Sideman Supreme Gurf Morlix Steps...
By Lee Nichols
APRIL 17, 2000: "I would prefer not to be a household name," says the nondescript, gray-bearded, shades-wearing musician hidden away in the back room of Shaggy's. "I like a little bit of anonymity. I mean, I have a lot of anonymity!"
Yes, he does. In fact, more now than ever. Gurf Morlix -- and shouldn't a name like that be household? -- has never stood out in a crowd, but with his new facial hair and eyewear, he's almost completely unrecognizable. This reporter had to scan the lineup of the Imperial Golden Crown Harmonizers at Shaggy's gospel brunch long and hard before realizing that, no, he hadn't been stood up for the scheduled interview -- there was Morlix, right there in the middle, steadily laying down the sweet licks for which he is... well, not quite famous.
Gurf Morlix, indeed, is the quintessential sideman. If you've spent any time at all following Austin's roots-music scene, you've almost certainly heard his work -- most likely from a decade-plus stint with Lucinda Williams. Or if you're really a vet, with Blaze Foley or others in the singer-songwriter scenes of late-Seventies/early-Eighties Austin and Houston. And maybe even with Peter Case's Plimsouls.
But he's always been lurking just out of the spotlight. Even as a lead guitarist, he has never been a flashy sort -- no Stevie Ray Vaughan-like pyrotechnics, just tasteful solos meted out in a casual way, carefully emerging from and weaving back into the overall sound of the star.
Or as a producer -- twisting the knobs, mixing the sound, and helping create some stellar albums, most notably 1988's Lucinda Williams and Williams' Sweet Old World in 1992. Again, out of the spotlight.
Thus, you can be forgiven if you say "Gurf who?" even if you have unknowingly been a fan for years. But now Morlix throws you again by donning yet another guise -- frontman. Star of the show. Or at least of his solo debut, Toad of Titicaca.
Morlix no longer works with Lucinda Williams. He broke off that association in a less-than-amicable parting (more on that later) in 1996, and is now his own man to a degree he hasn't known in decades.
It may come as a surprise, but Titicaca is not an all-instrumental album, nor is it merely Morlix showing off his guitar work behind invited guest singers (excepting California country crooner Buddy Miller on the first track). Yes, the sideman sings. And writes.
"I've been writing songs probably for 30 years," says Morlix upon completion of his gospel brunch. "They weren't very good for a really long time. And also, I was working for so many great songwriters that I would write a song and go, 'Hey, I think that sounds pretty good,' and then I'd have to compare it to some of the songwriters that I was working with, and I'd go, 'Hey, I'll never play this for anybody.'
"And also, I lack perspective on my own material, and I have great perspective on other people's stuff. In 30 seconds I can tell you if a song is any good or not, except for mine. Some days they sound good, some days they don't. So it ended up taking a little prodding from some friends ... A few friends had heard my demos, and people said, 'You ought to put that out.' I said, 'Aw, I don't know if I'm ready for that.'"
As for putting voice to those songs: "I've been singing in bands since I started, but not always singing my own songs. I can sing. I don't consider myself a great vocalist or anything, but I can get it across. There's plenty better and some worse."
Working with Williams alone would have been enough to intimidate anyone from putting either their pen or voice before the public. But as said, Gurf Morlix's career goes back much further than his most notable gig.
Morlix says he can remember watching The Ed Sullivan Show in Buffalo, N.Y., knowing he wanted to be a musican as early as five or six years old. In the fourth grade, he managed to get music lessons on the bass (guitar wasn't offered).
"And then in 1963 the world exploded," he says. "Everybody started bands. You'd call up people who hadn't even got a guitar yet: 'Want to start a band? I'll get some drums, man.' That was just an incredible time. Everybody started playing."
It wasn't long before it turned into a professional thing.
"I was probably 14 or 15 when I started making money at it," he says. "I was making steady money when I was in high school. I was playing in biker bars until two in the morning on Sunday nights, and getting up and going to school the next morning. I was making about the same money for gigs then that I am now, oddly enough."
How did mom and dad feel about that?
"They always wanted me to have something to fall back on, [but I said] 'I'm not going to fall. It's not a problem.' But they would drive me to a biker bar on a Sunday night and drop me off. I'm sure they had some sort of trepidation about that, but they realized that it was the only thing in my life. When a kid's got something that he loves, you gotta go for that."
The young musician's somewhat seedy line of employment brought him under a widely and wildly diverse group of influences, and his hometown just didn't have quite the environment -- musical or climatalogical -- he felt he needed to explore them.
"I was starting to get into country music in the early Seventies," he says. "I guess I came around through the Band and Bob Dylan, and I started playing the steel guitar. And then I started getting into Hank Williams, which totally blew my mind. And I wanted to be playing Dylan songs, and Hank Williams songs, and Pink Floyd songs, and Muddy Waters songs, and I couldn't find people around there to do that. Not enough of a musical scene.
"A friend of mine and I were both looking to go somewhere to do that, and he asked Commander Cody where you go to do that. He said Austin or Boston. There was no choice -- I wanted to be somewhere warm, so I moved here in '75 and started playing that kind of music. It was great. That was a really good time."
Morlix actually split his first Texas residency between Austin and Houston, which was developing a songwriter scene of its own in clubs like Corky's and Theodore's with the likes of Shake Russell, John Vandiver, Danny Everett, and others. Two musicians circulating in the same circles were Williams and Blaze Foley.
Morlix's travels with the eccentric, couch-hopping Foley, who died in 1989, were more fully documented in the Chronicle's recent feature on Foley (see "A Walking Contradiction," Vol. 19, No. 17). Morlix and Williams managed to be in close proximity without actually meeting one another, and not entirely coincidentally, both headed for Los Angeles in the early Eighties.
