Cahalen Morrison & Eli West - Tracing the Gaelic connection
They sound like brothers who have been singing and playing music together forever in the back of beyond up in the Appalachian mountains. In fact, twentysomethings Cahalen Morrison and Eli West have known each other for just under two years and they got together in Seattle, known more for its grunge scene than rootsy Americana, and recorded their debut album, The Holy Coming of the Storm, within months of meeting.
One of the most beguiling and musically enriching releases to have reached these shores this year, The Holy Coming of the Storm supports the impression of songs that have been nurtured long and strong in a tradition. But they only sound that way. Just the two tracks are traditional. The rest have been written, relatively recently, by Morrison mostly and given the patina of age through songcraft and the partners’ natural affinity and multi-instrumental talents.
“A mutual friend introduced us,” says Morrison. “He thought we’d be compatible and so we started playing together, just casually at first. Eli was in a band at the time and I had solo gigs to do. Then after a while, Eli would come and sit in on my gigs and the partnership developed from there. When we met, we noticed pretty quickly that our vocal ranges were similar and when we sang together the intervals in our harmonies were tight. So we were able to get somewhere close to that Louvin Brothers, Stanley Brothers, bluegrass sibling thing and it just sounded right.”
It sounded right to more than the two singers. Dirk Powell, a musician who knows the real deal when he hears it, has waxed lyrical about the duo’s understanding of old-time mountain music. Likewise Tim O’Brien, a Virginian with his finger on the pulses of both the music business and the traditions he grew up with. Radio 2’s Americana oracle, Bob Harris has whispered his approval in no uncertain terms also.
For Morrison, endorsements from these masters and appreciators of the music he and West are pursuing have been gratifying.
“I can’t say that I grew up in a bluegrass or old-time music community,” he says. “But my father played those styles, and others, when I was growing up in northern New Mexico, which wasn’t exactly a bluegrass hotbed. Come to think of it, he was probably the only one there who was playing Irish fiddle, bluegrass guitar and ragtime music. So I picked up my musical interests from him and we used to go to bluegrass festivals and old-time fiddle camps on weekends and holidays.”
He began writing songs at high school, although these weren’t in any way forerunners of what he’s writing now - “just typical high school stuff” - and developed a facility with words through poetry, creative writing and voracious reading.
“By the time I was going through college, I’d been around bluegrass and old-time music quite a lot and it felt natural to be playing it,” he says. “I also had the language of these songs in my head from listening to people like the Louvins and the Stanley Brothers, so when I started writing songs in this style I think I was able to put lyrics together that didn’t sound contrived. You know, you can make things sound older just by using certain phrasing and expressing things in the vernacular of times gone by rather than the way we would write now.”
Morrison isn’t the first songwriter in his family tree. His great grandfather, Murdo Morrison, was a prominent Gaelic bard from the Isle of Lewis who had a book of his work published before he emigrated to the other side of the Atlantic around the turn of the twentieth century.
“I can’t really claim to have always known I had songwriting in my genes because of this as, to be honest, it’s something that’s only come into focus again quite recently,” he says. “My father probably did tell me about it when I was younger, as I’ve been hearing, but I obviously wasn’t interested then or didn’t appreciate its significance. But now that I’m singing and writing songs professionally, it’s pretty exciting to have a Gaelic bard in my background. My father and his father weren’t all that close and when my grandfather died, his little black book of names, contacts and stories disappeared. So we lost a lot of information that would have been helpful.”
A copy of Murdo Morrison’s book of poems and songs has survived in the family however and is now in Cahalen’s possession, and knowing that he was going to be touring in Scotland, and actually playing on Lewis (on Saturday November 26), his aunt placed an advertisement in the Stornoway Gazette a few months ago, looking for family connections.
“It got quite a lot of responses and Morrison is obviously a strong name in these parts, so I’m hoping to meet some long lost relatives, re-establish contact and see where my great grandfather came from,” he says. “If some of my Gaelic kin could help with translations of my great grandfather’s songs, that would be a bonus.”
From The Herald, November 16, 2011.