Bill Morrissey's "Three Rs": writing, rural and roots

September 22, 2001

by Scott Alarik

It has taken Bill Morrissey nearly 50 years, but he is finally living inside one of his own songs. Among the earliest and most significant of the urban songwriters to ignite the revival of the 1980s, he has always seemed like a big-city boy with a small-town heart. His evoca-tive, crisply sculpted ballads of life in northern New England prompted novelist Robert Olmstead to dub him "New England's own bluesman," describing his music as "the cabin fever blues of the dead-end jobs and busted relationships, the place where life and consequences meet." 

But Morrissey is also the quintessential urban songwriter -- in fact, for many he redefined the genre in the 1980s and '90s. He writes tight, literate ballads, rippling with tension, conflicted emotions, untold truths and telling imagery. 

After years in the folk industry hive of greater Boston, Morrissey now lives in just the kind of squat, well-worn rural home in which you would expect to find the barflies, unemployed mill-workers and over-the-hill musicians who populate his songs. 

You can't find the place without help from him. Even if you get to the tiny village of Tamrack, New Hampshire, at the clenched feet of the Presidential Mountain Range in Mt. Washington Valley -- a town so small its two stores are named Remick's and The Other Store -- anyone you ask about Morrissey will call him before giving out directions. 

"I live in 1963," he says at his kitchen table, with guitars and CD racks to his left, neatly stacked hunting rifles and fishing poles to his right. "Nobody locks their doors; it's a rarity if people take their keys out of the ignition in the cars downtown. You go down to the village and see kids with butch haircuts riding their bikes, parking them wherever they like. You can't make a quick trip downtown, because you always run into two, three people you know." 

He beamed like an urbanite bragging about a winning sports team as he described how Remick's keeps a Boston Globe with his name on it for him, letting them stack up while he's on tour. He walks into the CVS, says "one," and the clerk hands him a pack of his brand of cigarettes. 

He lived for years in the greater Boston area, where his career blossomed and his record company of nearly 20 years, Rounder/Philo, is based. But when he and his former wife, Ellen Karas, who remains his manager, divorced two years ago, he realized he could live anywhere he wanted. 

"I work in cities, but I lived in small towns when I was younger," he says. "It was a concession to move down to Cambridge; I did that for the business. But now with e-mails and faxes and everything, it occurred to me I could live anywhere. When I came up this way to do a gig, I noticed that my blood pressure kept getting lower and lower. It was like a Brigham Young moment: `This is the place.'" 

Morrissey's new record, Something I Saw or Thought I Saw (Philo #1227), is also a homecoming, a return to the stark, bittersweet sound that sparked his career. Sparely melodic and haunting, with a vivid cast of wincingly real people dealing with the careless brutality of changing times and dreams that mock how their lives turned out, it evokes his classic breakthrough '80s recordings Standing Eight (Philo #1123) and Inside (Philo #1145). 

Those were the records that gained Morrissey the attention of folk fans outside New England, and among the literati, including fiction editor Gary Fisketjon, who works with Cormac McCarthy and Richard Ford, and edited Morrissey's first novel, Edson (Alfred A Knopf, 1996). 

"I cannot comprehend a life without writing," Morrissey says while popping open a beer. "I can certainly comprehend a life without touring, but not without writing. [These days], it takes me three days after I leave the valley to get my road rhythm back. I hate leaving here; I bought this place to settle down. I got all the streams I need, some bear and deer and moose. I got my privacy. I've never been happier in a town; it reminds me of being six years old in western Massachusetts." 

Morrissey grew up a small-town, middle-class boy in Easthampton, where he lived until the second grade. Then the family lived in Wethers field, Connecticut "from grade school until the Beatles hit," as he dates it. They next moved to Acton, Massachusetts, then a nearly rural community outside Boston, but close enough for him to discover the folk revival then bubbling to a boil around the fabled Harvard Square coffeehouse Club 47. 

"The folk boom was already on; Hootenanny had been on TV and canceled," he recalls. "But Club 47 was hot, and that's where I discovered real folk music. I can't say Woody Guthrie was the first folk singer I heard. I had to go through Peter, Paul and Mary to get to Bob Dylan to get to Ramblin' Jack Elliot to get back to Woody; just like I had to go through the Rolling Stones to get to Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters." 

