Country and … Michigan? Flint’s Whitey Morgan Battles for the Soul of Country Music, One Gig at a Time

2016-02-17T11:40:20+00:00 June 16th, 2015|

By Scott Atkinson

After an hour-long drive, Doug Suiter is sitting at high stool at The Machine Shop in Flint, Michigan, one hand on his knee and the other wrapped around a sixteen-ounce can of Bud Light, waiting to see if Whitey Morgan is the real deal.

It was a long drive, but one he’s made before. He had once hauled steel to the factories Flint was built on, most of which are now closed. He’ll soon see if the drive was worth it. He sounds hopeful but skeptical — the tone of a man who knows better than to get his hopes up — and maybe with good reason. He’s coming up on sixty, and most the people filing in are around half his age, not exactly a promising sign for the kind of music he’s after.

There is also the bar itself. It’s easy to get the wrong first impression of The Machine Shop. It’s already got enough against it, victim of stereotypes both earned and unearned in the city often called America’s most violent. The bar is located on Dort Highway, home of many businesses but known for two of Flint’s more notorious strip clubs and the occasional prostitution sting by local police. Inside, at first glance, it looks like a heavy metal club. Posters of bands like Finger Eleven, Puddle of Mudd, Drowning Pool, and others known for maximally distorted guitars and singers you can’t imagine practicing scales cover the walls. Other walls are covered in paintings that could easily be the tattoos of a metalhead or aging rocker — an anchor; skeletal arms offering up the rock and roll symbol on one hand, a middle finger on the other. The logo of the venue itself features a pin-up girl.

Flint native Whitey Morgan is bathed in blue stage light as he is seen through the audience members during a show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

Flint native Whitey Morgan is bathed in blue stage light as he is seen through the audience members during a show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

But there will be no metal tonight. The people gathered for the last night of two back-to-back shows by Whitey Morgan are the people who see the other posters on the wall with names like David Allen Coe, and who perhaps appreciate more than others the head of the twelve-point buck mounted by the sound station. They are here for country music of a kind that must be sought out. It will not come to them. They won’t find it on the radio unless they’re paying for satellite stations, nor will it be advertised on billboards like the oversized one on I-75 many of them passed on the way here, featuring Tim McGraw. Say what you will about Flint, you cannot say it with the same sneering disdain a Whitey Morgan fan — or Whitey himself — will say the word Nashville. It is why so many people tonight are wearing the same T-shirt with the same three words on the back: “Fuck pop country.” They need Whitey Morgan as much as he needs them. They provide his living, but they are also proof there are still people who love the music he creates and is trying to keep alive. And he is their proof that they are not merely nostalgic, that the music they grew up listening to is not some quaint blast from the past on a satellite radio station. It is here, alive, not entirely sober and, in moments, will be right in front of them. He is proof their music still matters — that, by extension, they still matter.

That’s the case for the fans, anyway. There are others, like Suiter, waiting and hoping to be convinced.

“This guy wouldn’t shut up about Whitey Morgan,” he said, thinking back to the young man who’d tried to sell him on Morgan in a bar eighty miles away. “So when I saw it in the paper I thought I’d check it out.”

If he’d been paying closer attention, he might have noticed him sooner. His latest album, Sonic Ranch, hadn’t yet been released when Suiter showed up at The Machine Shop in May, but was already getting rave reviews in places like Rolling Stone. Morgan has more than once opened for Bob Seger. But the real successes, to Morgan, are nights like this. He has been on tour almost nonstop for about two years and shows no sign of slowing down. He gathers his audience the old-fashioned way — by word of mouth, show by show. Each time he returns to another club in another town, there are a few more faces, more people who know him by Whitey Morgan rather than his real name, Eric Allen, and the clubs keep booking him. He produced Sonic Ranch himself, turning down record labels because they weren’t good enough, because he’d rather keep it in family, because doesn’t like the idea of someone else owning a piece of what he’s built from the ground up.

