Whitey Morgan and the 78’s music is called “outlaw country” by some.
Whitey, however, doesn’t care for the word “outlaw” when it comes to his band—and many other bands as well.
The band will return to Stagecoach on Sunday, April 28, after playing the festival for the first time in 2016.
Whitey Morgan, whose real name is Eric Allen, is originally from Flint, Mich. During a recent phone interview, he talked about his upbringing in the town that has become part of the national conversation due to the American auto industry’s problems, as well as the town’s drinking-water catastrophe.
“It was a typical Midwestern industrial town,” Allen said. “Dad worked in the factory, and Mom didn’t work. My grandpa was retired, and I spent a lot of time with him, and that’s where I learned a lot about country music. I got in a lot of schoolyard fights and stuff like that when I was a kid. I don’t know if we were lower class or lower-middle class; in fact, I don’t even know what that means. I know that I never went hungry, but we damn well didn’t have anything that wasn’t necessary.”
Allen said he was fortunate to go to a diverse school.
“The school I went to was in a white neighborhood, but they bused in the black and Mexican kids from the other parts of the town,” he said. “We had poor white kids, poor black kids and poor Mexican kids. … It’s when you’re young, and everyone is the same to you. It wasn’t until I went out in the world that I learned how terrible people are, what they think about each other, and all that other shit. … It’s amazing that people who haven’t been around other races of people are the most racist of people. It’s kind of like you’re talking shit on something you know nothing about, but that seems to be the American way: People are afraid of what they don’t understand.”
I asked him about the term “outlaw country.”
“The way the whole outlaw thing was … Willie, Waylon and the guys who were already on major labels … who weren’t getting as much traction as they would have liked had a lot of opinions on how they wanted their music to sound,” Allen said. “They eventually decided, ‘If I’m not going to do it my way, I’m not going to do it at all.’ When they said that to the record company, (the company) buckled, which created this outlaw thing. That’s the true meaning of the word. I think they just throw that word around too loosely—especially if you have long hair, a long beard and tattoos, and play a little louder than any other band. I’ve never really liked labels and don’t like labeling things. You can do things outside of the box and still be true to yourself.
“It’s kind of annoying, because people describe themselves with that label, and it’s like, ‘No, you’re definitely not that. Stop trying to call yourself that.’ It’s easy for them to just label themselves that, because maybe they’re searching for who they are.”
As a songwriter, Allen is able to take the dark sides of life—subjects such as drinking, heartbreak and regrets—and turn them into fun country songs.
“I’ve noticed in the last four or five years that I’ve learned that I kind of hear every song that way: Every song that’s about drinking or doing something else is already dark in itself,” he said. “There’s that old line that you can be at a party, and you’re still standing in a corner alone. I hear these people saying they’re going to live with no regrets, and that is such bullshit. I don’t know anyone who isn’t going to have some regrets about things they’ve done or what they haven’t been able to do. It’s really hard to combine all that, and I just naturally do it because of the life I live. It’s great out here on the road sometimes; it’s great to be drinking and partying and hanging out with different people all the time. At the same time all that stuff is happening, my body is wearing out; my mind isn’t as sharp as it used to be; and that equation ends up being what you hear on my record, I guess.”
As the popularity of Whitey Morgan and the 78’s has grown in recent years, so, too, has the size of the venues in which the band plays.
“I’m glad that we’re graduating to some of the nicer theaters and things like that, but there’s something that feels at home in a 300-seat rowdy honky tonk or a place where everyone is standing up,” Allen said. “That energy is just thick in the air. I love that, and that will always feel like home to me. But I like the nicer theaters with the better sound, and things go easier. When you’re on the road a lot, the little things that could go wrong can start to wear on you. There are all these triggers to set you off. To have less of those on a long tour is definitely a plus. But I’ve walked into places where I’ve placed twice, and don’t remember playing there, but I’ll walk into the green room and be like, ‘Oh, I remember this green room!’ or, ‘I remember that restaurant next door that we ate at!’ After a while, you grab on to the really shitty things or the really positive things—and the things in between can be forgotten.”
Allen said playing at festivals presents a unique set of challenges.
“Festivals are always a little different for me,” he said. “Just playing outdoors has been a challenge, because I don’t get that vibe I get in a dark bar. One thing I learned early on is: Drink lots of water. Don’t only drink whiskey, because you’re not Superman. I try to focus on playing the songs, because that’s a venue where a lot of stuff could go wrong. When you’re the sixth band of the day going in, you think they have everything figured out, and we go to start playing—there’s nothing even on, and the stage is dead. We’re half a song in, and it shuts back off. I’m looking at the sound guy and wondering what the hell is happening.
“I’ve had some nightmares happen that make me wary when I step onto a festival stage. Unless you’re the headliner who got a two-hour soundcheck, and they have your shit saved in the board—that’s one thing. But if you have 45 minutes to play and 20 minutes to get your gear up, you play for 25 minutes before you’re finally warmed up. When we’re done, it’s like, ‘Shit, we were just getting warmed up.’”
I asked Allen what he would recommend to a Stagecoach attendee who partied a little too hard the night before.
“Obviously, water. I’m big on Gatorade and water immediately,” he said. “In Southern California, it’d be a big plate of enchiladas, beans and rice. Maybe a margarita. I mean, realistically, the only thing to cure a hangover is to have a drink. Just do one margarita; it’ll take the edge off.”