What drew him first and made him want to pick up a guitar himself was the storytelling in the songs, their bracing directness and honesty. He began paying attention to songwriter credits, figuring out that the songwriter McKinley Morganfield and the blues legend Muddy Waters were one and the same, that Chester Burnett was Howlin' Wolf. Piece by piece, the trail of tradition became visible to him; still exotically overgrown with myth and mystery, but clear enough to follow. 

Then he discovered the gentle folk genius Mississippi John Hurt, cut less from the blues tradition than from African-American songsters, community singers who sang everything from play-party songs to ballads, field hollers to earthy seductions like Hurt's classic "Candy Man." More than any other musician, Hurt's influence defined  Morrissey's style, a fact he played homage to in his Grammy-nominated 1999 tribute CD, The Songs of Mississippi John Hurt (Philo #1216). 

"It was the simplicity, not just the guitar playing but the way he told stories," Morrissey says of Hurt. "The way the voice and guitar work together is very unique. He's anchoring the bass and rhythm with his thumb, then working around the melody on the treble strings; sometimes playing it, sometimes doing a harmony line, sometimes just being playful. And he's inclusive; he assumes the audience gets it, that he doesn't have to spell everything out." 

Like many '60s-weaned songwriters, Morrissey is dismayed at what he sees as a reluctance by many young songwriters today to follow that same trail back to the roots of the form in which they hope to build careers. 

"That was not the reason for the record," he says, "but it's always been very important to me that musicians go back and listen to what's gone on before, and I was seeing that not happening. It's like trying to build a house without a foundation. Every great musician knows where the music come from. Bob Dylan can sing you Carter Family songs, Jimmie Rodgers songs, Stanley Brothers songs. And it's not just folk music. Charlie Parker could quote Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young note for note. It's like, how can you write a book without having read great books?" 

It is suggested that a lot of young songwriters got the idea that they had to do all their own songs from artists like Morrissey. Only in the last few years has he been likely to perform any but his own songs on stage. Successful songwriters like him were the role models for the next wave, just as '60s stars like Tom Rush and Dave Van Ronk had been his models. But where he got intriguing smidgens of the traditional masters who had inspired his heroes, Morrissey's acolytes got only  Morrissey songs -- and wrote at the top of their Career To-Do Lists, "Sing All Your Own Songs." 

At first Morrissey glowers at the suggestion, darts off to pour a few fingers of Jack Daniels into a glass and returns to the table. Then his face softens, he nods his head a little sadly, and shrugs. 

"To me, the influences are very obvious. I thought anybody who heard me play guitar would think, `God, he's listened to a lot of John Hurt.' But what I realized was that a lot of younger people didn't know his work, had never been exposed to it. And then I realized I had a responsibility to do something about that, to show people where my music came from. 

"I think the mistake a lot of younger people make when they see songwriters like me or Greg Brown or Cheryl Wheeler is that we may seem like we're just writing about our lives. We're not. We're incorporating what we learned in our lives to write songs about life in general. Whereas they think they can just write about their lives, and it means something to someone else. And it just doesn't. I don't want to read their diaries. I was 21; I know what they're going through, and so much of it is so solopsistic. Except for the good ones." 

Morrissey has been a gracious mentor to those he sees as "the good ones." He produced Ellis Paul's first CD, and when Paul asked how much he wanted to be paid, he said, "When you're in my position -- and you will be -- do the same for somebody who's just starting out. That's how you pay me." 

He also gave Paul long lists of songwriters whose work he should study, from Woody Guthrie to John Hurt to Randy Newman. "Paul jumped into it bigtime," Morrissey says with just a smack of parental pride, "and I think he's a much better writer and performer for it. I respect him very much." 

When young Bill Morrissey was soaking up influences, shortly after a collegiate career at Plymouth State College that was notable only for moving him to New Hampshire, he sank into what he now knows was a deep and dangerous depression. He would crawl out of bed in mid-afternoon, turn on the record player and grab his guitar, listening and playing for 12, 14 hours until he tumbled back into bed. 

"What drove me so nuts," he says, "was that there were so many different styles and voices -- and they all worked. There wasn't one way to do it. Here's Randy Newman, who had just put his first album out, and he's got whole songs with 16 lines in them. Which was perfect. Then you've got Dylan singing those long ballads like `Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.' And there's no Songwriter 101; you have to figure it out yourself." 

