FOLK'S LITERATE SONGWRITER by Scott Alarik (published in issue 5, March/April 1994 of PERFORMING SONGWRITER MAGAZINE)
No songwriter gets quite the press attention that Bill Morrissey does. Many get more, to be sure, than the New England native, whose career has been a classic slow build. Some get more effusive praise, though not too many these days. But Morrissey’s austere, brilliantly crafted ballads, vividly human song-sketches and smartly silly ditties garner a different sort of plaudit.
As all singer-songwriters flourishing today, Morrissey is inevitably compared to ‘60s and ‘70s folk performers. In his case, it is most often to Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and John Prine. But nearly as often, he is compared to novelists like Raymond Carver and poets like Robert Frost. The rather unmusical word “literate” crops up all the time in critiques of his work. Rolling Stone praised him as “a true naturalist storyteller … conveying wisdom with absolute economy and focused fire.” The Boston Globe and the Boston Phoenix both praised his “novelist’s eye” for detail. Entertainment Weekly said his writing was “as evocative as black-and-white photographs” before flatly calling him “the best folk songwriter working today.”
“It was kind of what I was hoping for all long,” Morrissey said, speaking of his frequent comparisons to fiction writers. “I think I’ve been influenced by fiction more than anything else, more than songwriters or poetry. I guess a lot of what I’m trying to do is the same thing they are doing. I want to use words well.
“What I really strive for is no excess. I try to say exactly what I mean, say it in a believable way, and get out. I never try to write down to the listener, I think the listener has a brain and can understand. It’s the old axiom of showing, not telling. That’s what good fiction does, that’s what good lyrics do. There are certain things you don’t have to tell, that are implied because of the situation, the condition or the scene. And if you do say it, you’re just stepping on your own toes, you’re over-writing.
“I worry a lot about that, about overloading, gilding the lily. You can actually become rococo; you know, too much information, overstating. I guess that probably started with listening to Mississippi John Hurt, how he would sometimes not sing a line, just play it. You realize certain things can be said with just the music, and my whole approach is to keep everything as spare as possible.”
As many fiction writers also say, Morrissey finds his characters fleshing out to the point that they often take over the storyline. He is so intent on making them believable that they can alter his original vision of the song.
“It’s like a Polaroid being developed, and suddenly you realize, ‘Oh, that’s what he looks like, that’s what kind of a guy he is.’ My characters fool me. I don’t know who they are when I start out, just a vague idea. A lot of times, halfway through a song, I’ll go ‘No, wait a second, he wouldn’t do that.’ Which is really a drag when you’ve got a great rhyme for what he wouldn’t do.”
It is the simple, so-real moments and telling details in Morrissey’s songs which so often invite comparisons to fiction writers and make his work so convincing and powerful. A man watching his home— and whole life— burning to the ground, absently focuses on trying to keep his cigarette dry in the night mist. In “Birches” he turns the simple act of deciding between stoking a fire with fast-burning birch or the slower, longer-lasting oak into a brilliant consideration of love’s wild but fleeting passions versus it’s cooler, steadier fires. Even in his buoyant, whimsical songs, his keen word-sculpting is clear: “I drink for ballast, I sing for fun/ and I love my baby when her hair’s undone,” he sings in the gently sexy, giddy love song “Ellen’s Tune.” In “Cold, Cold Night,” a devotional love song set against a stark winter landscape, he sings “A maple branch clicks up above you/ the mailbox leans in the snow/ the light on her face from the grocery behind you/ tells you she’s one you can never let go.”
Best of all for Morrissey is the attention he is receiving from novelists and short-story writers themselves. Robert Olmsted actually wrote him into one of his novels and wrote of Morrissey, “To me, he is New England’s own bluesman—not hot and humid delta blues, but deep snow and sharp pine blues.”
That pleases Morrissey because it comes from a novelist he respects, but also because, after all, he is a folk singer. His musical roots are very important to him, and he wants people to know how deeply they reach into the fertile earth of traditional blues and the populist troubadour traditions of Woody Guthrie.
“I would never call myself a bluesman, you know, but I did learn how to fingerpick listening to John Hurt and Skip James. So there’s a little of that in my music, not consciously but because it’s the way I learned it. I think the similarity is there in terms of subject matter and feeling, too. A lot of these people I write about are down and out; it’s just the northern version of down and out. The emotion is still the same, and I’m just expressing it as honestly as I can, which is exactly what the guys in the delta were doing.”
