Talent, it’s been said, recognizes genius, so if Gurf Morlix took a little time to launch his solo career, chalk it up to the company he keeps. Producing songwriters such as Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Mary Gauthier, and Slaid Cleaves can be hard on a writer’s ego.
“I’ve been writing songs for maybe 35 years, but my songs weren’t as good as the people I was producing records for,” Morlix explains from his Austin home. “You don’t want to put out a record if your songs aren’t good, that’s a mistake. So recently I’ve really tried to raise the bar on the songwriting and see if I could make the songs compelling to people. That’s the goal and I feel like I’m finally getting somewhere.”
That’s no idle boast. The Buffalo, New York native’s latest album, Diamonds to Dust, stands out among his four albums for its plentiful, plain-spoken wisdom and dusty country-folk atmosphere. From the death-row opener, “Killin’ Time in Texas” to the bluesy ode to murdered atheist leader Madalyn Murray O’Hair, “Madalyn’s Bones,” through the title cut, on which he notes, “everything falls apart like it must,” Morlix’s lyrics are fixated on the approaching horizon line.
“By the time you get older and friends start dying more often, it just sort of comes to the front of the mind. I don’t feel that death is anything to be afraid of but I see it more often now,” says Morlix. “I didn’t know that I even had a theme going, but apparently I was writing about the impermanence of things and how fast that goes by.”
He’s been playing music since he was 13, after seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Looking for people to play with, he went from Buffalo to Austin, and finally Los Angeles in the early ’80s. It’s there that he heard some of Lucinda Williams’ early demos and was immediately taken, both by her voice and the strength of her sharply observant songs. He backed her on guitar and produced her first two albums (his first production work) before parting ways during the recording of her long-overdue 1998 breakthrough, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. That led him back to Austin, and a thriving career as a producer and sideman.
This made it easier for him to neglect his solo career until his 2000 debut, Toad of Titicaca. In about 30 seconds, Morlix can tell you whether someone else’s song is good and why or why not, but he’s adrift with his own material. “It’s hard to have that perspective,” admits Morlix, which is why he invited his buddy, fellow Austin songwriter Sam Baker to listen to the 15 songs he assembled for Diamonds to Dust.
“He sat there and listened with his eyes closed to all the songs,” recalls Morlix. “When the songs were finished he turned over to me and said, ‘OK, here’s what you do. You take these songs off. Here’s your sequence, here’s your title, and here’s what your album is about.’ My jaw dropped, he was completely right.”
Baker also suggested he add some female harmonies, which immediately led Morlix to think: Patty Griffin. “She’s just sings like an angel,” he says. “She makes me sound good. I’m just croaking along there on the bottom, and she puts that little lace up there on the top that really sounds great.”
Her bright soaring soprano keys “Blanket,” perhaps the most poignant song, and arguably the album’s centerpiece. It’s dedicated (like the album) to Warren Zevon, for whom Morlix was a sideman for a 1990 tour, and Chris Slemmer, who was a roadie for Lucinda Williams while Morlix backed her.
“I never wondered about how it would be/I wandered the world like I was holding the key/I’m beginning to shiver, I’m beginning to see/If you find a blanket, would you put it on me,” he sings.
This somber, loping elegy features Morlix on acoustic guitar accompanied only by Griffin’s voice. Like a stroll in a graveyard at twilight, the effect is chilling.
“The first couple times I played it, somebody came up and said, ‘Would you sing that song at my funeral?’ and that’s when I knew that I had something,” he recalls. “That was really the turning point in my songwriting, I think. It was the first one that was really compelling to people. That’s the hardest thing to find. You get the spark for the song, then you craft it together, but to have it really strike a chord with people. That’s the goal and it’s the hard part.”
Bouyed by the results of his latest, Morlix began work on a new album after the first of the year. Unlike Diamonds to Dust, which developed in dribs and drabs over several months, Morlix is looking forward to getting as much done as he can right away, with hopes that he can release it by October.
“I have these new songs that I really like a lot. So I would’ve waited two years generally, but I’ve got these songs and I want to play them,” Morlix says, letting out an earthy chuckle. “I’ve narrowed it down to 15 songs, but I haven’t figured `what they’re about` yet. I think we need to bring Sam `Baker` around again.” •
with Sam Baker
6pm Thu, Jan 17
1281 Gruene Rd.