Hands up, how many music lovers have heard of the New Hampshire folk singer Bill Morrissey? The evidence from the number of Amazon UK reviews of his many albums is none. This reviewer can claim no special insight since it was not until hearing Mark Erelli's new release "Milltowns" that Morrissey's name came into view. Erreli is a touring folk musician from Reading, Massachusetts who has built up a fair following on the live circuit of country clubs in the States and has supported, produced and worked with a range of musicians including Lori McKenna, Josh Rittter and the excellent collaboration with Jeffrey Foucault "Seven Curses". Digging out the music of Bill Morrissey on this new album is an inspired choice as the music contained in "Milltowns" is a country revelation.
When Errelli first met Bill Morrissey he states that "the initial meeting was celebratory, two folkies hanging out all night drinking and trading off playing everything from Mississippi John Hurt and the Beatles, to Gershwin and the Stones. The last time the two saw each other they played on a bill together in Portland Maine. Morrissey was in bad health due to years of drinking, and Erelli accompanied him and helped him through the set" Sadly Morrissey died in 2011 but this album is more than a tribute. It revives songs that deserve to be heard, interpreted by an artist with total empathy and reverence for the music he is taking on. Opener "Birches" is a wintry reflective ode to lover as the couple watch the flames on a fire burn and the narrator observes that "She twirled around the room/And the shadows they saw nothing but a young girl on her honeymoon/And she knew the time it would be short; the fire would start to fade/She thought of heat. She thought of time". Even better is the alternative country of "Night train" a song that begs the question why isn't it a great country classic? Others standouts include the beautiful "23rd Street", the plaintive "Ice Fishing" and the heartbreaking "These Cold Fingers". All the elements seem to come together in the languid "Handsome Molly". This song proves that while Morrissey never had the greatest singing voice he made up for it in masterfully songwriting. He also had a lovely sense of humour, just check out the humorous lines of "Letter from Heaven" not least his wishful confession "And me, I couldn't be happier. The service here is fine. They've got dinner ready at half-past nine. And I'm going steady with Patsy Cline. And just last night in a bar room, I bought Robert Johnson a beer. Yeah, I know, everybody's always surprised to find him here.''
There are times in these songs that you can almost see your cold breath in the November air. Erreli has performed a task of real value in "Milltowns". He takes songs of fundamental worth and often improves them. In turn he highlights the name and music of Bill Morrissey someone who has recently departed but throughly deserves to be remembered.
Review by Red on Black