Born Bill Thomas Morrissey, November 25, 1951, in Hartford, CT; son of Joseph (an insurance executive) and Marion Morrissey; married second wife, Ellen Karas (a manager and producer of three of his albums, including Friend of Mine), 1993. Education: Attended Plymouth State College, Plymouth, NH, late 1960s. Addresses: Management--Sage Productions, 258 Harvard St., Suite 283, Brookline, MA 02146. Record company--Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140.
Bill Morrissey is a gravel-voiced singer-songwriter who, over the course of six albums, has established a reputation as one of folk music's most literate and compelling voices. A native of New Hampshire, Morrissey skillfully mines the terrain of that northern clime to "capture the stark hardscrabble milieus of a subterranean New England culture--rootless drifters, despondent cabbies, beery, down-on-their-luck deckhands," as Kevin Ransom noted in Rolling Stone. This gift, referred to by Paul Evans in Rolling Stone as a talent to evoke "in dead-on detail life's quiet epiphanies and small cataclysms," has garnered Morrissey considerable critical acclaim and a growing public audience.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1951, Morrissey felt an affinity for songwriting at an early age. In an interview with Ted Drozdowski for the Boston Phoenix, Morrissey explained that "I used to make up pop song lyrics on my way home; when friends would come over in high school, I'd say, 'Hey, let's write a song.' They didn't believe that just anybody could write songs, so I pretty much had to figure it out by myself. It was a slow process." He persevered, however, for, as he noted in an interview with Contemporary Musicians (CM), "I always wanted to play music. I just never thought I'd be good enough to do it for a living. I was 17 when I dropped out of college and decided that I really wanted to write songs. I had no game plan, I just knew that this is what I had to do."
Armed with a few songs, a voice that Stereo Review called "a cross between an old, grizzled, black bluesman and a hip, friendly bullfrog," and a determination to crack the folk music circuit, Morrissey began playing bar and coffeehouse venues, where, by his own admission, he was a loquacious sort. "I knew I wasn't the greatest singer/writer/guitarist, but ... if I was funny, I knew they'd hire me back," he told interviewer Drodzowski. "I was a basket case before every show, because I didn't have a set routine. I'd talk 15 minutes, play a song, and go back to talking. Gradually, as I learned how to deal with an audience, I played more songs."
At the same time, Morrissey continued his exploration of America's rich and varied musical landscape. In discussing his musical influences with CM, Morrissey cited "anything, from the Beatles--they're a textbook in arranging and harmonies--to the Delta blues guys and country blues guys. Skip James, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt. My whole right-hand style is from John Hurt." He also cited such diverse musicians as Bob Dylan, Jimmy Reed, Merle Haggard, and Thelonious Monk as figures who had a significant impact on his approach to music.
After a number of years of working the mill bar and coffeehouse circuit of New England, Morrissey signed with Rounder Records and recorded his self-titled debut album in 1984. Accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, Morrissey rolled out a dozen songs rich in literary detail for his first recording. Clearly, Morrissey was a new talent worth watching. His second album, North, continued in the same vein, relating insightful, understated tales of ordinary folks struggling with internal demons and external circumstances that often seemed to spin out of control.
While his first two albums were warmly received, it was not until the release of his third album, Standing Eight, that Morrissey caught the attention of the national music press. Standing Eight featured fuller musical arrangements; an array of guests including Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Patty Larkin, and Johnny Cunningham; and top-notch material. The album was widely regarded as a tour de force. "In remarkably compressed portraits," wrote Martha Bustin in Rolling Stone, "Bill Morrissey melds the vaporish world of desire with the hard- edged world of daily life." Martin Keller, writing in Request, called Standing Eight "among the best records of 1989 and... full of the minutiae that often give way to deeper meanings and harder truths."
By the time he released Standing Eight, Morrissey's songwriting abilities were garnering increased attention not only from the musical world but also from the literary arena. His lyrics were increasingly compared to the works of fictional luminaries such as Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. Indeed, Gary Fisketjon, who served as an editor for the late Carver, and writers Jay McInerney and Ford are among Morrissey's high-profile fans.
In an interview with CM, Morrissey discussed his literary influences and his tastes in fiction: "I think [as a teenager] I just read the usual stuff that you read in high school. A little later, though, I discovered the Beats, Kerouac and those folks. Kerouac was from a couple towns over, in Lowell, [Massachusetts], and so I used to hear him on the radio. Allen Ginsberg had a talk show and Jack would call in.
"The French Symbolist poets--Baudelaire and Rimbaud, people like that--really got my attention as well. But I always kept going back to very American stuff. Mark Twain was a big influence. He does it all. He's funny, he's serious. He's got a good edge. He was not a `mellow' guy, especially in his later days.
"And then, as I got older, people like Robert Frost really hit me. I probably lived most of my life in New Hampshire, but Frost had a way of capturing the cadence of New Hampshire speech without making it sound like a parody or a Burl Ives record. He was rhythmically just incredible. And his poetry is also very sparse, which is a typical Yankee kind of thing, which is what I like."
Looking back, Morrissey has been surprised at the extent to which he has been influenced by fiction writers over other songwriters. "I used to hang out with this guy who taught at the University of New Hampshire who was a mentor of sorts. His name was Thomas Williams, and he won the National Book Award in 1975 [for The Hair of Harold Roux]. He died in 1990. We often went fishing and hunting together. A good many of his friends were also writers and so when they'd get together the talk would go from rainbow trout to Eudora Welty to rough grouse. So I just kept my mouth shut. There was a lot more I was going to learn than teach in that group. Tom always said, 'just say what you mean as economically as possible and get out,' and that's really what I try to do with my lyrics."
