Gurf Morlix – Get to know him
You don’t know me
You ain’t got a clue
No, you don’t know me
But, honey, I know you
— “You Don’t Know Me”, Gurf Morlix
To know Gurf Morlix, let’s start with his name:
“If you were a policeman I might have to give you a different answer,” he admits, “but of course it’s my real name. It’s me; it’s who I am.”
The name came to the man-who-would-be-Gurf when he was 14, a suburban kid of the ’60s living outside Buffalo, New York. Never before (and never since) had a dream awakened him so forcefully, compelling him to search for a pen and paper to write down two words that otherwise meant nothing.
Flash forward to 1977 in Austin, Texas, when the guitarist mentioned the incident to Blaze Foley, the alcoholic saint of a folksinger whose life and death would later inspire Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel”. After Blaze heard the story, he said he’d never call his friend anything but those words from the dream: “Gurf Morlix.” Soon enough, neither did anyone else.
“This magical transformation took over,” continues Gurf, “and I’ve been Gurf Morlix ever since.”
You might well know the name from his tenure of more than a decade riding shotgun with Williams, as her guitarist/producer/bandleader. You may know him from his production work since leaving her band; Robert Earl Keen and Slaid Cleaves are among those who have benefited from his sharp instincts and sense of musical understatement. You might know that his other production credits extend from Butch Hancock to Ian McLagan to the Setters (Alejandro Escovedo, Michael Hall and Walter Salas-Humara), further testimony to the artistic regard in which he is held.
“He’s got some kind of transcendental understanding of this whole musical melange,” says Hancock. “When you’re working with him, music rides so high above anybody’s ego. It’s like he was born knowing all this stuff.”
As familiar as you might be with Morlix, until you’ve heard his solo debut, Toad Of Titicaca, you don’t know him; you ain’t got a clue. In terms of an artistic common denominator, the album shares more with rough-hewn visionaries such as Johnny Dowd (mentioned within the CD booklet as one of Gurf’s faves) or even the late Skip Spence than it does with more typical sideman-turned-frontman projects.
Where so many of those efforts showcase range and chops at the expense of that “vision thing” (thus confirming that the musician is more effective in supporting someone else’s vision), Morlix commits himself to the aural equivalent of open-heart surgery. The result is a risky and revelatory collection, the work of an artist who respects instinct and intuition more than formula and polish — the kind of guy who would take his identity from a dream.
Morlix was encouraged by the success of kindred spirit Buddy Miller, another guitarist/producer who didn’t make an album under his own name for decades, because, as he once explained, “Nobody asked me.” (Miller sings on Morlix’s album, just as Gurf played on Buddy’s.) In Gurf’s case, the asker was Eric Babcock, who started Chicago’s Catamount label after leaving Checkered Past, and who wondered whether Morlix might have an album in him. Morlix wondered the same.
“It’s really funny, because I can listen to anybody’s songs and within 30 seconds I can tell if it’s good or not,” he says. “I don’t have that perspective with my songs. I’d always been writing songs, and then I’d compare them to the songs of some of the people I’d been working with, and I’d say, ‘My songs aren’t any good.’ But musical friends started encouraging me, and I finally got feeling good enough about the songs to do it.”
With former Faces keyboardist (and Austin transplant) Ian McLagan providing an organ bedrock, Morlix’s music mines the seam where roadhouse rock, Southern soul and mountain music share a common source. Though Morlix lacks Miller’s vocal range, the emotional investment he makes in the material has the insistence of a fever dream. The music means all the more to the listener because it plainly means so much to the artist, who refuses to pull his punches with too much musical padding.
“Gurf’s a very rare individual,” says McLagan. “That’s the direction that he’s always going in, that less is more, with a lot of holes and space for the music to breathe.”
“I just wanted to float this album out there and see what happens,” says Morlix. “I would love for other artists to pick up on some of these songs. And I love playing live, which I don’t do as much anymore, though crawling into a van with some people and driving around the country for two months isn’t a totally exciting prospect. It’s great when you’re 22.”
