A little older and a whole lot wiser, this former poster boy of the Texas country scene now finds happiness singing a brand new tune.
BY RICHARD SKANSE
TEN YEARS removed from the man he was when he released his second album, The Man I’ve Been, Cory Morrow is living proof that sometimes it takes a fall from grace to hit an artistic peak. The odds of his new album, Vagrants & Kings, appeasing his more stubborn old-school fans any more than 2005’s Nothing Left to Hide did are, frankly, pretty slim. But Morrow fans old and new who recognized Nothing Left to Hide as the staggering leap forward in creative maturity that it was will be pleased to hear that Vagrants finds him still moving confidently toward becoming the artist — and man — he wants to be.
Time was when Cory Morrow was the king of the hill on the Texas country scene. He may have shared the title with his Texas Tech chum Pat Green, but back in the heady days of the late ’90s and early 2000s, there was room enough at the top for both of them. Neither Morrow nor Green had the knack for poetry of elder songwriting statesmen like Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver and Robert Earl Keen, but what they lacked in finesse, they made up for with enthusiastic, everyman charm and lots of songs about Texas that went over like gangbusters with party-loving college students across the state. So, too, did the handful of Lloyd Maines-produced CDs both artists released on their own, including one duets album, 2001’s Songs We Wish We’d Written, which hit No. 26 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. After that, Green went on to land a major-label deal, leaving Morrow to pretty much run the shop while a seemingly endless supply of even fresher-faced young troubadours popped up all over the state. Morrow held onto the throne for dear life while Green took all kinds of heat for “selling out,” but an early 2005 arrest for driving while intoxicated (and for having a stash of cocaine in the car with him) knocked him clear off the hill and nearly into the gutter.
Admittedly, there’s a good bit of exaggeration there, but it underscores the dramatic turnaround Morrow made by the time he resurfaced later that same year with Nothing Left to Hide. While some fans wrongly pegged it as a wholesale abandonment of his roots in favor of a slicker, more pop-oriented sound, critics and/or music snobs who had dismissed Morrow (along with many of his Texas country contemporaries) as a Lone Star-cliche-slinging buffoon suddenly sat up and took notice — hearing in new songs ranging from the playful “Good Intentions” to the world-weary “Carnival Ride” the voice of a writer who’d seemingly matured decades overnight. Morrow then puzzled camps on both sides of the “new Cory” divide — and, as he tells us, even his own mother — by releasing Ten Years, featuring re-recordings of some of his most popular songs. But with Vagrants & Kings picking up right where Nothing Left to Hide left off, it’s now pretty clear that the creatively invigorated and very happily engaged Morrow is done looking back.
How surprised were you by the divided reaction to Nothing Left to Hide? Some of your fans seemed to have a hard time with it, but at the same time, some of your harshest critics from the past really liked it. Were you shocked at its reception by either side?
It was my favorite record at the time. But I don’t think it really got the attention I thought it was going to get. The fan base seems to really enjoy it the longer it’s been out; the longer it’s been out, the more positive feedback we get. But it didn’t really do real well right off the bat — or at least not as well as we thought it would.
At the time you were making that record, did it feel like a creative reboot to you?
It definitely felt like it was a step in a new direction. I’ve been writing and doing this for quite a while, and I was always trying to have the music evolve and grow. The sound that I had when I first started writing and first started playing was simple and clichéd and silly and fun, and I didn’t really take myself all that seriously. But as I get older, I see things in a different light, and I feel like that record was exemplary of a growth in my spirituality and my life and my adulthood.
What brought about that “I don’t have to write songs that sound like what people expect me to write” realization?
It gets to a point where … I’m writing for me, and I’m trying to find a sound that I like. I like to listen to Bob Schneider quite a bit these days, and Darryl Scott, and the Waylon Payne record, The Drifter, was a real inspiration to me, too. It’s just a whole ’nother realm of music for me, all this stuff out there that I never knew about before, and it really got me excited and fired up to realize that it’s not all just a two-stepping world. It’s like having a whole other tool to work with. And that’s when I got involved with Keith Gattis, because I found out that he produced that Waylon Payne record, and I started listening to his stuff. I mean, I still listen to my Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard in the CD player, but it’s not as often as I now have my Bob Schneider and my Darryl Scott and my Rodney Crowell in there.
