Bill Morrissey scores knockout with 4th album
March 10, 1992
by Dave Hoekstra
A conversation with Bill Morrissey is not complete without boxing references. Last week, the songwriter was singing the praises of the lightweights.
"They're faster and smarter," he said in an interview from Philadelphia. "It's not like, `I'm going to hit you - now you hit me back.' I like the lighter weights."
Morrissey is quickly becoming a heavyweight in singer-songwriter circles. "Inside," his fourth album for Philo/Rounder Records, is the best of his career. With guest appearances by fiddler Johnny Cunningham (Raindogs and Silly Wizard), Suzanne Vega and bluesman Ron Levy, "Inside" has much more musical totality than anything Morrissey has recorded.
Like every boxer, Morrissey is resilient. He described 1990's "Standing Eight" as his divorce album. (A standing eight count is given in boxing when the referee decides one fighter has taken significant punishment, yet has not fallen to the canvas.)
"This is the `everything-is-going-OK-record," Morrissey said of "Inside." "I was caught completely off guard with the divorce. I wasn't prepared for it. Now there's some serious songs on this one, but it is much less depressing. There is also more of an ensemble feel. The other ones have been like a singer-songwriter with some backup."
Morrissey, 40, has carefully grown into the stage where his crooked and deep rural vocals find comfort between the linear layers of supporting musicians. When Morrissey appears tonight at Schuba's, he will be accompanied by Cunningham, bassist Richard Gates, drummer/ lard can percussionist Doug Plavin and onetime Yardbirds guitarist Top Topham.
"If you look at the progression of all four records, the development seems natural," he said. "After `Standing Eight,' I didn't write for a year and a half. I tried to learn more about music. Now I'm a better guitar player and I know a little more about theory and arranging."
For example, Morrissey started playing alto saxophone just to help him learn how to read music. He bought a book of Duke Ellington charts. "I've always been nuts about Johnny Hodges (tenor saxophonist of the Ellington band)," Morrissey said. "I didn't apply much of what I learned to this record, but I really started to see how things could work in an ensemble."
"Inside" was produced by blues-influenced guitarist John Jennings, best known for his work with Grammy winning country singer Mary-Chapin Carpenter. (Topham is replacing Jennings on the tour, who is in the studio producing Carpenter's next album.) With honest lyricists like Carpenter and John Prine winning Grammys earlier this month, is Morrisseyworried that people might actually be paying attention to words?
"I couldn't believe they won," Morrissey said. "It's great to see that, finally. Folk music in general is a lot healthier than it has been in the last 20 years. I know, in part, it's because of exposure. National Public Radio and community radio stations around the country have their folk shows and they have real loyal audiences."
Although the material on "Inside" is full of rich texture and drive, it doesn't diminish Morrissey's literal narratives. In "Rite Of Spring," Morrissey celebrates a girlfriend who likes all four Beatles and the Dave Clark 5. She also has a unique sense of humor:
"She's as wild as William Cody
"We took a trip out to Minnesotie
"Then she called up Hinckley and told him I kissed Jodie
"She's got her own kind of way of having fun."
"That song was built around all four Beatles," Morrissey said. "When I first got divorced, I was dating various women and some were younger than I had thought about. The running joke was that the cutoff age point was that they had to be able to name all four Beatles, unless they were really pretty. Then John, George, Paul and Elton would do."
Morrissey has since gotten engaged and moved to Boston. A self-proclaimed pack rat, he has cleaned up his act. "A lot of it just went," he said. "Everything was going well. It was a brand-new starting point."
The man who made "Inside" was coming outside. Bill Morrissey 8:30 p.m. tonight Schuba's, 3159 N. Southport Tickets $8; (312) 525-2508
Copyright (c) Chicago Sun-Times, Inc