This was also the early '70s, and folk was beginning a decade-long decline. There were only a handful of acoustic listening rooms in all of New England back then, so Morrissey cut his teeth playing bars, singing to hard-drinking mill workers, fisherman and adrenaline-pumped skiers. That's where he discovered humor, as much as a survival mechanism as career tool. 

"I didn't do a lot of covers even when I played bars; it was pretty much my own stuff," he says. "I got away with it by talking, with improv comedy. I would play off what was going on in front of me. By the second set, everybody was drunk and more than happy to offer a comeback. That was how I kept their attention. I wasn't that good a musician then, but I knew if I could make them laugh, they'd hire me back." 

He picked up paychecks at notorious dives like the Chit-Chat Lounge in Haverhill, Massachusetts, where he once had a gun pulled on him: "Guy said `let me play your guitar.' I said, `No, it's my tool; it's how I make my living.' Guy pulls out a snub-nose .38 Smith & Wesson. I said, 'Would you like a flatpick or a fingerpick?'" 

For those first few years, people would shut up when he stopped singing, eager for the comic repartee. As soon as he started another  Morrissey original, the chatter resumed. 

That wasn't as hard to take as knowing, deep down, that they were right. He wasn't writing songs that moved him the way those old folk and blues masters did. How could he expect them to move his audiences? He turned back to his influences, to Hurt and Guthrie, and found the answer not in how they wrote, but what they wrote. They wrote what they knew, what they saw outside their windows every day. Their songs were written about the people they sang them to. 

Set to the ambling gait he learned from Hurt, he began writing tight, vivid ballads about life in New Hampshire's dying mill towns and hardscrabble seacoast. Soon, the hush continued after the banter, especially when he said, "Here's a new one." 

"That was the life I knew and it interested me," he says. "During dry spells with the music, I worked some mills and chemical plants. People I'd worked with or shot pool with would come up to me and say they liked a particular song, that it rang true for them. The folk audiences dug it and the guys who were living it dug it. I thought I must be starting to get something right." 

Morrissey's artistic growth paralleled a growth in the New England folk scene. The Idler in Harvard Square, which had been one of the better bar gigs for songwriters like Morrissey, suddenly blossomed into a premier showcase venue. Its manager, Len Rothenberg, became the Boston revival's principal architect, presenting '60s stalwarts like Tom Paxton along with urgent new stars like Canadians Start Rogers and Ferron, promoting them from his club to major concert halls. 

At the same time, Tom Rush was producing gala Club 47 reunions at vaunted Symphony Hall, proving that a tremendous audience still existed for folk music. Folk music on Boston public radio stations suddenly flowered into a full-time presence, making it possible to new artists like Morrissey to be heard. The Boston Globe's Jeff McLaughlin devoted unprecedented space to the new folk revival, trumpeting  Morrissey's music at every opportunity. 

Morrissey was soon being managed by Rush, along with fellow up'n'comers Christine Lavin, Patty Larkin and Buskin and Batteau. When Cambridge-based Rounder Records, the largest folk indie in the country, took over the bankrupt contemporary folk label Philo, it aggressively entered the singer-songwriter market. Morrissey was their flagship local artist. 

"It was just fortunate timing for everybody," says  Morrissey, lighting a cigarette and inhaling deeply, clearly savoring the excitement of those days. "The audience was building, and Rounder had their ears open to that. I've been with them ever since, for nine records. I'm lucky I haven't been traded. The great thing about Rounder is that they trust the artist; I can do the albums the way I want. And I love that they put out so many reissues of traditional artists that otherwise aren't going to get out there, and that don't have any chance of making money." 

Morrissey hit full stride with his third album, Standing Eight, produced by the brilliant Darleen Wilson, who did similarly defining projects for Larkin and Shawn Colvin, and recently co-produced Cry Cry Cry for Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell. Morrissey believed it would be his final record. While his fan base was growing, and his critical praise was unmatched by any emerging songwriter, his records had not sold well, had not captured the visceral charm of his stage shows. He doubted Rounder would pick up his option after their three-record deal was completed. 

"With Standing Eight, I wanted to put the emphasis on the songs," he says. "It's like editing; I only wanted what was called for. By only using one instrument or harmony, what I was doing wouldn't get lost in the mix." 

