"Bill Morrissey: Writing in Four-Four Time"

by Seth Rogovoy

WILLIAMSTOWN -- April 19, 1996

For years Bill Morrissey has been called the most literary of singer- songwriters, drawing endless comparisons to writers such as Raymond Carver for his acute portraits of small-town people living small-town lives. Now, finally, the "Raymond Carver of new-folk" can be called the "Bill Morrissey of new-folk," because Morrissey joins the neo-realist pantheon with the publication of his first novel, "Edson," out this week in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf.

Morrissey brings to "Edson" -- the story of a Bill Morrissey-like singer-songwriter living in a New Hampshire mill-town -- the same sort of careful attention to detail of character and setting that his songwriting has long been noted for. In his first novel, Morrissey is able to fully realize the world he has been encapsulating so vividly in the space of three- and four-minute songs for the past two decades.

Not that Morrissey has quit his day job. He is simultaneously releasing his newest CD, "You'll Never Get to Heaven," out this week on the Philo/Rounder label. Morrissey will be celebrating the release of both of his new works this Sunday night at 7 with a concert at the Iron Horse in Northampton, where he will perform with his band. Singer- songwriter Lynn Miles is scheduled to warm up the crowd.

"I've been writing fiction for like twenty-five years, but it always took a back seat to the songs," said Morrissey in a recent phone interview from his home outside of Boston. "But I'd never written anything that long. Here I learned to sustain something for the long haul. Songwriting is sprinting the four-forty, and a novel is a marathon."

Morrissey's marathon tells the story of Henry Corvine, a contemporary folksinger treading water in Edson, a fictional mill town not unlike Newmarket, N.H., where Morrissey was based for much of the '70s into the early '80s.

"The book is not a real roman a clef kind of thing," said Morrissey. "The thing with Henry is that he and I have gone through a lot of the same experiences, but we reacted differently. At least I as the author have first-hand knowledge of what he's gone through, and that was very important to me -- that allows me to go into a little more detail than if I were just making it up."

Indeed, one of the book's strongest qualities is its verisimilitude. As he has been doing in song for years, Morrissey keenly captures the rhythms, sights and sounds of blue-collar life in small-town New England. He makes you feel the crisp chill of the winter wind, hear the snow crunching beneath his characters' feet as they walk along the sidewalks, and smell the aroma of cigarettes and booze as they pass their time in bars dreaming and plotting of ways out of a dead-end life. The book also gives the reader a backstage peek at the inner life of musicians and the contemporary-folk world, and even offers glimpses of the songwriting process.

While Morrissey had moved characters around in songs and unpublished short stories for years, he had never before attempted an imaginative work on this scale. "There were questions for me when I was writing as to when I should reveal things," he said. "This was new turf for me. That's where my editor really came in handy."

Morrissey's editor was Gary Fisketjon, whose other high-profile authors include Jay McInerney and Richard Ford. "I always captained my own ship with songwriting, but I was a new kid on the block with fiction," said Morrissey. "I learned so much about writing just from Gary's editing. I never went to college really, so I'd never taken any writing courses. He's like an old-school, Maxwell Perkins-kind of editor, line-by-line editing. We'd have discussions over a single word."

With so much attention being focused on Morrissey's new novel, it would be easy to overlook his new CD. But that would be a big mistake, as "You'll Never Get to Heaven" is a marvelous new effort that retains all the strengths of Morrissey's songcraft while breaking new ground musically.

The disk was recorded in New Orleans, where Morrissey drew on that city's stellar pool of session musicians, including horn players. The influence of the city's culture is felt in a variety of ways on the album, which forsakes the typical, slick folk-pop arrangements for a more moody, evocative ambiance.

"It's still a song-based album," said Morrissey. "We're just bringing in some different spice to the mixture." The spice includes Michael Toles, who was a guitarist with Memphis-based Stax Records, as well as musicians from bands led by Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas and Buckwheat Zydeco. Produced by Scott Billington and Ellen Karas, the album is full of musical surprises: guitars and horns that jump out of the mix, drums and bass that swing like it's Mardi Gras, underlining Morrissey's "quirky vocal mannerisms -- the growling way of accenting certain words, half talking the song." The description comes from "Edson" and is given to Henry Corvine's vocal style, but it might as well be Morrissey talking about his own.

Morrissey has been promoting his recordings with live performances for years. Now that he is an author, he has had to learn to give readings. "I had never done a reading until last week," he said. "I just read the first chapter, but by page two my left foot was tapping. It was just like a gig.

"And what I was glad to find out was just discovering the rhythm of the first chapter. I read my fiction in four-four. It reads well in four-four, but my next book will be a waltz."

This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 19, 1996. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1996. All rights reserved.