The album represents the latest chapter of a career that began in 1966, when Morlix started playing British Invasion classics and other Top 40 covers in a high-school band called the Plague. He was introduced to country music through the steel guitar on Dylan and Grateful Dead albums.
“I was also really into The Band, and country music was a pretty obvious influence on them,” he says. “And then I heard Hank Williams, and I flipped out. I bought a steel guitar and immediately started steeping myself in George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, all that stuff.”
For a kid who was raised on rock, upstate New York offered little in the way of honky-tonk possibilities, and he found scant encouragement there for fulfilling his ambition of having a band that could go from Pink Floyd to Buck Owens. A drummer friend happened to mention their predicament to Commander Cody and asked where they might find a more conducive musical climate.
“And he said, ‘Austin or Boston,'” remembers Gurf. “Boston was too cold, so we jumped into the car and drove to Austin in 1975, didn’t know anybody and fell in love with the progressive country scene.”
Then as now, Austin was more of a creative incubator than an industry power, and after six years, Morlix felt he’d gone as far as he could there. In addition to playing with Blaze Foley, he’d landed one of the prime gigs in town, as guitarist for B.W. Stevenson (of “My Maria” fame).
“There really wasn’t much more room for me to grow,” he says. “Austin not being a major recording center, I needed to get where there were more professional musicians and people I wanted to work with.”
Thus he moved to Los Angeles, where he spent ten years as one of the integral figures in a roots-rocking, alternative-country (whatever that is) insurgence that encompassed the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, Rosie Flores and others of similar creative drive and ambition. He became a fixture in Williams’ band, while also touring with artists ranging from Michael Penn to Warren Zevon.
“When I’d achieved some level of success, I realized I could live anywhere I wanted, so I moved back to Austin in 1991,” says Morlix. Around the same time, Williams made a similar decision. As her major sounding board and co-conspirator, Morlix had contributed greatly to the triumph of both her 1988 self-titled album and its 1992 follow-up, Sweet Old World; yet their relationship foundered during the five years of on-and-off work on Williams’ next album, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. After completing a version of the album in Austin, Morlix found himself ousted as producer when sessions shifted first to Nashville and then to Los Angeles.
“She’s a great songwriter and I have the utmost respect for that, but there was just a chaos involved in being with her,” he says. “At one point, the scales just tipped, and I said, ‘I don’t need this in my life.’ I haven’t spoken to Lucinda in four years, and I don’t have any plans to.”
Nevertheless, some of the album’s songs might be heard as addressing that rupture. To this listener, at least, spleen-venting material such as “You Don’t Know Me” and “Feel Free” could just as easily concern a professional split as a romantic one.
“Oh, I suppose there’s some of that in there,” he says. “It’s not like I have an ax to grind or I’m looking for a pulpit, but some of that could be read that way.”
There’s no chance of misinterpreting the song that is simultaneously the album’s strangest, funniest and catchiest: “Dan Blocker”, an insidiously memorable roll-call chant of the cast members of “Bonanza”. Morlix wrote it as a 12-year-old at Boy Scout camp — to tease a fellow camper whose name sounded a little like Blocker’s. The irony of its inclusion is that, amid all the darker and deeper fare on the album, this track stands the best chance of getting some exposure.
It’s also, as our family has discovered, infinitely adaptable. To the same tune, we sang the Atlanta Braves pitching staff (“John Rocker, John Rocker, Greg Maddux, Tommy Glavine…”), former Illinois governors (“Dan Walker, Dan Walker, Otto Kerner, Big Jim Thompson”) and the pre-Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls (“Chet Walker…”).
“I know that such a song can turn into an albatross, but it would be great if people loved it,” Morlix says. “It’s got spirit; it’s got humor. It might be the purest song I’ve ever written.”