The last time I talked to singer-songwriter Bill Morrissey was in the spring of 1994.
Chicago skies were full of temporary promise.
Morrissey was coming to the Old Town School of Folk Music to support his album "Night Train" and to conduct a two-hour songwriting workshop. I ranked Morrissey with John Prine, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan as America's best contemporary male singer-songwriters. Studs Terkel said of Morrissey, "his songs haunt me."
But Morrissey was under the radar.
He was so under the radar his sudden death on July 23, 2011 did not make national news. "The worst thing Bill did in his life was die on the same day Amy Winehouse died," his friend and former Chicago singer-songwriter Fred Koller quipped earlier this week. "It blew him off the charts.".............
.....I did not learn about Morrissey's passing until my Nashville-based brother told me about it during the Christmas holidays. Morrissey was 59. He died of a heart failure in a small motel in Dalton, Ga.
He was alone.
I remember arguing with an editor who asked me "Why is this guy important?" as I bartered for space on Morrissey's 1994 appearance. Looking back on that moment, that may have been when the tide began to turn for me in writing about under championed roots music at a metropolitan newspaper. The joy of sharing unknown artists was a big part of my early days in journalism. Now I had to justify the muse of discovery. Still makes me sad.
So I asked Morrissey why he was "important."
"I write well," he answered by phone from his home in suburban Boston. "The goal was always to write well, not to be a star. If you're in it for the long haul, that has to be the goal."
I interviewed Morrissey a few times in the late '80s and early '90s. His 1989 composition "These Cold Fingers" will leave you teary-eyed. Once you hear it you will never forget it.
The song begins with a man struggling to propose marriage over a few beers at a loud airport. It ends with the same man taking a borrowed .22 to his ailing dog.
I have re-read my interviews with Morrissey and they are now eerie:
"Writing about the lonesome highway is only going part of the way," he told me. "Everyone knows the highway is lonesome. That's not going to move anybody. But you put somebody on the highway and he's got a story that can make somebody see something in a different way. That's what gets it beyond a cliche'. If you can make the listener care about this guy, understand what he's doing and why he's doing it, then it's a good thing."
I loved talking to Morrissey. He reminded me of my pals Tony Fitzpatrick and Rick Kogan.
He was a gentle racounteur.
His 1990 record "Standing Eight" (Rounder Records) got it's title from a boxing count that permits a referee to call a knockdown on a spent fighter who has yet to hit the canvas.
"I just like the idea of a guy taking a beating and not going down," Morrissey told me in 1990. He said a lot of characters in that batch of songs were cut from that cloth. There was a truck driver carting toxic waste through the New Hampshire backroad, hard times on the Canadian Pacific line and the brittle rebound from a busted marriage--his own, which caught him off guard.
With such a commitment to storytelling, it was hardly surprising Morrissey was influenced by novelists. He wrote two novels, "Edson (Random House, 1996) and the new self-published "Imaginary Runner" with his Woody Guthrie-type drawing on the cover.
An editor at Atlantic Monthly Press sent Morrissey CDs to authors such as Richard Ford and Robert W. Olmsted. "I like the demands of a short story," he told me. "You have to get in and out of it in 10 pages. With a song, I spend more time editing it than actually writing. I ask myself, 'Is this absolutely necessary?' Or is it because it is a clever line and I want to show I can be clever? There are a lot of writers who enamored with their bursts of brilliance and they can't take it out, even if it moves the song right along. I like to think in each song, each word moves a song to an end or a point."
Brilliant. I need to remember that.
Morrissey's mentor was the late Tom Williams, winner of the 1975 National Book Award for "The Hair of Howard Roux." Williams had said Morrissey's immediacy of sympathy toward his characters reminded him of Raymond Carver, whose writing was popularlized in the Robert Altman film "Short Cuts."
"I'd go up to Tom's house for a couple of drinks or go to his cabin to go fishing," Morrissey said. "You'd never know who would be hanging around. John Irving. Andre Dubus. These guys would talk literature and rainbow trout. I'd keep my mouth shut. Tom taught me to say it as economically as possible and to get out.
"Just make sure it is what you mean."
Morrissey spent the week before his death with Koller and his wife Trish at their Nashville home.
A student of the Art Institute of Chicago, Koller wrote the Nanci Griffith hit "Lone Star State of Mind,"co-penned the Jeff Healey smash "Angel Eyes" and wrote "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" with John Prine. He now owns two Rhino Bookseller shops in Nashville with a combined 100,000 books with little duplication. He keeps a hand in music and just wrote half of the upcoming 100-70 Split album, a side project of the rock band Ten Years After.
Koller and Morrissey had a shared, passionate love of literature.
