Gurf Morlix - the reluctant award-winner
When Gurf Morlix won the Instrumentalist of the Year title at the Americana Music Awards in Nashville in September he was almost the last to know. A singer and songwriter in his own right, as well as guitarist, bassist and record producer with Lucinda Williams, the late Warren Zevon, Tom Russell, Mary Gauthier and Slaid Cleaves among his employers and clients, Morlix might have been excused had he claimed to be too busy to notice.
The truth was, he was away on tour, wasn’t paying too much attention to events back home and anyway, having been nominated in various awards before and never won, he’d banished this latest nomination from his mind.
“I don’t put much stock in awards, to be honest,” says the laid-back Morlix down the line from another stop on another tour. “For me, there is no best in music but when I got back and started checking my emails and found hundreds of messages of congratulations, I realised that this really meant something to these people. People like to see the people that matter to them being recognised and I felt honoured.”
Tangible recognition for Morlix’s talents has been a long time coming. Having taken up guitar as a teenager after seeing the Beatles’ famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show in 1964, he became set on being a musician. He was playing in bands not long after getting his first guitar, often arriving at high school just a few hours after finishing the final set at one or other of the Buffalo area’s biker bars, and after leaving school went off in search of work on the next rung up the ladder and preferably in warmer climes than New York state.
After fetching up in Florida and then Texas, where he made his recording debut playing bass guitar on singer-songwriter Eric Taylor’s Shameless Love album, he moved to Los Angeles in 1981. There he worked with Dwight Yoakam, recorded with Jerry Lee Lewis on the Great Balls of Fire soundtrack and began an eleven-year association with Lucinda Williams, playing guitar, leading her touring band and producing her breakthrough, self-titled album.
“There was really nothing I ever wanted to do except play music,” he says. “I used to pretend to be sick so that I could stay off school and when my mum left me to go shopping, I’d sneak into my sister’s room and turn the dial on her radio till I heard something I liked.”
Morlix recounts moments like this and later, when he had his own rocket ship-shaped radio and listened through an ear-plug while pretending to be asleep, on his song Drums from New Orleans from his splendid recent album, Last Exit to Happyland. The defining moment was hearing the Everly Brothers’ Cathy’s Clown, the sound of Don and Phil’s voices convincing the youngster that this was what he wanted to do. The Beatles’ arrival simply shattered his parents’ resistance to his pleas for guitar lessons.
Touring with Lucinda Williams and Warren Zevon became a belated substitute for his parents’ forlorn hope that Morlix might go into further education.
“You learn from everyone, really, but with Warren, who was like no-one else who ever lived but was also a class act as a musician and a human being, I learned to respect the audience. He really showed that every night. He also showed me that you can write a song about anything and that was a really valuable lesson.”
The most valuable lesson Morlix was learning, however, was that, compared to the writers he was working with, his own songs weren’t good enough.
“I’d been writing for a long time, since my teens, and I’d come up with something that I thought sounded good until I listened to what Warren or Lucinda or any of the great songwriters - John Prine, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan at his best – were writing,” he says. “And I had to figure out how to make that leap to where you make what you’re writing compelling enough so that other people will want to listen to it. That’s not easy but working with great writers showed me that you can do it if you learn the craft. Sure, sometimes you’ll get a complete song tumbling out in fifteen minutes. But those occurrences are rare and I came to enjoy the act of rewriting and polishing and getting songs to say exactly what you want them to say.”
Having moved back to Texas in 1991 and built a studio in his house, Morlix became the go-to guy for whole platoons of the prodigious Austin music scene. The list of his notable musical associations and production jobs would fill the space allocated to this article – and more – but as much as Morlix will tell you that he benefited from being around talents such as Ray Wylie Hubbard and Buddy & Julie Miller, those same people were encouraging Morlix to record his own songs.
His first album, Toad of Titicata, released in 2000 when he was nearly fifty years old, came, he says, before he was ready. But in the nine years since then he’s really hit his stride, creating songs such as Madalyn’s Bones, about the mysterious disappearance of American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair, which put him in the long tradition of ballad writers reporting events and give his concerts a great depth of character along with his entertaining way of imparting background information.
“Madalyn’s Bones was a song that was crying out to be written by someone – and I’m glad it was me,” he says. “It’s funny because people say you shouldn’t write about death and murder but Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley’s repertoires have way bigger body counts than a rapper like 50 Cent’s. Rap’s supposed to be like a newspaper set to music and that’s the aspect of songwriting I like. I want people to feel something when they hear my songs, maybe cry a little, laugh a little. I’m sure I’m telling them things they already know but if I can do it in a way they haven’t heard before, then I’ll be doing my job.”
From The Herald, Thursday, December 3, 2009.