Bob Schneider in particular seems like he’d be an inspiring model, in that he’s a guy who will try anything musically — and he usually seems to get away with it.
Yeah, it’s fascinating. He can make his songs and himself sound like anything he wants. And to me, that’s the shit. That’s it, completely. You talk about music freeing your soul and giving you that feeling; he’s completely personified in what he does. That is the inspiration, that’s the new light for me. And that just opens the door — you can do anything you want; you just open the door and let it out.
I checked out Amazon and LoneStarMusic.com to read customer reviews of your last couple of albums — and Pat Green’s, too — and I noticed that almost every negative review starts out with: “I’m the biggest Cory/Pat fan in the world, but what the hell happened?” That’s usually followed by, like, five question marks and exclamation points, and they wrap up with, “You need to go back to making REAL Texas music!”
[Laughs] Yeah, I’ve seen those things.
Do you know what it is exactly they’re wanting when they say that?
Well, I’ve also had people come up to me and say, “I’ve listened to you since you started, and I love the stuff you used to write and I love the stuff you’re doing now … I can’t wait to see what you do next.” And I guess I try to focus on those comments more than the others. But there are definitely people out there that, you know, they don’t understand any music different from “Margaritaville” or, I dunno, “Lone Star beer in my cereal,” that kind of thing. They want it to always be the same stuff. And it’s unfortunate that you can’t get them to understand that this is still me, but this is a different part of my life. I’m not in college anymore, and I’m not getting shitfaced with my buddies and going to Vegas or tubing down the Guadalupe every day and thinking that’s the greatest thing there is. My eyes are open to new and different things, and I need to evolve and grow and make myself more than what I am and more than what I was. I don’t want to look back and say, “the best years of my life were then.” No, bullshit: The best years of my life are now, and are ahead of me. I guess there’s some people who just don’t see the world that way, and to me that’s unfortunate, but maybe for them, everything’s great. So … I guess I don’t know what they’re looking for.
That said, I can’t imagine your old-school fans not digging Vagrants & Kings’ “All Said and Done.” With all the song names you drop — everything from “L.A. Freeway” and “Redneck Mother” to “Mustang Burn” — it’s practically a love letter to the Texas country scene. It sounds like you’re kind of just having fun with the concept of writing exactly the kind of song some of those fans have asked for — almost like throwing a steak to an angry dog.
[Laughs] Yeah … that’s kind of exactly what we did on that. I brought that tune to Walt Wilkins, Lee Brice and Doug Johnson one day when we were writing together, and they all went, “Uh, we’re not sure about that one.” I said, “I know it sounds kind of silly, but we can make it fun if we make it smart. We can dumb it down a little bit, but we can make it intelligent, too, if we put these songs together and say these things in a really unique way.” So I kind of talked them into it, and we started writing down all the different songs that we all thought were kind of cool and neat. We finished it in, like, 30 or 40 minutes, but it was fun.
Have you played that one live yet?
Yeah. That one seems to be a crowd favorite. And when we do it live … my attempt at scatting at the end, that’s my Bob Schneider influence there. When we were making the record, I went, “Guys, listen to this.” And I played Bob, and said, “That’s how you do it. I sound like an idiot. I don’t know what I’m doing.” And they were like, “No no, it works; you just gotta get in there and give it another shot.” So I gave it another shot, and we kept it; I just went, “fuck it, whatever.” But now when we do it live, I really get after it — I drop down and get that kind of growl sound like he does. And I’ll attempt to do different kinds of things in it, and I’ve actually been getting better at it. I wish we could record it again!