Whitey Morgan and the 78's play a show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

Whitey Morgan and the 78’s play a show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

He’s still building it, and it’s unclear how big things could get. He’s making a living and has recently bought a new van for touring complete with a flat screen TV, but that was a long time coming. No one’s getting rich. He’s booked, but the venues are usually about this size, seating in the hundreds rather than the thousands. And sure, bigger crowds would be nice, but he likes this. For Morgan it is all about the live show. His music, what he simply calls honky-tonk, has as much to do with where you are and who you’re with as how it sounds. People call Whitey Morgan & the 78’s outlaw country, but he despises the term — there are no more outlaw country bands, he’ll tell you, and can offer a history lesson as to why. It was a movement that came and went right around 1978, when country bands were refusing to go along with the more mainstream, orchestrated sound coming out of Nashville. Honky-tonk is music you can drink and dance to. His music is unmistakable country, but from an earlier era. It is at once heavy and twangy, sometimes downright gritty but more often upbeat, set to lyrics about drinking and having fun or getting depressed and drinking some more. Sometimes he and the band will cover a blues or soul artist, filtered through Whitey’s deep voice and those twangy guitars. So long as people are up on their feet and having a good time, then that’s honky-tonk, too.

[blocktext align=”right”]His music, what he simply calls honky-tonk, has as much to do with where you are and who you’re with as how it sounds.[/blocktext]He might be on the verge of making it big, or he might have taken his music as far as his music can take him. There might just not be enough people who like this style of country music to push him over the edge into fame and fortune. That’s fine, he’ll tell people. Life on the road playing music and paying the bills is more than he ever expected. He might not be outlaw, but he’s still fighting the same battle against Nashville. He is almost forty, but the wound from the days when country was hijacked from his heroes is still raw. Don’t listen to his band if you don’t want to, but at least turn off the radio and listen to Waylon.

But there are some people who still want it, people like Suiter, who are willing to drive the hour just to see. A local country band, Pole Born Rebels, opened the show as more people filed in — young men in cowboy hats and young women in skirts and cowboy boots, bikers in matching vests, people in sneakers and T-shirts with nothing country about them except that they’re here.

Fans hold beers and lean over a chain barrier while watching the Whitey Morgan and the 78's show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

Fans hold beers and lean over a chain barrier while watching the Whitey Morgan and the 78’s show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

And then Whitey Morgan is on the stage. In the brief moment before he plays, he has already won them over. Clean-shaven pop country singers may be ambling in and out of Nashville, but Morgan’s hair looks like he’s just returned from hibernating in the mountains. His beard hangs to his chest and is creeping up toward his eyes, which occasionally narrow into the glint of a schoolyard prankster, the guy who at any moment, might do or say just about anything.

He says a quick hello to his hometown, to the crowd in one of the first bars he ever played as Whitey Morgan, and then they are off. Their first song is “Buick City,” an upbeat number that to outsiders might seem like a reference to Flint itself but which locals know refers to a massive brownfield on the other side of town, once so packed with factories it earned the name of it’s own city for the 27,000 people who no longer work there. It’s a song about getting out of Flint. People in the front sing along to every word.

There are occasional breaks in the show. A few are chances for Morgan to let the audience know that, should any of them feel inclined to buy him a shot of anything from Kentucky, he will not refuse them. Shot glasses crowdsurf to the stage. But more often he takes a moment to share with his audience their collective lament and struggle.

Flint native Whitey Morgan prepares to take a whiskey shot bought for him by a fan while talking to the crowd during a show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

Flint native Whitey Morgan prepares to take a whiskey shot bought for him by a fan while talking to the crowd during a show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

“Am I the only one who is upset with the state of country music coming out of Nashville these days?” he says into the microphone.

He is not.

Later in the show, he breaks again.

“Back in 1978, Waylon Jennings released a song. He told Nashville how he felt about what he thought was going on. Mostly, he said it was fucked. It’s a battle that will never end.”

And later still: “When is the last time someone played a Sam Cooke song in Flint, Michigan? It should be happen every fuckin’ night. It’s bullshit.”

But it won’t happen every night in Flint, because after tonight, Morgan will be back on the road, first to New York to play for Sirius XM radio, and then back on tour. Tonight is a homecoming, but it is also a successful battle in Morgan’s war. Before the show is over, Doug Suiter is on his feet, dancing by himself in his work boots. He has already been to the back of the club and bought two of Morgan’s albums.

