Gurf Morlix: sideman steps out

Jeffrey B. Remz, May 2000

One of the best known sidemen in certain country circles, Gurf Morlix, appeared intent on staying that way.

The long-time guitarist for Lucinda Williams may have penned songs for decades. The only problem was he didn't think they were very good, especially compared to the stellar writing of Williams.

But with encouragement from friends, the acclaim accorded one of them and perhaps more time to do his own thing after splitting with Williams, Morlix is out with "Toad of Titicaca," his debut on the small Chicago label, Catamount.

"I was busy for awhile there," jokes Morlix on the telephone from his Austin area home on his first day off in a month, explaining why the first album took so long. "I had stuff to do."

"I was actually writing songs for a long time, but I wasn't sure they were any good. I was so comparing them to Lucinda's songs or people I was working with. That's pretty tough."

"Sometimes they felt good. Sometimes they didn't depending on what day it was," Morlix says. "I kind of started getting prodded into it. People started saying 'you ought to put that out.' I started believing them."

Inspiration was provided by Buddy Miller, former sidekick to the likes of Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, who has received much praise for several recent solo albums.

"I got pretty inspired by Buddy Miller putting his album out, being a sideman for other people," Morlix said. "He had really good luck with it, so I thought maybe I could do that."

"He was definitely an inspiration," he says. "We were in a similar boat there."

Morlix started recording the album in January 1999, hitting his home studio sporadically over the next six months.

The result is 11 songs in a country and roots vein with even a dose of soul thrown in.

"Some are recent," he says. "Some have been around for a long time."

"I had a lot of songs to pick from because I'd been writing for so long and not recording them. I had about 100, 150 of them. I thought maybe I'd have 30, 40 that were good. I started recording."

Morlix stopped at only 13 songs. "Then, I sort of narrowed it down to 11, and said 'there's a record.'"

"There would be a drummer there, and I'd sort of open a page in the book - 'here's one we could do.' There was no rhyme or reason to it. It was just 'let's cut this song.' It's just what ended up being.'"

It wasn't as if Morlix had to worry about finding a lot of people to play on the album. He handled all guitars and bass parts and even some drums. Ian McLagan of Small Faces fame, who lives in the Austin area, played keyboards, while Miller sang backing vocals on the opener, "Wild Things." A scant few others helped.

The oldest song, "Dan Blocker," (the guy of "Bonanza" fame), was written more than three decades ago when the Buffalo area native was 12.

Morlix went to a scout camp with a friend. There was another kid there, who they didn't much like whose name was similar to Blocker.

"We started chanting 'Dan Blocker' to make him go away. In the course of a week, it turned to "Dan Blocker, Lorne Greene.' A few years ago, I made a demo and sent it to my friend who was in scout camp. He said that was good. I played it for some others who said 'you should put that on your record.' I said, 'oh come on.' I started thinking about it. It may be the purest song I've ever written. I started thinking about it, so I put it on there."

"Greatest Show on Earth" is a true story based on Morlix' experiences.

"I grew up near a county fair," he says. "All of that was true. I've been thinking about childhood a lot lately. I was thinking about what was important to me, and that was really important to me. It would be there for a few weeks, and I'd go every day. I'd live for the county fair."

Morlix knew he wanted to be a guitar player after seeing Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show. "When The Beatles hit, everyone went crazy," he says. "It didn't matter if you could play. You just did it anyhow. I lived for it. I didn't care about school."

Morlix says he spent a lot of time in his room with his guitar. "I'd crawl out of my bedroom for dinner and crawl back," he says.

"We all started up bands right away," he says. "We started playing songs. I can remember being in junior high school, ninth grade, playing dances, doing it and loving it."

"There was just a feeling," Morlix says. " I didn't know what it was. I loved it. Plus you got to meet girls too. The pure joy of rock and roll."

Morlix left the cold environs of Hamburg, N.Y. for Key West, Fla., but headed for Austin in 1975 looking for "like-minded players."

"I had gotten into Hank Williams and was just going crazy over the country stuff. I wanted to play Hank Williams, and I wanted to play the Rolling Stones, and I wanted to play Muddy Waters, and I couldn't find that in Buffalo."

Austin, at the time, had a burgeoning progressive country scene.

Morlix played in cover bands doing Gram Parsons and John Prine songs. While many folks he played with never flourished musically, he also started working with Blaze Foley in the late '70's along with B.W. Stevenson of "My Maria" fame for about two years.

"I was kind of looking for more," he says. "(Stevenson) wasn't playing that much."

"The pool of musicians in Austin was fairly small," he says. "It still is. Austin's a great little training ground. It's a great place for live music, but at some point you might have to go someplace else."

Next stop was Los Angeles in 1981 where he stayed for a decade and made his move musically.

"I kicked around for two or three years doing pick-up gigs, but started meeting people. I started in this scene meeting Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, Rosie Flores and Dave Alvin. The whole scene was happening at the time, and the timing was great."

By 1985, he hooked up with Williams on a full-time basis. She eventually inked a record deal with Rough Trade, and Morlix produced her well-received self-titled disc.

"We had a very finite, small budget (about $17,000) and we had about a week and a half," he says. "It was very short. When we were done, we were done."

At that point, Morlix felt a real kinship with Williams' music.

"Great songs. Great feel, just an emotional connection between her songs and her listeners and between her songs and me. She's as good a songwriter as there is."

"The songs really spoke to me. It was so easy. It was no work involved. It was just 'play these songs.' That's how they came out," he says.

He also produced the follow-up "Sweet Old World" in 1992.

But then the wait went on and on and on, six years in between albums for Williams until "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road."

The delay, which included numerous recording attempts, took its toll.

"There was plenty for me to do," says Morlix. "Songwriters who write songs on a deadline generally aren't any good. If you force that stuff, it will show up...When it comes time, we'll make a record and not before."

He had moved back to Austin 1991, producing Butch Hancock and later Robert Earl Keen ("Walking Distance") and two Slaid Cleaves albums.

Morlix hit the road with Warren Zevon and Michael Penn and played with actor Harry Dean Stanton.

"It was time for a change," he says of the split with Williams. "I hadn't really seen it coming. At one point, working with any artist, artists have their idiosyncrasies. That's the trade-off - the idiosyncrasies with the art. The balance shifted to the point where I couldn't work with it any more. It was just time for a change."

"I'm not looking to air this in public. I just stopped. I wanted something different. I wanted my life to be calm. I made a good decision."

The two are not in any touch.

Morlix, who also has done a Sunday gig for awhile with the Imperial Golden Crown Harmonizers, a gospel septet. eventually hooked up with Eric Babcock, the head of Catamount through his lawyer. Babcock asked if Morlix had recorded anything.

The end result is the album.

Not that Morlix ever expected that to happen.

"I didn't think eventually it would come. I was writing those things. I was going to keep writing those songs no matter what. I didn't think I'd have an album some day."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •