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This story by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 4, 1998. All rights reserved.
New England Blues Bard
Bill Morrissey is not your run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter. You won't hear many touchy-feely, autobiographical, introspective kinds of love songs in any of his shows. He writes about the hardened, tough characters he has known around his Boston home. And besides, his voice is far too gravelly for the kind of sensitive, new-agey tunes you're likely to hear from the younger crowd. His tough, blues-inflected guitar playing and humorous stage persona are the end result of a lot of time spent in front of crowds in smoky, working-class bars in depressed areas of New England's rust belt. Also, he's proud to play the blues -- music a lot of newer folkies just don't understand -- although he doesn't call himself a bluesman as such.
A typical show by Morrissey will certainly include some blues -- his own songs as well as songs by his heroes, like Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson and Brownie McGhee -- but it will almost always include his funny, sharp-witted observations about life in 1990s America and his life as a traveling musician.
The 46-year-old guitarist, songwriter, and singer has a lengthy discography with Rounder Records, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, label that has become a haven for blues, bluegrass, and other roots music specialists. His albums include "You'll Never Get To Heaven," "Night Train," "Friend of Mine," "North," "Inside," "Standing Eight," and his self-titled, 1984 debut album.
Two years ago, Alfred A. Knopf published Morrissey's first novel, "Edson," about life in a blue-collar New Hampshire town. The book was showered with praise from such disparate sources as the New York Times Book Review and R&B super producer Jerry Wexler, formerly a partner at Atlantic Records.
"I was pleased with the response to the book," Morrissey says of the generally good reviews, "but I didn't work at it in the usual sense. Most authors go out for two or three weeks and then come home. But because I'm a musician, and had an album out the same week, I was on the road from March to September." Since Rounder Records was handling publicity for the book, Morrissey found himself carrying his guitar to the bookstores, doing readings, and then doing a few tunes. "I guess I played at every Borders book shop in the U.S.," he says.
Morrissey finds it easier to work on his second novel -- already in progress, again for Knopf -- while he's out touring to coffee houses, theaters, and folk festivals.
"I can write a little fiction on the road if I have time, but I don't write songs too much on the road," he says. "I find I can get two pages done before soundcheck sometimes, because when you're driving for four hours, you've already got a story line going in your mind."
So how does Morrissey write songs, on or off the road? "I normally travel with a micro-cassette recorder and I use that for song ideas," he explains, "but I also play a lot of guitar on the road, in between shows, just to keep my chops up."
The characters in Morrissey's book are much like the characters that crop up in his songs: working class, downtrodden, tough cookies. Asked how his career in fiction came about, Morrissey says Knopf editor Gary Fisketjohn was a fan who would come to his New York City shows. "I already was writing, and he used to come down to my shows, and he had my records. He said, `Well, if you ever get anything done, let me know.' So I called him up and said, `Do you want to see 100 pages?' He said, `No, finish it and then send the whole thing.' To this day I don't even have an agent."
Morrissey began playing guitar when he was 14, shortly after his parents had moved the family from Connecticut to suburban Boston. The Beatles had been out about a year, he recalls, and the 1960s folk revival was going full steam around Boston's coffee houses.
"You'd figure out a few Mississippi John Hurt licks and then they'd circulate around the guitar pickers," he explains. He says his earliest awareness of blues goes back to ninth grade. "I was always interested in where the material came from. It was confusing to look at Rolling Stones records and see songs credited to Chester Burnett and McKinley Morganfield and not know who they were." These seemingly unknown writers were, in fact, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, respectively.
He attended Plymouth State College for just eight weeks. By then, the performing bug had already bitten the bright teenager. He left when he decided he wanted to write songs and sing them for a living.
Asked about memorable early gigs, he recalls playing in mill town bars. "It was pretty brutal, but it was great training, and you'd hustle around to four gigs a night making 30 bucks," he recalls. "The kids now don't go through that, especially not here in Boston, where there's a coffeehouse on every corner."
"I've been through the worst: I've had guns pulled on me. At the Chit-Chat Lounge in Haverhill, I had a guy come at me who must have been drinking all afternoon. He came up during the first set to hit me. But he was so gassed, he did two 360s and passed out right in front of the stage. He literally lay there for the entire evening. So I'd just step over him on my way to the bathroom."
Morrissey is an introspective, quiet kind of guy, and rather short, too. How did he survive the New England toughs in blue-collar towns like Haverhill? "In order to survive, I had to be funny. And I've got a microphone. So I knew if I could at least be entertaining, I would get hired back," he says. "I could keep a running commentary on what was going on in the club, and I learned how to deal with all sorts of hecklers. All those people wanted was a human jukebox, and I wasn't doing that, 'cause that was a ticket to the next Holiday Inn, and that would be the final stop."
Did he ever have any second thoughts about his chosen career?
"I was always kind of looking past what was going on in the bars," he explains, "and since I was doing music for my living on weekends, it meant I had my weeks free to work on my writing. I would have the week free to listen to writers I liked and try to figure out why."
At that point, in 1970, Morrissey was still trying to find his own style and his own literary voice.
"Randy Newman's first album was out, and then you're trying to figure out something like Dylan's `Blonde On Blonde,' which is a completely different sort of writing. But they both work, and it just drove me nuts," he recalls. "So I figured out what I liked and what I didn't." Folk music was absolutely dead at the time, he says, which is why he'd do most of his shows at bars as opposed to more congenial coffee houses.
"At that point, my hope was just to get good enough at writing songs that I could make a living, and then do it by performing the songs I wrote."
Morrissey's next album, to be released in February, will pay homage to one of his major influences, Mississippi John Hurt. Hurt died in 1966, and Morrissey never got to meet him, but he spent plenty of time hanging around his other acoustic blues idols -- Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Son House -- all three acoustic Delta blues specialists.
Morrissey recorded the new album in New Orleans and offers up his distinctive interpretations of Hurt's songs, accompanied by some of New Orleans' best recording session men, including pianist David Torkanowsky and drummer Johnny Vidakovich. While Morrissey, who often works with a small band, will be performing solo in Hightstown, it's likely he'll perform a few songs from the forthcoming album, simply titled, "The Songs of Mississippi John Hurt."
Given all the attention surrounding his novel, "Edson," and the high critical praise heaped on all of his recordings, hasn't Morrissey been approached by one of the major record conglomerates?
"They did approach me, but it happened before the novel came out. I wasn't really that interested," he says. "For one thing, I'm really happy with Rounder, and two, signing with a major label would have meant giving up artistic control. And that's just not negotiable. That's not why I got into this."
-- Richard J. Skelly
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