By Johnny Griffith
The East Texas music scene is surprisingly diverse once you look past the incorrect assumption that the only two types of bands in the area are country or metal. With the plethora of musicians this area produces, though, it is sometimes hard to stand out in the crowded field of performers. This isn’t a problem Michael Morse has. Born in Tyler, raised primarily in NYC, and now living back in Tyler, Morse is a multi-instrumentalist who embraces the ART side of artist and takes you on a musical adventure of his own making every show. We recently caught up to Michael to get to know him better:
Johnny: So what is your earliest memory of music in your life?
Michael: Music has always been there. I don’t know about the “earliest,” but I have a vivid memory of my mother putting on a record, either a Beatles or Paul McCartney solo album, and watching it spin. That was pretty magical. I was taken to the Oil Palace several times as a small child to see various country singers. Though that music didn’t stick with me, it was my first exposure to live music in general, which became very important to my life in multiple ways.
Johnny: When did you start taking an interest in music as a hobby?
Michael: Music isn’t a hobby, it’s an essential part of life. To me, learning to play an instrument is a natural extension of enjoying music. I think, subconsciously, I always wanted to play the guitar, guitars are just flipping cool. I was too shy to express that though. At age 13, my mother told me I had to learn an instrument, any instrument. There was never any question for me about which instrument, it was always going to be the guitar. Luckily my mother had a nylon-string classical which became mine. I’m very grateful for that push. The obsession snowballed from there.
Johnny: Who were some of your early influences musically and who was an early mentor?
Michael: I have a lot of influences. A lot of typical ones like The Beatles and Bob Dylan, but also some others that may not be so typical. I feel like I have eclectic tastes, and influences can manifest in different ways. Every influence doesn’t come out in every performance. Some of my all time favorites include (but are not limited to) The Velvet Underground, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Violent Femmes, Chuck Berry, Devo, Hank Williams, The Stooges, Buddy Holly, Mississippi John Hurt, Ramones, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, T. Rex, Howlin’ Wolf, The Clash, The White Stripes, The Sonics, Cream, Cab Calloway, David Bowie, Leadbelly, Earl Scruggs, Johnny Burnette, Ukulele Ike, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Pixies, Little Walter, The Band, solo Beatles, The Beach Boys…I could go on and on and on. I love music so much. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a real musical mentor, at least not someone I knew personally. Bob Dylan has probably provided the most inspiration and guidance in a way. He was never content to stay the same for too long. He was able to change and let his songs change with him.
Johnny: Do you have a “style” you feel you fit into?
Michael: I hope not. I’m sure people who have seen me might associate me with a specific genre or two but I try to always include variety. People tend to like to attach labels and group things together that aren’t really the same thing. I play a broad spectrum of American folk. That includes Blues, Old Time, Rock, Punk, etc.
Johnny: Are you primarily a solo act or do you collaborate with other artists frequently?
Michael: I’m primarily solo, though not necessarily by choice. I love to play with other people though I find meeting musicians who share similar views about life/music and how to approach making it can be difficult. An unfortunate fact about musicians is that if you want to keep a band together, you need to be able to pay a band to stay. There’s not enough opportunity to make enough money for me to do that. Drummers are especially fickle. The stool that a drummer sits on is literally called a “throne”. That should tell you everything you need to know about drummers. There is a lovely freedom in playing alone though. I’m free to experiment with tempo and transitions at a whim, which you can’t do with most bands. It’s hard to find other musicians who can click with you in that way.
Johnny: How much of a typical set is originals versus covers?
Michael: That really depends on where I’m playing and for how long. It also depends on whether or not there’s an audience, because unfortunately sometimes there isn’t one, and how they’re responding. If a crowd is not engaging, I’ll start to experiment a little more. I’ll improvise and try out new songs. It’s difficult to get people to listen to a song they don’t know but I feel it’s important for me as an artist, if that’s what I’m supposed to be, to make sure my original work at least gets a chance to be heard.
Johnny: What is your favorite cover tune to do? What is your favorite original?
Michael: I really enjoy playing early Rock’n’Roll/Rockabilly songs. Lately I’ve been stringing a bunch together in a long, fast medley I’m calling “Rockabilly Medley in E,” which features songs by Carl Perkins, Johnny Burnette, Elvis, Bo Diddley, and Buddy Holly. I may keep adding to it, till it gets to the point that I collapse at the end. My favorite original is probably a song called “Hopeless Case.” It’s a pretty simple song about realizing love is inconvenient and resisting the urge to fall into it. It builds to a Bo Diddley beat and ends somewhat abruptly, which always confuses the audience. That amuses me.
Johnny: So speaking of originals, I have to ask what was the inspiration behind “Psychobilly Death Train Blues (in A)?”
Michael: That song is really just an exercise in Rockabilly tropes. Something fun and fast.
Johnny: How was the process of making that album and what did you take from that experience moving forward?
Michael: “A Strange Thing” is more a compilation than a proper album. I was frequently asked if I had CD’s for sale at gigs, so I finally put one together. It’s a collection of some of my folkier songs recorded over a few years, that I thought might be pleasing for people seeing me in my usual acoustic setting. There’s touches of Rockabilly, Blues, even a little classic Country.
Johnny: What can first time listeners expect from a Michael Morse show?
Michael: Energy, speed, dry humor. That stuff is always there, but on occasion I’ll add something different. I play a little banjo sometimes. I recently played a local Jazz Festival where I included a mini set of original ukulele based jazz songs. For that part of the show I performed as a character, a leftover golden age jazz crooner who somehow found himself in the 21st century. I don’t do that often.
Johnny: What was the last song you dialed up to listen to?
Michael: Probably “Hang On To Me” as performed by Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards. He’s most remembered as the voice of Jiminy Cricket, but was a big star in the 20’s/30’s. He was a fireball of a performer and the best scat singer put to record. There’ a great clip of him performing the song in a color short from the 30’s in circulation. It’s sweet and silly.