189 Public House
This event has already passed by. Sorry.
GURF MORLIX FOLLOWS HIS GROOVE AND DEMANDING MUSE INTO THE “IMPOSSIBLE BLUE,” OUT FEB. 8 ON ROOTBALL RECORDS
10th solo album from the Austin-based songwriter, producer, and award-winning Americana musician takes an unflinching look at mortality — including his own — and finds a sliver of light through the blues
AUSTIN, TEXAS — There was a time, and not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, when Gurf Morlix didn’t really think of himself as a songwriter. A guitar player, sure — armed from the get-go with the dead-aim chops and cool-handed confidence of a natural-born gunslinger. Later on, he took on the mantle of producer, too, parlaying his myriad strengths as an ace sideman into an equally lauded career helping a veritable who’s who of the most formidable poets in Americana find their “growl” and cut their deepest grooves on record. But songwriter? That handle took him a bit longer to fully embrace.
“I was always writing songs, since I was a teen, but I probably wrote 200 songs before I wrote a really good one,” Morlix insists. “For me, it was a tough code to crack.”
Nevermind the fact that his perspective on the matter was inevitably skewed by his years of working with such grading-curve-blowing talents as Blaze Foley, Lucinda Williams, Butch Hancock, Robert Earl Keen, Mary Gauthier, and Ray Wylie Hubbard: a high bar is a high bar, and Morlix, for all of his famed minimalist aesthetic both onstage and in the studio, has never been one to cut corners when it comes to quality. So by the time he finally did feel ready to step out with 2000’s Toad of Titicaca, there was no mistaking his debut for the work of an artist content to make due with just good enough. And now, nearly two decades later, when Morlix deems the nine new cuts comprising his 10th solo album, IMPOSSIBLE BLUE (due Feb. 8 on Rootball Records), to be “the best songs I’ve ever written,” take it as a matter of fact that every word, line, and note has been duly vetted by the toughest critic he’s ever encountered in his 50-odd years of making music: himself.
“The bar is still really high, and there are still songwriters out there that I always look up to, because the songs people like John Prine write — those are masterpieces,” says Morlix. “Writing like that is the goal. It’s not enough to just write a song and have it rhyme and try to make sure it doesn’t sound stupid; you have to say someting in a way that no one else has, and it has to mean something. And I think that I’ve finally gotten to where I’m doing that, because people really respond to the songs. That’s how you know. So, I feel like I’m getting pretty close.”
But as Morlix has learned both through studying the masters and from his own experience, writing to that level is not something that ever gets appreciatively easier, no matter how many songs you’ve written or how much fame — or at the very least, peer and critical acclaim — you’ve achieved.
“I came to realize over many years that it’s really hard, and you don’t settle until you have it as perfect as you can make it,” he says of the craft. “When I hear a John Prine song and every syllable and every word is perfect, and it sounds so simple that it’s like a Hank Williams song, I know that Prine doesn’t knock those songs out in 20 minutes. He gets an idea and then he works on it, and he might spend years on these songs that sound like they were just tossed off in half an hour. But it pays off if you really put the work into something like that.”
Case in point: “Backbeat of the Dispossessed,” the closing track on Impossible Blue. Like more than a few of Morlix’s most deeply affecting songs from albums past, it’s a heartfelt but haunted, bittersweet eulogy to a dearly departed friend, in this case his oldest brother in musical arms, drummer Michael Bannister. They met as kids in Morlix’s native Buffalo, played in the same bands together all through junior and high school, then migrated south to Key West and later lived together off and on in both in Austin and Los Angeles. More than once their friendship would hit the rocks and they’d lose touch for long spells at a time, but as Morlix sings in the song, “I always knew I would see you again” — until the day he learned that Bannister had taken his own life.
That Bannister, like Blaze Foley before him, would someday be memorialized in a Morlix song was inevitable. It just took Morlix the better part of a decade: not to get around to it, but to get it right.
“I worked so hard on that one song for five, six, seven years,” says Morlix. “I just kept going back and changing it and trying different things, until I finally got it into a form that I liked. Because if it was going to be my song about him, it had to be right. Michael was a simple yet complicated individual. He had a teenaged son, and he eneded up killing himself. How sad do you have to be to kill yourself when you have a teenager? That blew my mind: How could he do this?”
“That,” he continues, “is the ‘impossible blue.’ You never get over that.”
For all the time he put into it, though, “Backbeat of the Dispossessed” offers no answers, only more questions — as befits not just a paean to a complicated lost soul, but the soul-searching work of a man who’s spent the better part of the last two years taking a long, hard look at his own mortality. In February 2016, Morlix suffered a serious heart attack en route to a gig. He was soon back on the road and back in the studio, recording not just one but two of the strongest albums of his career (with IMPOSSIBLE BLUE following 2017’s The Soul & the Heal, the songs for which were already written before his heart attack). But that doesn’t mean Morlix just shrugged off the whole experience and lumbered on an unchanged man. Far from it.
