PREVIEW: Grit and deep roots : Gurf Morlix prefers sounds on the rough side

Posted by on 13 August 2008

Mary-Lynn Wardle, FFWD Weekly, July 24, 208


Talent and experience, pedigree and staying power — Austin songwriter and producer Gurf Morlix brings all these things to the Calgary Folk Music Festival. The talent manifests itself in the man’s ability to play almost any instrument; the experience comes from a career that extends back to 1966, when he was 16. The pedigree is blue blood all the way. He’s spent more than a decade as Lucinda Williams’s guitarist, producer and bandleader, as well as playing with, recording or producing Warren Zevon, Mary Gauthier, Slaid Cleaves, Robert Earl Keen, Buddy Miller, Tom Russell, Jerry Lee Lewis and, well, you get the picture. Put those all together, and you can understand Morlix’s staying power.

Listen to any of Morlix’s four albums (plus a new one called Birth to Boneyard, which is an instrumental version of last year’s Diamonds to Dust) and you’ll hear stripped-down tracks caught up in their own rhythm and graced by gritty vocals. Those traits are so common in his collaborators, it’s tough to tell whether Morlix influences the writers he works with, or vice versa.

“I think what I pick up from the songwriters I have worked with has more to do with their approach to songwriting than their sound,” he says. “I finally started to put together all the things all the great songwriters have been telling me all these years. A lot of folks I work with have similar tastes in music, and therefore we may have similarities in style. [Fellow Texas songwriter] Ray Wylie Hubbard came over one time to talk about making records together. I asked him what he had been listening to and he said ‘old field hollers and work songs.’ I said, ‘I’ve been listening to prison chain gang singing.’ It happens like that.”

When not working with artists at his Rootball Studio in Austin, Morlix is on the road or holed up during summers in his Ontario cabin, fishing, reading, chopping wood and writing songs. He doesn’t start recording his material until he has all the songs he wants, and then chunks out the recording a day or two at a time, when he can find the time.

“I can’t write on command,” he explains. “I’m always looking for the spark. It can come from a line in a film or something I read, or in an overheard conversation. Without the spark, I’ve got nothing and I’m wasting my time. If I find the spark, I’ll finish the song. It may not be good, but I’ll finish it as a discipline. I’ve learned not to be afraid to toss songs out if they don’t make the grade. It’s hard if you spend a month, or maybe a year on something, to junk it, but I’ve learned that’s worth doing.”

While songwriting is mainly about inspiration followed by discipline, Morlix says being a good producer is more of a hands-off process. Not that he likes to leave things up to chance — but too much interference, in his view, will hurt an artist’s sound.

“If you don’t have really good songs then you shouldn’t be making an album,” Morlix says. “We’re trying to make art. If an artist has great songs and can deliver them well, then all I have to do as a producer is stay out of the way. A little bit of planning and shaping, of course, but I try to let the songs’ and the artists’ personalities come out. I generally prefer my songwriters a little on the rough side. I like some grit and some deep roots.”