***

Like many of the people who would move to Flint from the south to build cars for General Motors, William Henry Morgan brought his music with him. Records of the country and bluegrass greats, as well as his guitar and banjo, sat in the cold basement of his south side home where no grandchild would dare go without permission. The same went for his El Camino, which no one was allowed to touch, let alone drive. Ditto the lawn mower. He had a pattern, a way of mowing that no one else could be trusted with. Every morning until he had open heart surgery he would stop at the Ambassador Bar, one of many “shop bars” that thrived catering to factory workers during the booming days of General Motors. He would say hello to his granddaughter, Kerry Allen, who worked there, and order biscuits and gravy that he would wash down with a glass of buttermilk. After his surgery, he changed his morning routine by precisely three words: “Don’t tell grandma.”

Whitey Morgan and the 78's play a show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

Whitey Morgan and the 78’s play a show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

He was a man set in his ways, set in his music, and he wasn’t alone.

There was a time when Flint was so full of country music brought north it was its own incubator of the genre. Country-western bars could be found throughout the city in the ‘60s and ‘70s — The Wagon Wheel, The Yellow Jacket, The Russelville Ballroom, as well as Jesse’s Country Club, owned by Jesse Couch, a country singer that The Flint Journal once called “the Flint area’s most popular entertainer.”

Couch wanted more than that, and there was a time when it looked like he could be. In 1992, he went to Nashville to play in a band put together by Mickey Gilley, and at least one talent scout from a record company had his eye on him. It was supposed to be his big break in the country music scene, and maybe Flint’s big break as well.

Flint, in fact, had already made a significant and lasting contribution to country, giving it what is perhaps its most defining instrument, the steel guitar. The guitar’s influx into Nashville can be traced back to the late 1920s, when two men from Hollywood moved to Flint to set up the Honolulu Conservatory of Music, where they taught eager students the latest craze — the Hawaiian dobro, a guitar played face-up on one’s lap that produced a sliding, twangy sound. Among the students there was Beecher “Pete” Kirby, who in 1940 would perform at the Grand Ole Opry under the name Bashful Brother Oswald, playing alongside country legend Roy Acuff. The steel guitar is now an inseparable component of country, whether onstage with Morgan or with the most popular Nashville stars.

Flint native Whitey Morgan gives his latest CD to a fan during a VIP greeting session backstage before a show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

Flint native Whitey Morgan gives his latest CD to a fan during a VIP greeting session backstage before a show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

“The steel guitar that was in music that was identified as more of a hard country sound basically developed out of Flint, Michigan,” said David Norris, who had been a DJ for Flint’s sole radio station in the ‘60s and ‘70s and who would later move to Nashville, spending at the Opry time with the stars he’d met over the years in radio. “There were other people that were developing it, but he was playing with Roy Acuff.”

Couch followed those footsteps to Nashville. He was in his fifties and, as his daughter had told the local newspaper, “It’s now or never.”

She was talking about her father, but she could just as well have been talking about Flint and it’s contribution to country. Flint had remained a stronghold for old school country, but it wasn’t immune to what Dave Norris saw happening as early as the ‘60s and ‘70s.

[blocktext align=”left”]“Am I the only one who is upset with the state of country music coming out of Nashville these days?”[/blocktext]“They started adding more of the violins and the very orchestrated songs. And there were a lot of people who didn’t like it, but there was a popularity to it. … But Flint often was different. For a long time it was more of a pure country.”

But in 1992 taking that sound to Nashville might have been too much to hope for. Garth Brooks had brought country into the spotlight, but it was a different country than what Couch had been playing for two decades, different than what was playing on record players in the basements of people like William Morgan and onstage at the country bars that were one by one disappearing in Flint. The Wagon Wheel Lounge declared bankruptcy back in 1979. The Russelville Ballroom in 1993 would turn into Club Spice, a venue that promised to stay true to country but began showcasing just about any other genre of music you could think of. That same year, they hosted a boxing match. In 1986, Couch’s own bar had burnt down, never to be reopened. The address now belongs to a strip club.

Someone from RCA told Couch he sang good enough to sell records. He sang (during a benefit for retired entertainers) on the Grand Ole Opry stage, a lifelong dream.

And then, sometime later, he came home.

