There’s always some artists you can count on. You know they’re not going to cave to the curse or be inconsistent in their creativity. You know they’re going to put their all into their albums so much so that there isn’t going to be a song you want to skip. You know that no matter how long since you last heard them, their lyrics are going to move you and their music is going to make its mark. Jack Ballengee Morris is one of those reliable writers, one of those solid song stewards, one of those consistent kinds.
When I last wrote about Mr. Morris, I said that he was “touching and twangy with a twist,” that “he brings both the sunshine and the rain with him, growing greater and getting stronger with each song.” Although he is no longer boasting a long beard, he still wears his signature hat, and his music hits me with the same feelings. Last time Jack told me that “telling stories are at the root of my songs,” and his roots are still really reliable. “I’m pretty much the same, give or take a pound or two,” he laughs.
His latest release, “West Virginia Refugee,” is his first full LP. The 9 song LP was recorded at OATH Studios in Columbus, Ohio. “I wrote all the songs, words, and music,” he says, at no surprise to me, though he is quick to give credit to others who played a part: “This record also was mastered by Brian Lucey of The Black Keys fame, so that’s a big deal and I was glad to have his ear on the record. We used a lot of drums on the record, I worked with a drummer by the name of Dave Fowler, he is rather a delight to work with and he’s a great drummer.”
About the new music, he describes, “The first recordings I did were really just used to get gigs, just demos to hand out and see if I could get a buzz going, but don’t get me wrong – they were professional and some of the cuts are on this record.” Being that it’s been five years since I’ve promoted Mr. Morris, he tells me what took up his time: “It took a long time to make this record mainly because I had to live it before I could write it, and then I had to write it! So here I am with my record to prove it.” Inspired by “love and loss, traveling, folk music, comedy and music in general,” this LP has been a long time coming.
“Love – what can I say – it’s the greatest, and the lack thereof makes for some great songs. At least in my case it does – some clichés are true, like art comes from pain. I’ve been traveling all my life, it feels like. My dad took me on the road from the time I can remember, and that’s when I first fell in love with this country, so a lot of places show up in my songs. My dad is my biggest inspiration of all – his music is my music, and I wouldn’t even play music if not for him. He’s in my voice, my rhythm, my thinking – we have the longest mentorship ever!”
For Jack, music is a family tradition, as he shares some of his musical memories: “The first song I played in public was “Handsome Molly,” an old folk song about unrequited love. Its my favorite, and I went to my dad and asked him to teach it to me, and I played it for my high school talent show. It changed my life, and we’ve been playing together ever since. Other musicians that I’m inspired by are John Prine – I’ve been a John Prine fan before I knew who he was. My dad was always singing John Prine songs, and I loved them. I bought my first John Prine record when I was 17- it was the live one with the yellow cover like a Sunday funnies drawing – I learned every song on the record, I wore it out!”
“Now my favorite entertainer is Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, he’s the best. My dad sings a song by Hoyt Axton called “The Gypsy Moth,” and in that song there’s a line, “Ramblin’ Jack had a woman he loved but the woman didn’t love Jack back, she took his smile, she took his child, she took everything he had… and everything Jack did got him in trouble,” so I turned to my dad one day and I asked him, “Who is Ramblin Jack?” and he replied, “I’m Ramblin Jack.” I really didn’t understand what he meant until I saw the movie “The Ballad of Ramblin Jack” – it’s a documentary film about Jack and his music, made by his daughter Aiyana Elliott. What a great film, blew me away. To bring it full circle, I figured if Ramblin’ Jack could just go around singing Woody Guthrie tunes, then I could just go around singing John Prine tunes. I’m glad I grew out of it and wrote my own songs!”
Self-reflecting, Jack says, “I always have a line from the first Batman movie – when we first meet Jack Nicholson as the Joker, he says ‘Wait till they get a load of me.’ That’s how I feel sometimes when I think about my music.” Describing how he’s different, not just sonically, but artistically, he says, “I’ve had a great musical tradition that became my life. I don’t know if thought sounds right, but I mean I never had to search for it, the music was always there, all I had to do was grab it.” I hope you all go out and grab a copy of his new LP!