Singer-songwriter Cory Morrow is poised for country success, but he would rather be its anti-star.
Singer-songwriter Cory Morrow is poised for country success, but he would rather be its anti-star.
Steve Clark

Prodigal Son

When Cory Morrow's emotions overcome him, he takes off in his red '94 Suburban. "When I'm pissed off or even happy," he says, "I just get in the car and drive."

It's a Texas thing.

Well, where else but in the country's second-largest state can you just burn rubber and not run out of territory before you get your thoughts situated? Or before, at least, you get a ticket?

Though Morrow has been beyond state lines recently, the native Houstonian returns to his hometown this weekend. He'll be performing at Fitzgerald's, which marks only his second appearance in town this year. He calls Austin home now, but the 27-year-old has played all over the South. Wherever Morrow goes, he says, he is always writing songs. "I always try to keep a pen or something on me." His two self-released CDs, 1997's The Cory Morrow Band and 1998's The Man That I've Been, have their share of road songs.

Morrow says he does his best writing when he's on the road. Literally. One never can tell, after all, when a good tune is about to happen. As Morrow speeds along in his Chevy truck, the Texas landscape -- its oil derricks and breathless sky and rusty pumps -- unfolds willingly in front of him. It's all inspirational as hell. "If I had lived to travel outside of the state, whatever goes through my head at the time would be different," he says. "Because a lot of what I write has to do with experiences. I've dated strippers before, you know, so that makes a funny song ['Big City Stripper']. A lot of that stuff happened in Texas."

"Sometimes I get a good song in my head," he says. "And I'll just pull over."

The finished product, once Morrow shifts into "park," will eventually be turned into one of his many Texas-style songs, such as "Texas Bound Train" or "Drink One More Round" or "Texas Time Travelin'," which is an episode, set to a skipping beat, of Morrow's cruising in a Cadillac. The automobile becomes his time machine; the distance traveled on the asphalt becomes time. Morrow sings: "We'll go back when time was young / And you learned the trigger of a gun / Or you'd be six feet on your way." Now, that's Texas.

But these numbers aren't "Texas" tunes just because they're filled with lyrics about all things Texas, like guns and money and big attitudes and decent-looking strippers. They're Texas-y because they say Texas in their music. The arrangement of Morrow's sound is straight-ahead C&W, full of lap steels and brushed drums and soft bass lines. It's ice-house-shit-kickin' C&W. "Shania who?" C&W. The type of C&W most Nashville folk have either forgotten about or refuse to listen to anymore.

"People don't write like they used to. I don't know what they're trying to do," says Morrow of the artists coming through Music City nowadays, "but I hate it."

Morrow puts his disdain for Nashville to song in "Nashville Blues," a melodic gripe that appears on The Man That I've Been. Funny thing is, this song would have fit perfectly on KKBQ's rotation. There's nothing exceptionally non-Nashville about it. Even the chorus follows the Nashville tradition of hat-tipping. Morrow sings: "I like George Jones, Willie and Waylon / I think Kris and Merle are songwritin' saviors / Townes Van Zandt, he died too soon." The song is also four minutes long. Almost to the second. Just right for those moments between giveaways or contests or commercials.

Irony is a commodity today. So is a song like "Nashville Blues" an example of what could be called postmodern country, a shot at making it to Nashville by slamming Nashville because a lot of people think slamming Nashville is a cool?

"Lot of people think the only way to make it happen is through Nashville," Morrow says. "But I don't believe that's true.

"And I'm not gonna sell my soul or my rights to make that happen. I want to do it without selling out. And I think I represent the opinion of a lot of people in Texas who believe the music should turn around."

Morrow is old-fashioned, though he understands the things that inspired Hank and Willie and Merle aren't the same things inspiring country musicians, and country folk, today. For one thing, these icons didn't have to worry as much about airplay (or lack thereof). Morrow's Lone Star sound is contemporary but also true to its roots.

"There's a lot of tradition here," in Texas, he says. "People love it and are proud of it. It's all about being a big state. Everybody in the state is proud of it.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is you don't hear other people saying, 'It's as big as Nebraska.' They don't do that. They say, 'It's as big as Texas.'

"Texas is big, and we're proud of it. No other state can make that claim. I don't think other states have that same kind of pride."

Or, at least, Morrow's kind of pride. The cover of his first CD is made up mostly of a large image of the Texas flag beneath a geographical outline of the state itself. Not many people would mistake this record, by the looks of it, for something rap or rock. Which is Morrow's intent.

His no-bullshit Texas style comes from his upbringing. Morrow was born in big Texas's biggest city and graduated from Memorial High School in 1992. Growing up he listened to both kinds of music, country and western. (And a little Led Zeppelin.) Morrow was studying accounting at Texas Tech University when he, like a zillion other Texan co-eds, got hooked on Robert Earl Keen. The versatile country artist turned out to be Morrow's biggest hero.

You can hear it in Morrow's music. The influence of Keen, known for his boozy, whiskey-breath wanderings, comes through on such tracks as "Drink One More Round," which has the potential to be a great closing-time sing-along, "Stayin' Out Late" and even "I'm Not Comin' Home Tonight," which is one of Morrow's strongest tracks. Keen could learn a lot from the way this melody line is written.

While Morrow's melodies and hooks reflect the songwriting abilities of someone much more mature, his lyrical motifs are something else. There's nothing really personal about his songwriting, other than that it almost always comes from a first-person perspective. When a master like Lyle Lovett sings, he makes you believe you're in the presence of his uncle or his preacher or his girlfriend (imagined or real) or whomever else he sings about. The country-ness comes through in the music and in what this uncle or this preacher or this girlfriend does and says. Whiskey or religion or sex aren't the stories in Lovett's music. It's what the people do with them that are.

Nearly 50 percent of the material on Morrow's two full-length CDs is about or includes references to booze. There's "Texas Bound Train," "Nothing I Wouldn't Do," "I Wanna Go Home," "Runnin' Around on Me," "Let It Roll," The Way Things Used to Be," "Nashville Blues," "Stayin' Out Late," "Big City Stripper," "Drink One More Round" and a poem, "Songwriter's Lament." Other popular topics are Texas, romance and redemption.

Life in the country, and specifically in Texas, is a little deeper than a shot glass.

Musically, Morrow's sound is sharp and comes off cleanly, thanks to Lloyd Maines, who produced both records, but his voice is a little strained, which takes some getting used to. It sounds as if Morrow sings from the top of his throat instead of from his belly. And Morrow's band is tight, capable of playing with and against each other. Like when, on "Nashville Blues," Morrow sings, "Bound for Tennessee to outrun the fuzz," a quick little riff on the slide follows, adding just the right down-and-out, I-know-how-you-feel feel. This effect is nothing you haven't heard a million times before, an instrument echoing a singer's sentiment, but it works here.

Joining Morrow on stage for the Houston show will be Ryan Lynch on bass, John Owens on drums, Hayden Vitera on fiddle and Glen Shankle on lead guitar and steel. The time of the show is 9 p.m., but who's to say? Morrow might have a song or two come to him en route and keep working at it till last call. Sounds like a country song.

Cory Morrow performs Saturday, November 27, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. For more information, call (713)862-7580.


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