Whitey Morgan did a bit of time traveling on last year's Grandpa's Guitar, a stripped-down recording that transported the musician back to the basement of his grandfather's house in Flint, Michigan, where he first learned to play guitar when he was in third grade.

Whitey Morgan did a bit of time traveling on last year's Grandpa's Guitar, a stripped-down recording that transported the musician back to the basement of his grandfather's house in Flint, Michigan, where he first learned to play guitar when he was in third grade.

“[My grandpa] passed away when I was 17, but I still have the guitar I inherited from him, and every time I pick it up the memories hit me pretty hard,” said Morgan, 38, who joins his band the 78's for a concert at Park Street Saloon on Thursday, Feb. 19. “We were really close. He was my dad when my dad wasn't there, and he was the friend that I needed. I'm not going to lie to you; I came to tears a lot playing guitar that first year after he passed.”

In that time, Morgan, who'd spent a bulk of his teenage years playing bass and drums in a variety of punk bands, fully immersed himself in the catalogs of the country artists he'd spent hours listening to alongside his grandpa, saying, “It was like a whole new world opened up to me.”

“Just imagine one day you're presented an entire genre of music you didn't know you loved, and there it is: endless, beautiful country songs that are going to change your life,” he continued. “It hit me like a freight train. What are you doing playing in these stupid punk rock bands? You should be doing this. It couldn't have been more obvious. I quit all my bands and concentrated on playing guitar and singing, and never looked back.”

Early on, Morgan idolized the likes of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, fashioning his deep, gruff vocal delivery after the latter, since he was most comfortable singing in a lower register. Musically, however, he tended to walk a far rowdier line, favoring boozy, honky-tonk-steeped haymakers that came on like the alternate soundtrack to a bar brawl. It's a fists-up approach that led to countless write-ups referring to Morgan, who was born in Flint to a homemaker mother and a father who worked for General Motors, as an “outlaw” musician — a term he embraces with nearly as much fondness as “outsourcing,” “Hyundai” or “barbershop.”

“Why [did they call me an outlaw]? Because I drink whiskey onstage and cuss? That's just me,” he said. “I don't think there are any outlaws out there anymore. Everyone who thinks they're not getting the attention they deserve from the system says, 'Fuck it, I'm going to do whatever I want,' and then they call themselves an outlaw. What label is trying to sign you? None? Then who cares? You can't buck a system that doesn't know you exist.

“The original outlaws in the '70s, they were going against a system that wanted them ... and Waylon and Willie [Nelson] and all those guys basically told ’em, 'We're going to do it our way or we're not going to do it at all.' If Luke Bryan or one of these other pretty boys grew some balls and told the record label, 'Fuck off, I'm doing it my way,' then he'd be an outlaw. But I'm not one.”

Instead, Morgan refers to his own sound as honky-tonk (“It can't be country [because] I'm not from the South,” he said), though the subject matter in his songs owes a heavy debt to the country pioneers who shaped his earliest attempts at songwriting.

“It's still the same formula now: drinking, cheating and songs about relationships,” said Morgan, who is preparing for the May release of Sonic Ranch, an album that marks the return of a raucous, full-band sound following the parenthetical release of the quieter, more introspective Grandpa's Guitar. “I'd like to get into more storytelling … and try to get more creative, but I'm just so comfortable writing about heartbreak and things like that because that's what I've experienced in life.”

Regardless, Morgan described the writing of the title track off Grandpa's Guitar as a “huge turning point,” kick-starting a creative awakening that has only recently started to take shape.

“A lot of times I'll hear a song and go, 'Oh man, I really love this melody,' or, 'I like that line, but I can change it and do this.' I think ‘Grandpa's Guitar’ was the first time I wrote a song and put it on a record and didn't really try to make it sound like anything else,” he said. “Now it's like I'm discovering my own style, and night after night it's coming out.”

Photo credit: Marc Nader