Deckle edge

Bill Morrissey
by Chris Flisher © 1992 / www.chrisflisher.com
(first published March 1992 Minuteman Chronicle)


Bill Morrissey
"I've been a folk singer for 22 years. Dropped out of college after five weeks at the age of 17," Bill Morrissey speaks about his life in a slow drawl that is thick with character. "It's the kind of blind-faith move you could only pull when your 17 and immortal. You don't question your options, you just do it." He did it and after years of bars, coffeehouses, clubs and halls, Bill Morrissey is happy. Life is good for Mr. Morrissey. His album Inside is showing strong commercial appeal in many parts of the country as he prepares to embark on his first national tour with a full band. Drawing praise from the likes of Rolling Stone (". . . one of the best songwriters we have."), the New York Times, Musician magazine and other national press, Morrissey is currently hot on the critics pick list. His easy manner and winning charm belie his long, arduous climb — a rise complicated by the lack of national radio airplay and the low visibility of folk music. In 1970 the career of a wandering folk musician, albeit economical — an acoustic guitar and a new set of strings — was also a craft with limited appeal. As Morrissey points out in a recent interview from his home, "When I started, folk music was actually passe. After Woodstock it just kind of faded. It was less hip than what was hip at the time." It is a genre of music that has only recently been reborn. Putting it into perspective Morrissey explains, "Folk music was a hard place to start. Whereas now, there is a groundswell. And within the last ten years it has changed and it has been slow and steady." Influenced by folk-icon Dave Van Ronk, Morrissey's music is rooted in the time-honored tradition of the folk song. His blues-influenced guitar style carries moving ballads and rolling melodies that accent the loneliness, the joy and the heartfelt affection of his fictional characters. Using experiences culled from his life and others, Morrissey's songs are the equivalent of pared-down short stories set to music. Peppered with eccentric exuberance and stark reality, his stories are colorful vignettes of human drama. His characters typify the life of the man in the street — millworkers and waitresses caught in daily struggles like gamblers riding on empty bets. But he also sings of new-found love with the light-hearted bluster of a college freshman. Because his songs are written with raw honesty, using sparse, carefully-chosen words, they are often attributed as first-hand experiences lived by the author. And although the majority are sung in the first person, they are not, he explains, autobiographical, " Just because something happens in my life doesn't make it worth telling people about it. But if it happens slightly different, at a different time or place, then it means something more universal. My life and experiences are cues for what I write about. People don't have that same problem with novelists." The close proximity of his characters is illustrated in "Man From Out Of Town," a song about a restless person set off to find himself, he sings, "Just a boy with no direction, I left my home behind. And the sky changed color once I crossed that town line." Writing from what he knows best, New England, Morrissey is often labelled as a regional writer. Disputing the tag he counters, " I don't like to be seen as a local colorist. It is a slightly derogatory thing. New England is a vehicle for what are common themes, regardless of where they take place. A good writer uses what is at his fingertips, wherever they live." But living in and knowing New England is only a part of Bill Morrissey. He has spent time in other jobs, in other areas, learning about life. As a fisherman in Alaska ("I packed my bags, put a sign on my apartment that said 'Gone fishin,' and off I went to Alaska.") a millworker in New Hampshire ("I didn't mind cause I knew I'd never stay.") or as a street-singer in California, his experiences surface in his music, touching nerves with his barking cackle. Inside shows a new Bill Morrissey. His focus on human tragedy is farther removed than in his past recordings. Explaining how his music has changed he says, "I see a natural progression in my albums. I hope they continue to evolve in the same way — growing, new sounds, new attitudes, new songs." His song writing and new direction are complimented by a current band that gels with his highly personal style. It was part of the plan as he explains, "I wanted to get an ensemble feel from this album, rather than a singer/songwriter and a backup band. I wanted all the musicians to work as a unit. There was just a great attitude with everybody involved. Even on the songs that are more serious, something is there that is picking everybody up. It was just the right chemistry." It is a mix that works. It has been close to thirty years since Bill Morrissey decided music was his career path and now that the gamble has begun to pay off he looks back, happy with his choices, "Its very safe to stay at home, I just wasn't a safe kinda guy. Some people value the security and that's fine. It just wasn't what I wanted, I found it boring." He chose his life. He's paid his dues. In his own inimitable story-telling delivery he sums up his life in an anecdote relayed by his musical mentor. He recalls, "As Dave Van Ronk's sainted grandmother always said 'You've buttered your bread, now lie in it.'"


Chris Flisher


Deckle edge