“I think the main thing I took away from all that is that I realize that every day is a bonus day,” he says. “I’m living on bonus time now, and I’m just very aware of that, every day. Basically, I’m just in love with life more than ever now. Because here it is, and I might not have been here, but … here I am.”
As far as Morlix’s music goes, the impact of that awakening is perhaps most readily apparent at his shows. By his own admission, Morlix used to be “deathly afraid” of meeting and talking to audience members after a show, and even more reticent to reveal too much about what his songs were about while playing them onstage, prefering for listeners to come up with their own interpretations. But not anymore. “My show is a lot more confessional than it ever has been before,” he says. “I do a lot of storytelling, and I’ll talk about my heart attack or whatever else I’m thinking at the moment, and it’s really been working. People started responding really positively to the stories — just like with the songs — and I realized it’s all about communication, and how important that is. Because we need people to be talking to each other, we need community, and we’ve never needed that more.”
Naturally, the ever-evolving arc of his songwriting has begun to bend more confessional of late, too — though even his most open-hearted reveals on IMPOSSIBLE BLUE prove that living-on-bonus-time Gurf Morlix is still unmistakably, well, Gurf Morlix. Suffice it to say, it would take a lot more than a mere brush with death to flip his default switch from blues to zippity-doo-dah. When Morlix alludes to his heart attack — or rather, his life after his heart attack — here, it’s with the stoic resolve of a battle-scarred survivor, grateful to still be kicking but arguably still more more bewildered than enlightened: “My head is throbbin’, my world keeps wobblin’ / All the alarms are soundin’ / But my heart keeps poundin’.” (“My Heart Keeps Poundin'”). And in “Sliver of Light,” he’s right back on the road again, driving to yet another gig in another town, still peddling his own songs of the dispossessed. Some are leavened with dark humor or even a glimmer of hope — two wild cards he’s always kept up his sleeve. But often as not, they’re steeped in impossible sorrow, be it all-too-real like Michael Bannister’s and that of the ones he left behind, or dredged from the darkest corners of Morlix’s imagination. In the chilling “I’m a Ghost,” a restless spirit howls unheard for justice, and two songs later, a man mourns for a drowned lover at the “Bottom of the Musquash River.”
Indeed, true to its title in both spirit and tone, IMPOSSIBLE BLUE is arguably the bluesiest album Morlix has ever made. Granted, it’s not quite an all-out genre trip like his 2004 album Cut ‘n’ Shoot, which found that year’s Austin Music Hall of Fame inductee crashing the honky-tonks with a sincerely wicked grin; but when he drops lines like “crawling out of primordial ooze / learning how to sing he blues” (from “My Heart Keeps Poundin'”), there’s no mistaking his conviction as anything but sincere. If it’s not all in the groove, like the way the opening “Turpentine” rumbles like a tin-roofed juke joint flanked by train tracks, it’s in the words: The gut-twisting agony of jealous heartbreak served up in “I Saw You” could chill even Robert Johnson to the bone.
Hell, in the world-weary “Spinnin’ Planet Blues,” Morlix even allows himself the rare indulgence of an extended, honest-to-god guitar solo. “That’s always been in my lexicon to play like that, but I just never had a song that really called for it,” he admits. “But that’s a straight-up minor blues, and when I wrote it I realized, ‘Well, that’s different! That’s probably got to be on the record.’ Plus, Red Young is on there, too, playing amazing B3.”
Although Young — who Morlix hails as “one of the best B3 players in the world” — plays on only three tracks on the record, his stamp on IMPOSSIBLE BLUE is as vital as the unmistakable beat of drummer Rick Richards, who’s been Morlix’s not-so-secret weapon for the lion’s share of his entire recording career. Morlix, meanwhile, handles all of the guitars and bass as well as keyboards and percussion, with Austin rising star Jaimee Harris assisting on harmony vocals. Together they form a small but lethally efficient wrecking crew, as perfect an instrument for capturing the primal punch and stark beauty of Morlix’s music as his beloved Rootball Studio. A refuge inside the refuge of his lakeside home in Austin, Rootball is where Morlix has produced, mixed, and mastered every one of his own records — for no better reason other than that the results just always sound damn good. And as long as his heart keeps poundin’, you can count on him to keep on making them, just as he promises in “2 Hearts Beatin’ in Time”: “There’s a bit more I want to do / left unfinished a thing or two …”
After all, what’s the use of living on “bonus time” if you don’t use it?
Richard Skanse 2019