You sound like you’re having a lot of fun throughout the rest of the record, too, even when you’re focusing more on your own faith. Has that always factored into your songwriting somehow, or is that new for you?
You know, most of the time when I make a record, I’ll put it on the shelf and then I won’t listen to it for years. But with this one, I went back and I listened to all my records, and I realized that, since the beginning, there actually has been that spiritual and faithful sense in a lot of the music. Each record’s a reflection of the time that’s passed in my life, like a little autobiography of that period, and this record is a reflection of the last two and a half years. In that time I’ve found what I consider to be my soulmate, my fiancée. And to have her come into my life after all that happened three or four years ago, with the DWI and whatnot, it just helped me find a new strength in my faith and a realization that it needs to be front and center and not left on the back burner. Her family’s actually helped me a lot in that regard, too, and it’s really given me a sense of peace and comfort. That’s why that’s really reflected in the music. I just feel like everything in the world’s going to happen the way it’s supposed to.
Speaking of going back and listening to your old stuff, what did you get out of the process of revisiting your older songs for Ten Years? Were you able to get a good sense of how you’ve grown as a writer?
Every song brought back a memory, of either when I was writing it or what I was writing about and why I wrote it. So for me it was really neat; it was personally very rewarding. And to go back and change them up a little bit, you know, there was stuff where I was like, “This is what I wanted to do back when I made it the first time, but I didn’t know how to express myself musically, or I didn’t know how to speak in a musician’s lingo.” So it was really fun to get to go back and do it. And Gattis, who produced the record, thought that was a neat way to go about doing it, too. But we didn’t really get the response we’d hoped for. In fact, the response was crappy. Nobody really liked it, and I really never got any positive feedback. I mean, it doesn’t matter, because I thought it was fun, right? I mean, it’s just music. But people were like, “You changed it! Why would you do that?” My mother sat there and made a damned analogy about how, you know, “An artist wouldn’t go back and make another rendition of the ‘Mona Lisa.’” I was like, “What are you talking about? Of course they would!”
Wait … even your mother ragged on it?
Yeah! Even my mother. My mother’s my worst critic. I mean, she loves my stuff, but she’ll come right out and say if she doesn’t, just like she’ll come right out and say if she does. So I know where her head’s at all the time. She’ll never bullshit me.
Has she ever told you to go back to making real Texas music?
[Laughs] No, she’s not like that. She likes the new stuff. But she just, you know, it’s the mother in her that wants to make sure that I do well and succeed and don’t make any mistakes. Yet at the same time, she knows I have to be able to make mistakes in order to learn. But it’s hard for her to watch when she thinks I’m going to mess up. I’m like, “Mom, it’s OK if I fuck up, and it’s OK if you don’t like it — all that matters is if I like it.” And she’ll go, “Yeah, I know, but … dammit!” She’s funny. She just wants to protect her boy.
I hope she likes your fiancée. You have a date set yet?
Yeah, it’s going to be in October.
How and when did you meet her?
April 29 two years ago. We were in La Porte, Texas. She had actually never heard of me or Pat or anyone in this genre, never really heard of this genre of music. But her best friend was dating the best friend of my merchandise manager, and I had told my merchandise manager, “We need to get some really pretty girls to be selling our merchandise.” So they called this girl, asked if she wanted to try selling shirts for about $100, and she came down to do that. And at the end of the show, my merchandise manager said, “Is there a rule about not dating the help?” I said, “Yeah, we can’t date the merch girls.” He says, “Well, there’s going to be a problem with this one.” I said, “What did you do to her?” He says, “Not me. But I think you’re gonna like this one.” So I went down there and met her, looked her up and down, and turned around to my guy and said, joking, “You know, you’ve got to stop hiring these homely looking girls, man. We gotta have good-looking women to sell our shit!” [Laughs] But we ended up hanging outside the motel room just, talking until, about 4 or 5 in the morning. And that was it. From there I was hooked.
But how was she at selling T-shirts?
We had to fire her the next day. I gotta stay true to the rule, man! But actually, she did great.