Country music had changed. But there were still people like William Morgan, stubbornly mowing their own lawns and clinging to their own music, the music they’d brought with them and that had found a new home in Flint, even if it was in their basements. They listened to it as they continued to build cars, to have children and eventually grandchildren. One of William Morgan’s grandchildren, his youngest, was named Eric Allen, and he’d been listening.

***

Members of Whitey Morgan and the 78's play during a show at The Machine Shop in Morgan's hometown of Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

Members of Whitey Morgan and the 78’s play during a show at The Machine Shop in Morgan’s hometown of Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

In 2014 Whitey Morgan released a bare bones album of nine covers and two original songs. The title track is “Grandpa’s Guitar,” a slow and soulful song that begins:

“I still remember how it sounded/the first time I found it/down them stairs in that dark basement room/I can still hear him saying/boy if you want to learn to play it/start right here with an old country tune.”

The rest of the album, dedicated to his grandfather, William Henry Morgan, is a set of old country tunes, the kind he heard growing up — George Jones, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings.

William Morgan was Whitey’s grandfather on his mother’s side, and it’s why, until he went from being Eric Allen to Whitey Morgan, they had different last names.

“He said he’d always carry that on even though it wasn’t his name,” his sister, Kerry Allen said. “All this, it never would have happened if it wasn’t for my grandpa. He dedicates everything to him. It’s amazing.”

(The “Whitey,” she says, is because “if you’ve ever seen him in shorts, he’s pretty transparent,” which earned him the nickname in high school.)

Those who knew him as a teenager and young man didn’t know him as a country rocker but as just a rocker. Like many teens in the Flint area in the ‘90s he hung out at a club called The Flint Local 432, an all-ages, no-alcohol venue dedicated to giving area kids a chance to play in bands, mostly punk rock or metal.

It was there that Eric Allen started playing in bands, experimenting with different songs and instruments. He started at the Local playing bass in a hardcore band called Spit. The band was straight-edge — no drugs, nothing in a bottle from Kentucky. And when that band died he moved on to drum in another indie band, Kid Brother Collective, and toured the country.

Whitey Morgan and the 78's play a show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

Whitey Morgan and the 78’s play a show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2015.

“He’s one of those guys that can play everything, and he plays it really well, and it’s frustrating to guys like me, who can only play bass,” said Chris Everson, who was in Kid Brother Collective with Allen. “He’s one of those guys who’s just really talented.”

Beneath all that, the foundation, was the music he grew up on.

“Grandpa’s Guitar” goes on to tell the story of the day William Morgan died and Allen returned to the basement in his grandfather’s house while the family was upstairs. He picked up the guitar, which he still has, and began to play.

“His CD, Grandpa’s guitar, that is absolutely, one hundred percent from-the-heart true,” his sister, Kerry Allen said. “I know it was really hard on Eric when he passed. I think he’s still grieving.”

The music he learned from his grandfather revealed itself more and more over the years. Following Kid Brother Collective, he started Dixie Hustler, a southern rock band, before he turned fully to country.

Then, about ten years ago, Allen realized he had to make a choice. He was working in a body shop painting and playing gigs on weekends, being pulled between his normal working life and his music.

“I just decided one day it was time,” he said. “It was just like, OK man, the teeter totter is about to go the other direction.”

He made the decision in one day. He tells the story often, and it’s a quick one. He sold almost all of his tools, bought a trailer and music gear, and hit the road.

He was Whitey Morgan.

***

It’s about one o’clock in the morning, and the concert has been over for about an hour, and still, Whitey can’t leave. Or he won’t. It’s hard to tell. He is standing in the back of the bar on a raised platform behind the sound booth where tables line the walls full of Whitey Morgan gear — CDs, shirts, beer cozies. Many people have already gone home. Suiter is nowhere in sight, on his way home with his new CDs. Some people are still shopping. The rest are in line, waiting their turn.

Most of them are men. Some look bored, almost sheepish, perhaps because they’re grown men waiting in line to talk to another grown man, to shake his hand, to say whatever they’re preparing themselves to say, perhaps to ask him to sign something like it’s no big deal, like they won’t take it home and find a special place for it.

Flint native Whitey Morgan hangs out with longtime friend and fan Matt Little, of Saginaw, backstage before a show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2014.

