`Cross that border into N.H. and the blood pressure goes down

September 10, 1995

by Philip Bennett

Bill Morrissey, a songwriter and folk singer, has been compared to the best New England poets. His songs about the working-class mill towns of the North are in the plain language of places he knows; his characters are on intimate terms with loss, daily heroic compromise, and redemption. In 1994, an album Morrissey recorded with his friend Greg Brown was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Morrissey grew up in Acton, Mass., and Hartford. He worked jobs across the region before supporting himself with his music. He is a dedicated hunter and fly fisherman, taking a portable fly rod when he tours. In addition to his popularity across the country, he also has a following in Italy. Today, Morrissey lives in a suburb northwest of Boston; he is 43, although, he says, "I read at a 46-year-old level." He is working on a new album, to be released next spring, along with his first novel, "Edson," which is set in a New Hampshire mill town. He spoke in Cambridge with New England Editor Philip Bennett. Here is an edited version of the interview:

When I finished the book, I went up to a friend's camp at the northern tip of Moosehead Lake, way up in Maine. It's 30 miles of dirt road to get into the camp, it's on paper-company land, and there's no electricity, you have gas lights and stuff, and so I brought a boom box. And during the day it'd be Maine Public Radio, but at night I'd search that dial to find the AM station of the Sox. There's almost a purist way to do it. You're way up, miles from anywhere, just getting a scratchy version of the Sox, but they got me. They got me.

You can get Boston radio in the foothills of the White Mountains. It makes people a little less isolated. They have access to all this now. Whether it's the satellite dish up in Arrow, New Hampshire, or whatever. But they can also turn it off. It's not like everybody is acting suburban. They're still remaining who they are. They just have more access to more information, and different perspectives.

You know, there still are the mills up there, around Claremont, and Manchester has its share. But a lot of them are relocating. I used to live in Newmarket, New Hampshire, where Timberland shoes were made, and they're long gone. The mill is now condos, I believe, which nobody can afford because there's no work. I believe they went south for economic reasons. It's changing, but it still has the character it had almost 100 years ago. There are just fewer farms and fewer mills.

I grew up in small-town New England. I've probably lived in mill towns more than I've lived anywhere else, whether it's Bristol, or Newmarket, or Ashland. And I worked in them as little as possible; I've worked any job as little as possible. But I've worked in chemical plants and woolen mills. I've never had to do the shoe mill.

What I like about the first couple of records is the guys who worked with me were the guys I socialized with in Newmarket. You know, the Polish Club opened at 2:30 and they got out of work at 3 and we'd go over and have a beer or two and shoot pool till supper time. And that's what people did: you had your beer after work and shot some pool and watched Family Fued.

One of the most gratifying things was the first time the guys came see me play at this place when I started writing about mills, and they'd come up and request certain songs and say, `Yeah, you really got it right on this one; you nailed it right there, Bill." And that meant more to me than a good review in the Village Voice. If it was not true, they would have found a way to let me know. Quickly.

It was a whole different {folk music} scene 20 years ago. There weren't all the coffeehouses that there are now, and you didn't hear folk music on the radio. So I tended to work four sets a night in bars, everything from the apres ski gigs in the White Mountains, which are the 4 in the afternoon to 8, singing to people who are trying to pick each other up, to the blue-collar bars in the mill towns and the tourist bars on the seacoast. It was a good training ground. Nobody works four sets anymore. Because the music is more accessible and because there are more folk singers around now, I think people are more knowledgeable about it and it's not as rough as it once was. There were no options back then.

I played anything from pizza joints in Henniker to a pretty rough bar called the Bristol Tap in Bristol. They weren't boring gigs, I'll tell you. The first time I played in Bristol I said something that offended someone, and he threw a chair at me. And then he wanted to play harmonica and he was the biggest guy in the place, so I let him play harp on one tune and then he became my best friend. Nobody else had let him play.

The Chit Chat in Haverhill {where a patron once pulled a gun on him}. You never knew what you were going to get. That was a place where you really tried to maintain a low profile. Nobody listened to you anyway. But it was a neighborhood bar, they were the only bar on that strip that had live music, so that made them better than all the other bars. It didn't matter that nobody listened to you. You learn to survive, just like anything else.

