Morrissey More than Just Plain Folk

March 10, 1994 

by Dave Hoeskstra

Unfortunately, fame and fortune can validate popular music. Despite a 1993 Grammy nomination and unanimous critical raves, singer-songwriter Bill Morrissey remains relatively unknown.

Morrissey, who did not sing in the Smiths, took on the question radio programmers often ask on-air talent and editors ask reporters: Why is this guy important?

"I write well," Morrissey answered by phone from his home in suburban Boston. "The goal was always to write well, not to be a star. If you're in it for the long haul, that has to be the goal.

"I see lots of kids today where fame is the goal, but there's no soul. Maybe I'm important because I'm proof that if you stick to it, eventually it will kick in. Someday I'll have a T-shirt printed in Latin: `Outlast the bastards.' "

Morrissey, 42, ranks with Randy Newman, John Prine and Bob Dylan at the head of the songwriting class. Entertainment Weekly called Morrissey "the best folk songwriter working today." Studs Terkel said, "His songs haunt me."

Morrissey and fishing buddy Greg Brown reeled in a Grammy nomination for best traditional folk album.

Their "Friend of Mine" album was a collection of covers by Hank Williams Sr., Ian Tyson and Willie Brown.

Morrissey appears Sunday afternoon at the Old Town School of Folk Music. At 7 p.m. Monday, he'll lead a two-hour songwriting workshop. Students will undoubtly learn about Morrissey's profound sense of revelation that echoes his deep-as-an-empty-wishing-well vocals.

"Writing about the lonesome highway is only going part of the way," Morrissey said. "Everyone knows the highway is lonesome. That's not going to move anybody. But you put somebody on the highway and he's got a story that can make somebody see something in a different way. That's what gets it beyond a cliche level. If you can make the listener care about this guy, understand what he's doing and why he's doing it, then it's a good song."

With such a commitment to storytelling, it's not surprising that Morrissey is influenced by novelists. His mentor was the late author Tom Williams, winner of the 1975 National Book Award for The Hair of Harold Roux. Williams said Morrissey's immediacy of sympathy toward his characters reminded him of Raymond Carver, whose writing was popularized in the film "Short Cuts."

"I'd go up to Tom's house for a couple of drinks or go to his cabin to go fishing," Morrisseysaid. "You'd never know who would be hanging around. John Irving. Andre Dubus. These guys would talk literature and rainbow trout. I'd keep my mouth shut. Tom taught me to say it as economically as possible and get out. Just make sure it is what you mean."

Morrissey is touring to support "Night Train," his most recent solo release for Philo/Rounder Records. It has become the best-selling album in Morrissey's five-album solo catalog.

The evergreen of the record is "Birches," a stunning song about an old couple attempting to recall young love. Morrissey uses birch as a subtle metaphor for passion. Morrissey got the idea for the song while helping friends load birch logs into a woodbox in Maine.

"I got the image of `white as a wedding dress,' " he said. "I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I knew I'd do something eventually. And that was six or seven years ago. Then I hit on the idea of the two old people. Once I sat down to write, it took only two hours. The quality was all there. That's such a relief when that happens. So often you're tugging and pulling for days."

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