Flint native Whitey Morgan hangs out with longtime friend and fan Matt Little, of Saginaw, backstage before a show at The Machine Shop in Flint, MI on May 1, 2014.

“Come on,” one woman says, pulling at the arm of her husband, Matt Little. Matt Little does not look bored, not even close. He doesn’t bother waiting in line, and doesn’t shy away from talking about why he won’t leave, why he doesn’t care that there’s a group of people outside waiting for him in the bus he rented for them, still waiting. Whitey Morgan is something he needs in his life. He’s thirty-five, and all the music he listened to growing up was sang by men who were past their prime and now are either old or dead. And yet here is Whitey, in the flesh and very much alive, his beard still far from gray, with perhaps as much booze on his breath as Little. They have exchanged several hugs. He has a stocky, farm worker’s build and is wearing a shirt with the sleeves cut off and a cowboy hat that looks, unlike some others present tonight, like he actually wears it places other than concerts.

“The thing that drives me home on him, he ain’t a modern country singer. He’s the real deal. He’s singing about drinkin’, boozin’. To me he’s a true-to-the-core country singer,” he said.

He first heard of Whitey Morgan from a family friend who’d been watching him in the early days at small-town shows. A year later he saw him at The Machine Shop for a Waylon Jennings birthday bash Whitey was throwing.

“That put me over for a Whitey fan,” he said.

[blocktext align=”right”]“The thing that drives me home on him, he ain’t a modern country singer. He’s the real deal. He’s singing about drinkin’, boozin’. To me he’s a true-to-the-core country singer.”[/blocktext]When he turned 30, he hired Whitey to play his birthday party, and said he’s been a fan, or something like it, ever since. Not all fans get to see their heroes and be on a first-name basis. Not all of them can walk back into the venue over and over because there’s something they forgot to say and have that person listen to them, eyes locked.

He talks to Whitey like someone who doesn’t quite know if he’s a friend or fan, and it’s a line Whitey himself has to negotiate.

“He’s tired,” Kerry Allen says, watching him as the line moves along. “He said, ‘I never expected this.’ I just told him just a few minutes ago, I said, ‘I don’t want to tell you what to do, but as your older sister I think it’s time. You need to put a wall up with the fans.’ I mean it’s getting out of control. They’re tired. Obviously the band is exhausted. And he won’t leave. Because they’re his fans. And I said, you have a life, you have to keep your health up.”

Little approaches Whitey again.

His wife is standing nearby, sighing again, looking over her shoulder as though she can see through the wall and into the bus of people still waiting.

“The bus is going to leave,” she tells him.

Little doesn’t appear to hear her. Neither does Whitey. He’s looking at Little while he talks. Soon, the line will die down, and Little will finally be on his bus and heading home, and sometime later Whitey will slip out while a few hangers-on still mill about behind the sound booth. But not yet.

___
Photos by Laura McDermott.

Scott Atkinson is a freelance writer based in Flint, Michigan. For the past several years he has been an award-winning features writer for The Flint Journal. He teaches writing at The University of Michigan-Flint.

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4 Comments

  1. Seb Melmoth June 16, 2015 at 9:36 am - Reply

    The more I learn about Flint, the weirder it gets. In a good way. Of course a northern auto town is a forgotten hub of the country music scene. Great story.

  2. BOGDOG June 16, 2015 at 6:59 pm - Reply

    I’d heard of Whitey but never saw him. Then a few years ago I got home on a Monday or Tuesday evening and heard some great music coming from the local VFW hall next to my house. I heard covers of some of my favorite old school country songs and similar sounding songs I’d never heard before. I kept hearing the name Whitey Morgan and have been a fan ever since seeing the band perform pretty much every chance I get. I later learned from a band member that the VFW performance was for a fans wake.

  3. Dave October 15, 2016 at 11:02 am - Reply

    Awesome article Scott, I’ve left country since it got soft and now you’ve helped me find a way back to it. And the history of Flint – my folks all worked for GM, I’ve been to those same bars, and the steal guitar reference. Bravo good work.

    Dave
    Hartland, mi

  4. Michael T. Coleman April 11, 2017 at 4:38 pm - Reply

    This is a great article. Learned something about Flint. Had no idea about its country roots. Thanks.

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