"I write for people like me who enjoy the things I enjoy and who also have had some of the same life experiences: the heartache and late nights, and maybe the terrible relationships that—" he hesitates, before concluding, "the self-destructive kind of personality. That's what I write about." The bad habits coloring Morgan's songs are at least partly autobiographical—he wrote this latest record following a divorce.
Sonic Ranch, like its predecessor, Grandpa's Guitar, is informed by Morgan's formative years in Michigan, where he grew up among what he calls "a lot of blue-collar, hardworking drinking people."
Morgan's grandfather, like many southern laborers, relocated to Flint in the 1960s to make decent money working in a factory, and he brought the country music he loved north with him. "Flint in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s was 30 percent people from the South who came up to work there," Morgan estimates. "My grandfather was one of them, and that's why I was forced to listen to country music when I was a kid—when my parents weren't getting along, that's where they sent me."
Not that he embraced the music right away. "When I was a teenager," Morgan recalls, "I was playing in punk bands and going to all-ages shows. Angry at the world like everyone else when they're 17 years old." He then explains that punk, traditionally music of the young urban political left, and country, music traditionally associated with older generations in red states, aren't so different.
"A lot of ex–punk rockers are playing country now because it's the same thing. Mike Ness [of Social Distortion] released two records in 2000 and 2001 that were his tribute to country music because of how much it meant to him." Morgan speaks about how he and Ness both idolize older, darker songwriters like Townes Van Zandt.
"Those were his heroes, because he knew that they had been through the same thing he had. It might have been a different kind of music, but they were on the road the same way: the girls every night, the drugs, the alcohol, and trying to keep it together, trying not to self-destruct. That's as real as it gets, and between punk rock and country, those are the most real lyrics as far as any kind of high-energy edgy music goes."
Morgan, Simpson, Stapleton, and the others are positioning themselves as a new spin on an old form of country-music rebellion. Unlike Waylon Jennings and his cohort, they're not trying to change Nashville from the inside, but to circumvent it as much as possible.