"He read a lot of Chekov and John Yount," Koller said from Nashville. "When he was here for his last week we were talking about books constantly. He couldn't wait to get back home to see if we had the books we were talking about. 'Imaginary Runner' was coming out in paperback in France and he was excited about that."
Fred Koller, left and Bill Morrissey at Bill's final gig. (Photo by Ramcey Rodriguez, courtesy of Fred Koller)
Morrissey's last gig was at the Hillbilly Haiku House Concert series in Lebanon, Tenn. Koller played dobro with his friend. There were 13 fans in attendance. On his Nashville Tennessean blog, writer-musician Peter Cooper said of Morrissey, "He was a troubador, a novelist, an alcoholic, a folk singer. He was bipolar, on medication for depression and by some accounts doing better of late.
"He was kind, sensitive, rare and doomed."
Koller met Morrissey in the mid-1980s when they appeared on a New York City radio show. They also performed together at the Newport Folk Festival. Koller said, "Bill was in great spirits before he left. He talked a lot about how Dave Alvin played on his last record ("Come Running," 2007 on Turn & Spin). He had a lot of plans. I have an unrestored 1960 Airstream Land Yacht trailer set off in the woods and he wanted to get one of those and make it into a guest room and studio. Every night he would go down to the trailer with a stack of Mose Allison and Charlie Parker CDs and fall asleep listening to them. His favorites. He wasn't drinking any hard liquor contrary to the stories that are out there. He looked pale and didn't look that strong.
"But it's still sinking in for me."
Visit Turn & Spin for more on Bill.
Bill Morrissey was born on Thanksgiving Day, 1951 in Hartford, Conn. and started playing country blues in high school.
"My whole right hand comes from Mississippi John Hurt," he told me before he recorded an entire album of Hurt songs in 1999. "At the same time, I always wanted to write songs. I formed various jug bands in high school."
In 1969 he enrolled as an art and English major at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire and lasted about five weeks. "My first day there they had a panty raid," he told me in 1990. "And I said, 'What have I gotten myself into?' Music just became more important. They didn't have Songwriting 101, so I dropped out and taught myself."
Morrissey spent 12 hours a day listening to songs he liked and trying to figure out why they worked. He also followed the same process with songs he didn't like. That was a commitment beyond the call of duty.
"Well, this was '69 and '70, which was probably the worst time to get into folk music," he said. "It was rough at first. I played ski gigs, singing to people trying to pick each other up."
Between shows Morrissey worked day jobs at chemical plants, rolling mills and gas stations where he gathered a lot of the characters for his songs. "Standing Eight" was named the No. 1 Folk Album of 1990 by Tower Records.
The last picture of Bill, in front of Fred's bookstore (Courtesy of Fred Koller)
Morrissey had a rich resume. He received a 1994 Grammy nomination in "Best Traditional Folk" category for his "Friend of Mine" collaboration with his fishing buddy Greg Brown. He also got a Grammy nomination for his deep "Songs of Mississippi John Hurt." A Nov. 17 tribute concert in Somerville, Mass. included Koller, Peter Case, Shawn Colvin, Patty Larkin and David Johansen. In addition to his younger brother Thomas, Morrissey was survived by his mother, Marion of Lansdale, Pa., and his older brother Joseph of Medford, N.J.
Why did his death go mostly unnoticed?
"Bill got tons of press in Boston," Koller answered. "A couple months before Bill died (Greenwich Village songwriter) Jack Hardy passed away and got a write up in the New York Times. Not to say anything bad about Jack, but Bill was a better known writer. It seemed like it was one of those stories people had expected for a long time.
"A lot of people had written Bill off. He was bipolar. Bill could have a drinking problem. He was very self-demeaning. But I am as surprised as you are that no one knew about it. Bill will only grow as people discover his music. There's a handful of writers I consider to be on Bill's level. The rest are Folk Alliance, Americana wannabes, 'I made some CDs and I'm playing a gig for twenty dollars.' His voice always shines.
"It's like me singing a Prine song. You know it's a John Prine song. Bill had that unique touch. He was writing what he knew. We'd be sitting on the couch talking about a certain wood that clarinets are made out of and he would talk about that for an hour. Then he'd play this cool song that mentioned this wood in it. That's a typical Bill thing. His songs have such a tight focus. Which I appreciate because I hear so many songs about: 'This is the verse about sweet tea.' 'This is the verse about the tractor.' 'This is the verse about the flag, thank you.' There's some bad songs out there right now.
"But Bill knew mill towns. He knew about failed relationships. If you and I sat down with a half dozen of his CDs we could find at least that many songs about somebody dying in a motel room. Drinking, lonely. 'I may not see tomorrow.' Which is great. That was his source.
"And he stayed true to it."