Wednesday, July 27, 2011

RIP, Bill Morrissey

Mourning the passing of one of the great American folk singer/songwriters of the generation lodged between legends like Bob Dylan and young bucks like M. Ward and Sam Beam.

Photo circa 2005 from by Herve Oudet

Last night I learned that New England folksinger Bill Morrissey died a few days ago in a hotel room in Georgia. Only 59 years old, the Grammy-nominated folksinger reportedly succumbed to heart failure, but he left a legacy of potent, straight-from-the-heart-through-the-bottle-and-spit-out-with-a-laugh songs of life, love, hope and regret. Real lives, real people.

I was fortunate enough to interview Bill in 1989, when – riding the success of his Standing Eight LP, he was on the cusp of making the jump from the local coffeehouses and bars he’d been playing for nearly two decades to the small theaters and halls he was able to command for a few years during his commercial peak. Shortly after our talk, I saw him alone in front of a crowded room of 40 or so people at a church basement coffeehouse in Burlington, Mass. A few years later, I was in the balcony of Cary Hall in nearby (but really worlds away) Lexington, watching him front a full band that featured fiddle player extraordinaire Johnny Cunningham (previously of Silly Wizard and The Raindogs). It was haunting and transcendent.

I have no way of knowing, but I bet Bill and Johnny made quite a pair, sharing an ample and wry sense of humor as they did. Now, I bet they're both joking like naughty smart-asses behind the angels’ backs in a far corner of Heaven.

Our interview was a lengthy phone conversation. Bill was cooking dinner at home in New Hampshire when I called. He kindly put the skillet aside and proceeded to talk enthusiastically and at length, not so much about himself, but about his love for music and songcraft, as well as the current folk music milieu and his place in it – or not, as the case may have been.

“I don’t want to just play for the terminally hip,” he said, seeking to separate himself from the “precious folk music” with which he was sometimes reluctantly cast.

His music was anything but precious. It was melancholic, haunting, drink-drenched, narratively nuanced, or witty and clever. He was equally adept and at ease with it all, and this wide range of themes lived comfortably side by side in his repertoire.

We shared our enthusiasm for Bob Dylan and he was eloquent in his defense of the Old Bard’s singing voice, punching holes in the typical criticisms. Having a unique singing voice himself, perhaps he was attuned to the under-recognized value of such an attribute, noting that despite his raspy oddities, Zimmy “still hit the right notes.”

“This is no b.s. kind of music,” he said of his kind of folk. “You get up there and tell a story. ... You don’t have to be loud to make a point.”

There are depressingly few video clips of Bill Morrissey on YouTube.
This is a good tune and one I’d consider including even it wasn’t
nearly the only choice. Wish I could find “She’s That Kind of Mystery”
or “Everybody Warned Me.”

Bill’s deep, rich-toned, never-overly-busy, finger-picking and his speak-sing vocals – often punctuated with a raspy growl – were fitting conduits for his lyrical tales of romantic misconnects, proud-but-worn-down working people and hardscrabble life in forgotten old mill towns. Morrissey literary leanings transcended well-penned lyrics in the late 1990s, when he published a novel, Edson, about a New England folkisnger (not autobiographical, he assured, explaining that he just wanted a context that he knew well).

And while he played acoustic folk music throughout his career – he recruited talented friends – Suzanne Vega, Patty Larkin, Shawn Colvin, John Gorka and later Dave Alvin – to add powerful nuance and embellishment to his trademark sound. He also dabbled in the primal folk blues of Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt and others as his career progressed.

“I was never good enough to copy others,” he said back in 1989, already reflecting on many years on the road and a quiver full of his own compositions. He was sounding a familiar refrain of those who truly forge their own path. But, today, there’s little doubt that he was good enough to set a course that will inspire other true troubadours for years to come.

Whether it was humor or heartbreak – and he was adept at both – Bill seemed to do what he did because it was important, vital, genuine and timeless.

Here is a nice tribute from New Hampshire Public Radio’s website. Bill Morrissey was a long-time (albeit on and off) resident of New Hampshire, and his early music is deeply routed in the people, history and environs of the Granite State.

• Bill’s obituary in yesterday’s Boston Globe.

• He left a rich legacy of recordings. I highly recommend checking out any of them, but my favorites remain: Standing Eight (1989), Inside (1992) and his eponymous debut, Bill Morrissey (1984), all on Philo/Rounder.


  1. hello from Paris, thanks for this piece about Bill. I took that picture in July 2005 at his friends' Chuck and Pat's. He's playing Chuck's own Guild. See credits on his 1st album for Chuck's exact name.

    Take care Bill

  2. Thanks for the comment! Nice to see the reach of Bill's influence. His legacy should be a lasting one. Thanks, too, for the note about the photo and the guitar, as a hobbyist player myself I always appreciate those details.