I think there are certain New England characteristics in my songs, in my lyrics, in that I try not to waste words. I think New Englanders know the value of things, and so I just want to go in, say what I have to say, and get out, and not hang around and admire my work. That's the old taciturn Yankee approach.

Because my songs, especially on the first couple records, were set in the mill towns mostly, {he was called a New England songwriter}. That was kind of a double-edge thing. The regionalist term can be sort of a condescending term, as if people in Florida wouldn't get the songs. But that wasn't the case. I mean Robert Frost wrote about his little part of the country, as did William Faulker. If you write well, it will translate. So that was frustrating at first. It's like the term "folk singer" used to be derogatory, disparaging.

I lived in California three times, in Texas, in Philadelphia. I would leave New England to get a change of scenery, a sense of perspective, and I would go four months, two months, six months. But I would always come back. Always knew I would come back. This is home. I don't know what defines home, except that I'm more comfortable here than anywhere else. Everything you do, you do instinctively. Even the way you drive. Everybody's so polite driving in Minneapolis. So you snap back.

I like the edge you get in New England. I think the weather forces you to have a little edge. In the poorer towns, the working-class towns, it's sometimes tough to get through the winter. You've got to be a little stubborn and set in your ways just to get through, to make it. It's like a contest, you got to beat it again.

Cross that border into New Hampshire and the blood pressure goes down. I love it. I just relax, but it goes that way in stages. If I'm coming up from Philadelphia, once I get through New Jersey, New York, into Connecticut (arguably New England), then it goes down a little more when I get into Massachusetts, and the further north I get it goes down. In New Hampshire, when I'm up in the mountains, I'm in heaven. It's where I feel most comfortable.

I was talking to somebody a while back who said, `Oh Morrissey's songs are so depressing.' I don't think they're depressing. I think they're serious, but I don't think they're depressing. It's almost like a Celtic melancholy. It's like {Celtic fiddler} Johnny Cunningham from Scotland says, he's never really happy unless he's completely depressed. I don't know why that is in New England. It wasn't that way before they traded Babe Ruth, I know that.

{Hunting} scares folkies. I was 24 or 25 and loved it from the start, and what started as a little hobby became a passion. I have different shotguns for birds. I sort of collect, but I use everything. One of my favorites is this old black powder, and old catch and ball with a ramrod and all that stuff. It's accurate as hell. It's called a Hawken. I made it from a kit. The company's from Rochester, New Hampshire. I'm not really much of a deer hunter, I'm more of a bird, grouse and woodcock. {He hasn't hunted moose}. Moose doesn't seem to be the most challenging thing in the world. It's kind of like shooting Volkswagens.

In parts of New England, having a Winchester .30/30 is as common as having a spare tire. It's not an issue to these people. Down here it is, because there's that urban sensibility. Since these are the people I chose to write about, I'd be lying if I didn't portray them as honestly as I could. You can't tailor your songs to somebody's sensibility. A lot of what they're going through is universal, they just happen to be very different types of people: the PC people and my characters.

Here's a Yankee thing: There's this place outside North Conway that I fish, these little cabins that are right on the river, and the guy doesn't take credit cards. And I didn't want to use up all my cash just then, and he says, `Okay, just send me the money when you get home.' You're not going to find that in New Jersey. And so I spend a week there, tallied up how much I owed him, and said okay, I'll send you a check. So I did. He said, `In all the years I've been doing this, only one person burned me.'

The novel is about a sense of place, sort of what we've been talking about, and how that sense of place shapes a person, a person's values, a person's needs, wants. The two main characters, one is from the town, and the other has lived there off and on, and is a different age, and it's right before something happens that has a big effect on the town, and how they react and what the town means to them. It's a New Hampshire mill town kind of story.

And then, just at the end of the book, I have the Red Sox winning the series. It's a novel, it's fiction. They win it in the 7th game. Mo Vaughn steals home.