Mark Ererlli posted this on his website on July 24, 2011
I grew up in a Boston suburb with green lawns and good schools. Come graduation day, I was your typical fiery, young man, ready to reject everything and set out for parts unknown to make my own destiny. Newly enamored with the Edward Abbey's tales of adventure in the American Southwest, I longed for an exotic landscape worlds away from manicured suburbia. I became so infatuated with the desert that my passion for Texas songwriters (Terry Allen, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and many others) quickly eclipsed my passion for Aerosmith. I was aware of the regional folk scene by this time, but it seemed to me that "real" country songs all came from the "real country," a place far away from New England.
I headed north to Maine for college, partly because it seemed wilder and more vast than Massachusetts, like the Texas of New England. I mail ordered the latest obscure country records I could not find at the local record store, such as Robert Earl Keen's latest record "A Bigger Piece Of Sky." Like a true liner notes junkie, I scoured the lyrics and credits, noting familiar players and songwriters, then I studied the album artwork. Cowboys and horses? Check. Sagebrush and desert? Check. This was the real deal. However, looking at the picture of Robert Earl I was shocked to see his shirt unbuttoned just enough to reveal he was wearing a Bill Morrissey t-shirt underneath. Discovering Robert Earl's respect for Morrissey was a true revelation, it single-handedly validated New England as credible geography for American Roots Music.
When I began to look for roots music closer to home, it was obvious that Bill Morrissey was king. His songs were like Elmer Rising's pen and ink masterpieces--you could admire each confidently executed lyrical brushstroke and melodic twist on the finest of scales, and never diminish the overall impression of their honesty and truth. At the height of his powers, on 1989's Standing Eight, 1992's Inside and 1993's Night Train, each Bill Morrissey record contained several songs that each would have been the life's work of a lesser artist. There may have been others writing songs equally detailed as "These Cold Fingers," "The Man From Out Of Town" or "Birches," but none were better.
I was lucky enough to meet Bill when I opened a show for him on an Easter Sunday 10 or 11 years ago. After the concert, I was invited back to Cliff Eberhardt's house to hang out with my hero. Of course, "hang out" meant drinking and playing impromptu versions of everything from the Beatles, Stones and Chuck Berry to Gershwin, Porter and Mississippi John Hurt until the wee hours of the morning. Much of that night remains a blur, but I remember feeling so proud when I held my own on guitar and chimed in on harmonies, like a pupil who has pleased his teacher. It was a true education, and by night's end Bill was carrying on like an old Kung Fu master and calling me "Grasshopper." He trotted that nickname out every time I saw him for the next 10 years.
I shared a night with Bill just last year up in Portland Maine. I was getting ready to go on when he approached me and suggested that I sing "Birches," perhaps his best known song, in my set. He still loved the song, but had sung it so many times he didn't feel he was doing it justice anymore. It deserved better and he thought I was up for the job. I was honored but very saddened; it felt like something was being passed, something I didn't want but couldn't give back. I went out and sang "Birches," then backed up Bill for the latter half of his set. We shook hands at the end of the night and talked of doing more shows together. Then I drove away and never saw him again.
Listening to my old Morrissey records over the last few days feels like reconnecting with an old teacher. Like all great art, I continue to peel away the layers, find new details and imagery to appreciate, each song remains a bottomless well of inspiration. I realize now that seeing Robert Earl Keen wearing that Bill Morrissey t-shirt gave me a sort of permission. Without Bill, there would be no River Road, Bend In The River, The Farewell Ball, or Hartfordtown, among others. Bill's music gave me the courage to stay in New England, to find my musical inspiration close to home, to explore the rich variety of roots music from a proudly Yankee perspective. As I continue my work, I suspect I will always feel a bit like a student with much to learn. So from Grasshopper to the Master, thank you Bill for all you taught and continue to teach me. Rest in peace, and send back some more of those "Letters From Heaven" every once and awhile.