Standing Eight remains one of the best albums to emerge from the songwriter movement of the 1980s. With a record that was finally as good as Morrissey himself, his career took off nationally, beginning a steady, 10-year climb. 

In 1993, he had released three albums in two years, including his Grammy-nominated collaboration with Greg Brown, Friend of Mine (Philo #1151). It seemed like a good time to heed the pestering of friends and fans, including editor Fisketjohn, and take a stab at a novel. 

It took three years, absorbing him in ways he never expected. He would rise early, make coffee and scurry into his office; not so much to write, but because he had worried about his characters all night and wanted to know how they were doing. 

"When I finished the book, I had a postpartum depression," he says, chuckling now at what was then a painful period. "I was losing my friends. They're going away; I'm sending them off to my editor. They were very real to me." 

Edson was published by Knopf in 1996, to critical acclaim but nothing near breakthrough sales. It is a quiet little ballad of a novel, about a fading minor folk star and the young woman whose interest, and then love, help him reconcile the bitterness of his failed career and, ultimately, to realize why he needed to make music in the first place. It is a book like his songs, chocked with people you may not admire but that you like; and it is easily the most realistic portrayal of the modern folk world ever captured in a novel. 

Morrissey's second novel, Imaginary Runner is finished but still making the rounds of publishing houses. He is increasingly looking for ways to make what many older touring musicians admiringly call "mailbox money;" ways to make a living that don't require leaving home. 

His latest recording resonates with that longing for roots, for a sure sense of place. The drifters are even less attractive than in his earlier work, wearing teen-aged grins on middle-aged faces. When a grumbling, half-drunk old musician watches a young bar band in "Traveling by Cab," he sneers, "That ain't rock'n'roll, that's just vaudeville plugging in." The young bartender who's been humoring him says patronizingly, "Ain't that the way it's always been?" In "Harry's Last Call," an aging drifter and perennial adolescent is viewed as little more than a pathetic hamster, caught in the increasingly meaningless treadmill of his own predictably irresponsible behavior. 

There are also the earthy romances that have always been a counterpoint to Morrissey's cynical hyper-realism. But in love songs like "Fix Your Hair the Way You Used To" and "Will You Be My Rose," the longing is less for love than for constancy, a deep-cut yearning for permanence. He may love his new little home in the hills, but everything in this new album says he does not love his aloneness in it. 

Morrissey is relishing his growing role as an elder in the songwriting tribe, currently championing a young Boston songwriter named Cara Brown, for whom he will soon produce a premier album as he did for Ellis Paul. 

"I feel pretentious calling myself a mentor," he says, popping into the kitchen for another Jack Daniels. "When I was just starting out, I wasn't shy about going to the pros after their shows and asking them to show me a chord progression or to explain something about their lyrics. And they never said no, whether it was Ian Tyson or Arlo Guthrie or Bert Jansch. They all took the time with me, so of course, when people ask me, I'm happy to return the favor." 

This perhaps strikes closer to the heart of what annoys him about many of the young songwriters he sees on the scene today. 

"I don't understand the lack of curiosity," he says. "I mean, when I was a kid, I just had to know where these songs came from. It wasn't easy finding a Bascom Lamar Lunsford record, but I loved the song `Mole in the Ground,' and I had to find out what the guy who wrote it sounded like. Because I wanted to be a songwriter. The way you find your voice is to have influences, absorb them, learn what shaped their music, and then work through them to find something that's your own. I'm not saying these guys have to go out and sing `Death Letter Blues.' But they ought to have heard it." 

He said he still returns to traditional music whenever he feels blocked: "It always jump-starts the process." 

And it is the process now, more than the product, that enchants him. He is in love with the work, with the ritual, the sense and order of it. He said he puts the time in, a few hours nearly every day, whether the ideas are coming or not. He learned long ago that, even in songwriting, fortune favors the prepared, and that inspiration is more likely to strike when he has a guitar in his lap and his mouth full of music. 

"I both need and like the discipline," he says. "When I was 25, I said I never wanted to turn 50, which is coming up, look back and say I could have tried harder. I think I stayed true to that." 

He puffs his cigarette, picks up his drink, swirls it in the glass, then puts it back down and nods his head. "It's a good feeling," he says, almost to himself.