Working at it to get the songs right
March 25, 1999
by Michael Shannon Friedman
In beginning a CONVERSATION with songwriter/novelist Bill Morrissey, I relay a compliment from a friend of mine who also happens to be a professional musician: "BillMorrissey, the most unmistakable voice in folk music."
Morrissey accepts the accolade with characteristic warmth as well as a bit of sober reflection about his career. "I dropped out of college in '69 to become a writer," Morrissey said in a telephone interview from the road, in advance of his "Mountain Stage" appearance Sunday at the Cultural Center, state Capitol Complex. He immediately faced two overwhelming problems. First of all, "folk was over; there was no network, no public radio support." Second was the more intricate concern of finding his own voice, a common enough situation for any writer, but especially so for a songwriter coming of age after the great '60s revival. From Vietnam War protests to race riots, it was a decade fueled by a sense of urgency, which automatically made much of the music resonate with cultural importance. Morrisey responded by creating his own sense of urgency, writing about what he knew best: the textile towns of his native New England (he was born in Hartford, Conn.) and the people whose lives revolve around them. While Morrissey honed his writing skills, he picked up some real- life education, playing beer joints and ski lodges and taking odd jobs. "I pumped gas all over the country," he said. A wealth of lived experience informs Morrissey's sometimes brutally honest portraits of middle- and lower-class Americans, people who are trying, often unsuccessfully, to find work and love. His devotion to craftsmanship has resulted in lyrics both laconic and pungent: "This ain't Hollywood/if never really gets that good/call it love if you think you should" (from the 1992 tune "Inside"). His embrace of the mystery of creativity also fuels Morrissey's songs, such as the wonderful "Broken Waltz Time," in which the speaker seems to discover his deepest feelings at that elusive crossroads where rhythm and rhyme rise and converge: Your eyes follow mine as I play my guitar I find myself lost for a rhyme to remember the way we made love that day in nearly three-quarter time. Morrisey's work inspires fierce loyalty among his fans. "My fans are loyal, not casual," he remarks with obvious joy. The intense relationship between his admirers and his songs (there is an Internet discussion group about them, called "Birches," after his 1993 masterpiece) seems a natural extension of Morrissey's own devotion to his masters. His current Philo/Rounder release, "Songs Of Mississippi John Hurt," pays tribute to a blues legend Morrissey has admired for more than 30 years, and reflects Morrissey's sense of himself as well. "I like keeping things fresh, taking chances, doing what interests me," he said. And what interests him most is the sense of discovery which writing affords. Composing the final chapters of his first novel, "Edson," was captivating, he said. "I couldn't wait to find out what was gonna happen." Morrisey is now at work on his second novel. Friedman is a songwriter and teaches English at West Virginia State College.