Asked about the comparisons by reviewers--growing increasingly more common with each new album he records--to Raymond Carver's fiction, the songwriter replies, "I'm not nuts about Carver's poetry, but I do like his fiction very much. Again, it's also very sparse. I think that is partly responsible for the comparisons. The other is subject matter. There's always a lot of divorces and drinking in his work."
In 1991, Rounder Records decided to release Morrissey's debut album on compact disc. Morrissey took advantage of the opportunity to re-record the album and add three additional tracks that he'd been performing back when the album was originally released. In the liner notes for the new CD, the songwriter noted, "I can't think of too many people who've gotten a chance to re-record their first album. It felt like a combination of getting to relive the innocence of my junior prom and returning to the scene of the crime to finish off the witness I'd only winged."
On the heels of that release came Inside, a work that was widely lauded as one of the finest folk releases of 1992. Reviewer Paul Evans called Inside "classic folk music, graced with an astonishingly subtle simplicity," in Rolling Stone. "It confirms Morrissey's place in that noble lineage that reaches back to Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie--the troubadour as truth teller, conveying wisdom with absolute economy and focused fire." Reviewer Lisa Shea of People weighed in as well, writing that the songs on Inside "are a terrific batch of tunes from one of the sharpest, most introspective songwriters in the business.... Morrissey is a unique talent. The truths he unearths aren't often pretty, but the way he tells them can take your breath away."
As with Morrissey's earlier albums, the lyrics on Inside received the most attention. His blue-collar vignettes are powerful ruminations on the complexity of the human experience. He feels for the troubled characters that roam across his lyric sheet, yet paints their portraits with an unsentimental eye. Often these characters are solitary figures, and Morrissey was asked by CM if he was particularly drawn to that theme. "I think so. I think when you travel for a living and you're always in somebody else's town, it's just something that I relate to, that I know, that I don't particularly like. It's a weird feeling. I remember in the early days what it was like to pull into some milltown bar where everybody knows everybody else, and you're performing there, and you're just sitting at the bar having a beer beforehand, and its like you're invisible. Everybody's chatting and laughing and having a good time, because they're all friends and know each other. And you're just the outsider. It's like you're the uninvited guest."
Morrissey avoids overtly political music as well. "The danger in writing those anthemic or real political songs is that it's easy to fall into the telling, not showing, mode of writing. It's easy to sound self-righteous. I would rather write about someone in a certain situation, write about an individual, than the cause. For instance, in a song like 'The Driver's Song' on Standing Eight, this guy's dumping toxic waste. But I don't want to come up with a rhyme for toxic waste. This guy is flesh and blood, and I want to know why he's doing this. Who is this person doing this? And what's his take on it?"
After releasing Inside, Morrissey served as the producer on debut albums by Peter Keane and Ellis Paul, and then collaborated with singer-songwriter and fishing buddy Greg Brown on Friend of Mine, which was released in 1993. Brown first joined forces with Morrissey on the Inside album, contributing a soulful vocal performance on the haunting "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," a traditional song given new life by the duo. The two musicians subsequently decided to record an album of songs originally penned by other artists. The result is a collection of easygoing covers of the works of such diverse songwriters as Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards.
Once again, reviews were positive: Request called Friend of Mine "one of the most enjoyable releases of the year," while the New England Folk Almanac said that "this delightful anachronism of a record plays like a friendly front-porch pickin' session by two old fishin' buddies--who just happen to be absolute masters of the folk genre." Dirty Linen cautioned that portions of the album are "a tough go," but praised other songs on the album as "relaxing and wonderful." Friend of Mine eventually garnered a Grammy Award nomination for best traditional folk recording of 1993.
Morrissey's sixth album, Night Train, was released late in 1993. Returning to his own songs, Morrissey crafted an album that once again explored the many facets of the human experience. From lighthearted tunes such as "Letter From Heaven" to songs of physical and spiritual dislocation like "So Many Things," Morrissey muses on the spectrum of human emotions. "As evocative as black-and-white photographs, Bill Morrissey's songs freeze life's crucial moments with poignant clarity," wrote Bob Cannon in an Entertainment Weekly review. "Put simply, he is the best folk songwriter working today." And Kevin Ransom, writing in Rolling Stone, proclaimed "whether he's trolling the waters of history to find new truths in old songs or restocking the trad-music pond with his own incisive tunes, Morrissey is new folk's most distinctive voice--creaky and bruised, but standing tall."
by Kevin Hillstrom
Bill Morrissey's Career
Performed throughout New England, 1970s; signed with Rounder Records and released self-titled debut album, 1984; has recorded six albums on that label.
Bill Morrissey's Awards
Boston Music Award for best folk recording, 1989, for Standing Eight, and 1992, for Inside; Grammy Award nomination for best traditional folk recording, 1993, for Friend of Mine.
- Selective Works
- Bill Morrissey, Rounder, 1985, re-recorded, 1991.
- North, Rounder, 1986.
- Standing Eight, Rounder, 1989.
- Inside, Rounder, 1992.
- (With Greg Brown) Friend of Mine, Rounder, 1993.
- Night Train, Rounder, 1993.
- Boston Phoenix, January 24, 1992.
- Dirty Linen, August 1993.
- Entertainment Weekly, September 24, 1993.
- New England Folk Almanac, March 15, 1993.
- New York Times, February 23, 1992.
- People, June 8, 1992.
- Performing Songwriter, March/April 1994.
- Request, August 1993; January 1994.
- Rolling Stone, August 23, 1990; February 20, 1992; November 11, 1993.
- Stereo Review, May 1992.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes to the 1991 release of Bill Morrissey, and a November 30, 1993, interview with Bill Morrissey.