The Morrissey Storisees

Road lines mark the frailty of weariness until the face illuminates with the strength of amusement. It's the smile of a polished performer with a Pawling appearance on his schedule; a dot in a line of dots that connect around a new cd and the smile of a master who still very much enjoys his mastering of the craft. Bill Morrissey at the Town Crier Cafe.

He's just opened with a tune from that new cd, "Avalon Blues," and there's a story in that but there are stories running in all directions from Morrissey's lean frame. The album is called Songs of Mississippi John Hurt and its recent dissemination had sparked the question put to Morrissey a few days before the show; "Bill, over the past 15 years, you've established yourself as one of America's most sophisticated songwriters and, more recently, as a novelist to reckon with. Your work is bright, intelligent and, yes, even sly. Could your motive for now releasing an album composed entirely of someone else's tunes possibly be a means of refocusing attention upon your skills as a performer?"

"No," Morrissey replied, sounding injured. "The John Hurt album is something I've wanted to do for years. My whole right hand comes from John Hurt's guitar style. I just don't get tired of John Hurt...and I don't get tired of the Beatles..."

It's a tickling syncopation, that joyous Hurt style, accenting the melody over the thumb-plucked low D's in an open tuning and, during the show, Morrissey favored an audience request for "Louis Collins" off that same album with the comment Hurt could even "write perky songs about murders."

It was the line "Avalon's my home town" on a 1928 disk which enabled a pair of rural blues enthusiasts to trace the "disappeared" but really just farming John Hurt to a flyspeck on his home state map to reintroduce him, sounding fine in his 70's after three silent decades, in time to impact the 'folk revival' of the early '60's. Woodstock's own Happy and Artie Traum, along with John Herald, still celebrate that momentous rediscovery with a tribute song but Hurt's contribution to Morrissey is even more pertinent simply because both artists exhibit intimate and subtle stylings and neither ever made a recording not worth listening to repeatedly.

"I'd never consider myself a bluesman," Morrissey observes, although he weaned his guitar on the harsher delta string designs of Robert Johnson and others before his discovery of Hurt. "If you grew up in the 60's, as I did, trying to learn finger style guitar, you had to go to the blues guys. So, I think that still plays an important in my music and my phrasing."

Hurt was never just a blues artist either but Morrissey's scope ranges far beyond the solid core of the tunes and that's where he takes Hurt's music on the new CD, bringing a new flair of insight and creativity, lovingly polished, into his arrangements and Ellen Karas's superb production. Morrissey's singing is, as always, smoothly understated, expressive and, like Hurt's, in a field of its own intimating tones. In Morrissey's case, the slickly postured delivery contains a winning rasp somewhere along its length, like a few broken strands on a cool steel cable with incongruous soft corners. Even the staunchest purists couldn't complain about his treatment of Hurt except, perhaps, to lament that he didn't include "Cow Hooking Blues" in this 15 song collection or some other such feeble grunt.

Bill Morrissey released "Live Free or Die/Trailer Park" as a small label single in 1977 before recording his first album in '84 (re-recorded for Philo with a slight juggling of tunes in '91). From the start, the grasp of folk's best proponents' knowledge that the genre involves stories and humor was already evident. North, in 1986, and Standing Eight, in 1989, were indefatigable classics that set up the '91 recounting and Inside, in 1992, firmly established his legend among peers. Heartfelt and exquisite phrasing replace the lung capacity which other singers use in place of emotive capacity as Morrissey serves each line on a platter of wry calculation and reserve thrown with the arch of a curve ball. A deceptive command of the lines might at first suggest otherwise but, oh, he sings them...and them...and what lines..."Now the years and the faces blur/Still I can remember some/There were women washing windows/There were salesgirls chewing gum/There were curses in the shapes of old men/kneeling in the pews/There are things in this life/a man just does not get to choose" a snatch out of "Man From Out of Town" performed toward the end of the evening.

It's the writing, the voice, which first captures attention in these word paintings by guitar. It's there, always genuine, on 1993's Night Train; on You'll Never Get To Heaven, released the same year as his acclaimed, 1996 novel, Edson, which has the bounce and snap of a John Hurt rhythm line as it tells its tale with unforced pace and authenticity. It speaks of a musician's lot when a major corporation buys out the small label for which he records and offers a New England-soaked view of small town life that conjures a capital R for Reality today...a street-level view that prompted his editor at Knopf, Gary Fisketjon (who also edits Cormac McCarthy, the novelist- not Cormac McCarthy the singer-songwriter friend who plays on one of Morrissey's albums) to dub him the "Swamp Yankee."

The furtive, bemused exasperation of a lifelong Red Sox fan surfaces at any tag with "Yankee" in it, yet a regional acceptance of the term was sinewy in his introduction to his "Ice Fishing" tune in the show, which he explained was inexplicably popular in Texas. (The uncommon "popularity" of New Yorkers in the rest of the country, especially Texas, seems sets a defensive reflex to the tar brush in anyone from "up there.") But, you can still sense the reflex of 'Hey, N.Y., you're mid-Atlantic! We New Englanders are the Yankees! You just got some border leakage!"

The novelist/songwriter is still a rare breed populated by Leonard Cohen, Richard Farina, Kinky Friedman, Mick Farren and precious few others. (Rosanne Cash's book of short stories, which Morrissey mentioned she forgot to send to him, can notch in but whatever Bob Dylan's spider book was would be a stretch under "novel.") He expects to finish his new novel, pointedly not about a musician, by the end of May.

Morrissey read from the beginning of Edson at during the show, mentioning copies to be had afterwards, along with his own CDS and maybe a Greg Brown bootleg "cheaper than you can get from Greg" (a rib) and some small appliances, etc., all of which under stroked the lively wit that segmented his songs. He told tales of riding a dogsled in Alaska last February, which he described as "kind of an acoustic snowmobile" and the motel-room trap of late night movies like Angry Red Planet, depicted in hilarious detail, along with spontaneous interplay with a hiccuping lass up front in the intro to a sensitive cover of "Girl From the North Country " and a tipsy deejay from a Connecticut station whose interjections were a borderline heckle.

Morrissey's Grammy nomination for the 1993 Friend of Mine album with Greg Brown was, ironically, culled from a collection of cover tunes (except for Brown's "Fishing With Bill") while only a few notables from Lucy Kaplansky to Geoff Bartley have mined his treasure chest of songs. (Musician's alert).

"Greg's an old buddy," explained Morrissey, who told of how the idea just came up after Brown contributed a duet to Inside to "do one together" he laughed. "And it was 'alright, let's do it.' That's how Greg works, so it was no big deal. Then we traveled with fly rods and fished the country. It was fun."

Other friends from the Northeast contingent have hatted in, like Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, Patty Larkin and the versatile David Johansson, now proudly (I hope not secretly) a Woodstocker but it's tough to outshine that Morrissey sheen and folks at The Crier saw it, Saturday, in dazzling form. He followed opening act Jean Bratman, an ex-tv news reporter from Washington, D.C. about to release her first CD, with a long set that seemed to be over in a blink and he brought it all in... everything we'd come for...a cherishable visit with an extraordinary talent dipping into his outstanding catalog. Capable of genuinely funny tunes and quips, Morrissey can surprise in the middle ground as well as turning out pieces like "These Cold Fingers." (If that one doesn't swell the moisture in your eye, check your pulse.) Maybe he's not quite a singer-songwriter legend (yet) but there are a number of 'legends' around today that are less deserving.

-Gary Alexander