"Things were kind of starting to dry up around here," Morlix says. "Being from Austin was great, you could go play all over the country, but playing in Austin wasn't really working so much, so I'd go down to Houston and play for a couple of weeks and then come back to Austin and hang out. It just got to the point where I needed to go somewhere else and find some more players. I remember looking for a bass player in Austin and maybe found like 10 people that could try out and none of them worked. And there were no more. I moved out to L.A. and you could get a hundred bass players. If none of those worked out, you could get a hundred more. The place was huge. At that point, I needed to be in a major music center, which Austin wasn't then, and still isn't, really."
It turned out to be a great move. There were connections to be made among a herd of future legends whose careers were on the launching pad of SoCal's roots/punk scene: Dwight Yoakam, the Blasters, X, Los Lobos, and once again, an emerging singer-songwriter named Lucinda Williams.
Morlix worked the town, gigging throughout a thriving country scene that revolved around the young Yoakam and his producer/guitarist Pete Anderson. He landed a spot on volume two of the seminal A Town South of Bakersfield series, the compilation documenting L.A.'s country talent -- but, oddly enough, backing up a singer named Jeffrey Steele rather than Williams (Anderson played guitar on her track). Morlix even played in the Plimsouls shortly before they dissolved.
"Peter Case and I grew up together," he says. "Peter's first gig ever was at my band's gig at a youth center back in 1966, probably. He remembers it, I don't. He says, 'Yeah, you guys let me sit in on your break.' First time he ever got on stage. I remember him playing electric piano and singing Howlin' Wolf songs in a little boy's voice."
It took a while, but the Williams/Morlix combination which would work so well for years to come finally happened.
"She had been living in Austin when I had been living here, she had been living in Houston when I was living there, and we were in the same bars at different times for years. [But] we hooked up out there [in L.A.]. We had never even met before. It was an odd thing.
"A friend of mine who was doing some gigs with her as a drummer, Michael Bannister, introduced us, and we just kind of hit it off, started playing, kicking around Hollywood playing for $8 a night for the whole band. Then, all of the sudden, we got a record deal -- Rough Trade offered us a deal. She goes, 'Who's gonna produce it?' I said, 'I am.'
"So I did that. It turned out good," he understates. The record, Lucinda Williams, was a critical smash, getting gushing praise from Rolling Stone and just about everyone else. A distinctive sound came to be associated with Williams, due in no small part to Morlix's playing and production.
What happened next in the pair's well-storied career hardly needs a full recounting here. There were more recordings made. And then still more, as the perfectionist Williams wanted everything just right. There was Sweet Old World, an album just as outstanding as the first. There were Grammy nominations.
Less well-documented is how it all ended. In 1996, Morlix laid down some tracks for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, some of which appear on the final 1998 album. But for reasons no one is too eager to discuss, the pair went their separate ways during that time. In an interview with the Chronicle ("Moon-Shaped Panties & the Saint of White Trash," Vol. 18, No. 8), Williams would only say they "butted heads in the studio."
"What happened was just like what happens to people that are married sometimes," Morlix says. "I could go off on her, but that wouldn't really serve any purpose. It's been four years, and I don't think about it much at all. At this point I just figure it's her problem. Let her deal with it."
He doesn't go too far into the details, but drops some clues.
"Sweet Old World was made two and a half times, Car Wheels was made two and a half times. Almost like there's a pattern going on there. We made [Car Wheels] in Austin with me producing the first time, got like 90% done, and just a bunch of shit went down and she decided to start over. She was having a little bit of trouble thinking that she was singing good, and bagged the record. And then it was, 'Let's start over.' I'm going, 'Okay, whatever it takes to get the record made.'
"So we started over in Nashville. This has taken years. Those are good songs, they deserve to be out there, so I'm saying, 'Yeah, whatever it takes to get them done.' Kind of in the middle of it, the scales just tipped, and I just said 'I don't need this anymore.' And that was that.
"I think the best record would have been some sort of amalgam of the stuff that we did here and the stuff that was done there. Some of that was better than what we did here and vice versa. And she would probably never listen to that stuff again."
Leaving Williams hardly left Morlix unemployed. He produced, among others, Robert Earl Keen's latest, Walking Distance, Slaid Cleaves' past two albums, and is already tabbed to do both Keen's next one and the latest from Ian McLagan. Up next, he's slated to do mixing for the group One Fell Swoop and a star-studded disc by KOOP radio's "Pickin' & Singin' Professor," Rod Moag. Producing Grammy-nominated albums will do that for a person.
"I've been producing way more [than playing]," Morlix says. "Since I quit Lucinda's band, I haven't really been on the road much. I went to England with Ian McLagan about a month ago, played in London. He just killed over there. He's like, famous over there. He's not here. But people know who the Small Faces are over there. The first guys in England were the immigration guys. They said, 'Who you playing with?' I said, 'Ian McLagan.' 'Ooooh, really? From the Small Faces?' Everybody knows who he is."
Yet, as noted, the same can't be said for Morlix. And one suspects that, on a tiny little label out of Chicago and with music as quirky as the title -- named for two-foot-long amphibians living at the bottom of a lake high up in the Andes -- Toad of Titicaca probably won't change that. That's just fine with Morlix.
"The little bit of recognition is great, but I like being able to go around and not be bothered," he says. "Lucinda's life is really hard, because everywhere she goes she has to be a star. I've watched her grow into that role, but I would not want that.
"I saw Neil Young walk into the Broken Spoke when Jimmie Gilmore was playing, and people were just going up to him left and right and trying to bug him, and they had to keep people away from him. Just let him be, you know. He just wants to come out and hear a band."
Well, he could always grow a beard.
"Yeah. It's worked pretty well."
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