He was quick to add that his economy of words owes as much to folk tradition, too. Speaking of the master of the Delta blues, who Morrissey has written into two songs, he said, “Robert Johnson’s lyrics were just killer, great, sparse, to the point and evocative. The emotion comes charging right through and, again, he doesn’t tell you, he shows you; he makes you feel it. That’s a hard thing to do. It’s so much easier to just tell people how they’re supposed to feel. But even if you show them, you have to do it in a way they feel. That’s the object of the game.”
The characters he brings to life are often honest, simple folk struggling with the hardscrabble life of northern New England; doing their best but no match for brute circumstance. Love holds out the hope of redemptive grace—or at least quiet release from grinding daily life—but often withers with age, sags beneath the weight of lives that cannot outrun, outwork or outfight careless fate.
On stage, Morrissey is a laid-back delight. His voice is a deep, deceptively melodic growl that has been fondly called “wrinkled.” His guitar is spare, pulsing and pretty, anchored so firmly to his clear-cut melodies and austere lyrics that the deftness of his style escapes many.
Speaking of his uniquely leathery vocal style, Morrissey said, “Luckily, I was such a bad singer I couldn’t imitate anybody. I was just ready to buy a note any way I could. If I could have bribed my way to a b-flat, I would have done it. I had to find a way to get the songs over, and listened particularly to people who had funky voices—like the way Dave Van Ronk can do a Joni Mitchell song; how a rough voice can convey something like that. And that’s where whatever style I have now comes from.”
People who have become fans by hearing his songs on record or radio often come to his shows braced for a rich but chill evening. They are happily surprised by what his early New England fans valued as much, if not a little more, than his songwriting. Morrissey is a very funny man, generously sprinkling his shows with sharp asides, shrewd topical barbs and a wise, inspired silliness. His sure, droll showmanship is a prize he won during years playing beat-up bars and timber-rough taverns from Portsmouth, New Hampshire to frozen northern Maine.
He has described the humor set amidst his largely serious songs as “like the comic relief in a horror movie.” He says it was developed purely as self-defense. “In the beginning, I didn’t have a lot of songs, and they weren’t very good, and I didn’t do covers. So when people screamed, “Hey, what’s your day job?’ I started heckling back. I’d do a lot of improv stuff about what was going on around the club. I realized that, even if you weren’t the greatest musician, if you could entertain people, they’d hire you back. It became a way to break it up between the serious songs, because I’m really top-heavy with serious stuff. I realized that if I could relax people, let them laugh a little bit, they’d be more receptive to the next serious song. And I just like making people laugh.”
Curiously enough for someone so applauded for his lyrical intelligence, literate imagery and contemporary writing, Morrissey’s first Grammy nomination came [in 1994] in the “Best Traditional Folk” category for his lovely, front-porch-friendly collaboration of folk and cover songs with fellow songwriter Greg Brown called Friend of Mine. [Note: He also garnered a Grammy nod with 1999’s Songs of Mississippi John Hurt.] It actually contains few truly traditional songs, but increasingly Morrissey is becoming something of an advocate for the oft-neglected American folk song. In what he sees as an increasingly pop-centered songwriter scene, he wants people to know that he is part of the folk tradition. It was for that reason he signed the notes to his breakthrough album Inside “Bill Morrissey, folksinger.” And that zeal fired his work on Friend of Mine.
After sternly denying he is getting soap-boxy, Morrissey said, “I think it’s very important for musicians to know where the music came from. I mean, you’re just part of a long line in a constantly evolving form. I guess I just started seeing some of the younger musicians not paying attention and not curious. To me, that was just baffling. I mean, Charlie Parker could quote from Coleman Hawkins, he didn’t spring out of thin air, and he was the best. The people who are the best always have that background; they know what came before. It gives you perspective, depth.
“And it shows in some of the younger songwriters’ music. You can hear it, there’s nothing but pop influences, the feeling and commitment are in danger of not being there. You’re not necessarily inclined to believe what’s being said—which is not to say that if you listen to Dock Boggs, everybody’s going to believe what you say, but you can feel it when somebody knows their music, and is drawing on something larger than the last five years.
“I’m in it for the long haul, and I think if I hadn’t had that attitude in the very beginning, I might have gotten out. I mean, I have nothing against making some money, and I don’t mind the attention when I get it, but that’s not the goal. There are some people whose goal is to be a star, and that’s an odd goal, I think. My goal has always been to write well, to have the next song be better than the last one.”