Frank Morey

Frank Morey
Taps Bygone Years, and the City of Lowell, To Hit His Mark

By Bill Copeland
March 2007

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How does a musician from Lowell get to play at major events like the Chicago Blues Festival and Boston Folk Festival as well as record a CD for legendary Delmark records?

Frank Morey has taken an old blues sound from the beginning of the last century and turned it into something that resonates with today’s fans of blues and folk. This 33-year-old guitarist-singer-songwriter found his own niche by investigating the originators from yesteryear. Despite the fact he has recorded his CDs in the last 10 years, Morey is every nuance an oldies styles blues man.

Drawn toward American roots music by old radio stars like Ray Charles and Chuck Berry, Morey went on to discover more about the singers who influenced his influences.

 "Anything that derives from that kind of music I attached myself to," he said. "I’ve always been in love with Ray Charles’ music. He did so many songs by so many different people that discovering their names and listening to their music later on - it has a domino effect."

Morey is also influenced by his own sidemen. Drummer Scott Pittman plays a vintage pre-war traps kit.

"In Lowell, I’d go over Scott’s house. He used to have an old mono two-track. I did some recording with him. He and a friend of his started a small record company that did one record of a bunch of Lowell songwriters. He used to have this kit that he was building. And I said, ‘You should play that with me sometime.’ He’d been busy in some punk rock bands and a couple of different bands in the Lowell area and Boston area. Once those bands folded, he showed up at a show with his finished kit, and it worked out nicely."

Pittman‘s traps have many unique features. "It’s got some many different nicks to it," Morey said. "And Scott, as a drummer and percussionist, has the ability to sound like more than one guy doing something. He holds a standard beat. He has a bunch of things to hit that honk and indulge."

Morey’s bassist, Andrew Bergman, plays an upright, giving his recordings and performances an extra old Americana wallop.

"I’ve always liked the full sound of the acoustic bass," Morey said. "The double bass seems on record to fill up any hole because it’s such a huge instrument."

Morey draws his audiences from all age groups. Being in his early thirties makes him able to relate to younger and older fans alike.

"It’s probably due to my age, and as my influences go back to the fifties and earlier, I think people hear that approach to the songwriting. I think everything swings around over time. An old sound sounds new to the younger audience when they’re listening to a lot computerized and polished musicians and recording styles. Then when they hear me, it’s kind of natural. The whole idea of an approach to playing it the way it’s written, and recording it the way it’s played. It’s kind of fresh to a lot of the kids nowadays."

Younger people have been exposed to modern punk, which can sound rooted in older American rock-and-roll and rockabilly. Morey‘s old-timey sound would fit right in with that niche. His lyrics of betrayal and cynicism toward authority figures might also close the deal with youth.

"A lot of the punk rock bands have evolved over the years," Morey explained. "It seems that a lot of the modern punk takes more from the rockabilly scene and the fifties rock than it did from The Ramones. A lot of the Boston bands have a really decent rockabilly scene. I think a lot of the kids listening and playing that stuff, we share a lot of the same influences."

Morey’s earliest recordings focused on just his vocal and acoustic guitar. His folkie lyrics and basic arrangements make him attractive to listening rooms and coffee shops. He still likes to hit those quiet listening rooms with their serious, attentive audiences, as well as the more lively nightclubs on his schedule.

"I started off, before I put a solid band together, with a lot of solo shows," the songwriter said. "I think my approach to songwriting has always been guitar as a tool and putting the words together. A lot of the songs are story-based and it just all fit together. A lot of the radio play that I received were stations like WERS’s Coffeehouse, and WUMB in Boston has a folk program. I latched onto it and enjoyed the sound. There are small nuances throughout my records. They always have a few songs that are bare bones, acoustic guitar and vocal."

Morey’s latest disc, Made In USA, has hit number one on XM Bluesville’s "Rack Of Blues" program’s Top 15 per listeners’ request, and it reached into CD Baby’s Top Seller List.

Made In USA lives in a world between blues and folk. He said he was trying to capture with the new release something that came from early solo acoustic blues.

"I think I was trying to get more of a Howlin’ Wolf Band sound with a trio. (Wolf) draws himself from Son House and Charlie Patton," Morey said. "That stuff was about as folk as you get when it comes down to a guy and a guitar. I don’t think it was something I really looked for. It just naturally progressed to that. I put a little more horns on this one, and a little more arrangement to it, but it’s really stripped down to its basic song."

Morey’s song "Freight Train" conjures up an all-American icon, the old locomotives that shuttled goods to other parts of the country. On occasion, though, freight trains carried human cargo known as stowaways. A blues chord Morey bangs out on his acoustic resembles the chugging of a turn of the century choo-choo. Morey‘s fascination with trains goes back to his childhood, and he carried that forward to his interest in songs about trains, and the blues and folk music genres are certainly full of train tales.

"I’ve always had an affinity for trains," Morey said. "When I was a kid; the old Lionel sets I had from a great-uncle. My drummer and I also share a love of train songs. We did a cross-country tour on Route 66. The South Pacific goes right alongside of it at certain points. We just got to talking more about it. I think every folk singer has their train song, from Hank Williams down to Johnny Cash. Every decent songwriter has their own personal song about a train. Whether it was subconscious or conscious, my song came out as well."

Morey‘s "Freight Train" blends the themes of the gospel song "Amazing Grace" and the old black field spiritual "Sweet Chariot." Its simple lyrics talk about waiting a lifetime for that road to glory. The devil makes an appearance early in the first verse, leaving the reader to wonder where this freight train is heading.

"In my song, it was more a good and evil carriage that takes you to heaven or hell," Morey said. "In different folklores there is a kind of chariot that takes you to the other side. In my imagination it became a train."

The songwriter’s wit takes hold in Morey’s "Standing On A Corner."  A drunk shares a street corner with a drug dealer and a prostitute. The hooker suddenly finds religion and has visions of a savior. This annoys the pusher who is also her pimp. A preacher comes along and makes an ambiguous religious statement. Morey, in his lyrics, seems to find the drunk, the pusher, and the prostitute more credible than the man of God. Oddly, this song was inspired by a true incident.

"In Lowell, there was a colorful couple," Morey said. "One time, while I was waiting across the street, I don’t know what their story was. I’ll say the song’s told in real time. So it’s a three-minute experience with this couple that got exaggerated."

Morey brought his preacher into his story at a later time.

"There was an old time radio style preacher one time, and I heard him speaking that line: ‘The problem with the heart of the human is the problem with the human heart.’ I always thought it was funny because it didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to me. But it seemed the point he was forcing was something he was saying for himself rather than for anybody else," the songwriter explained.

One might conclude that Morey writes these songs out of a sense of betrayal. But the songwriter does not possess a cynical view of religion, or of the American dream. Instead, he feels that writing about these incidents and feelings gives him and others a way out of their dour circumstances.

"Blues sometimes is considered sad music, but I’ve always felt the opposite," he said. "I think most performers find the joy through getting rid of that bad feeling. I think it’s similar to anything that seems on the negative or darker side of things. It’s talking about it, or witnessing it, and getting it out where it’s real."

Morey is known to his New England fan base as a former resident of Lowell. While he lived there as a teenager, he moved around Massachusetts so much as a kid that he didn’t spend a lot of time there. In his songwriting, he draws from the image of the city rather than from experience.

"Sometimes when sitting down to write, I may use the image of Lowell because it is such a beautiful city, and there’s so much of it in me, and maybe within the story," he said. "When I’m sitting and writing it might come out a little more."

Morey’s lyrics have a universal appeal. In his song "I Stopped Believing In You Today" he makes the end of a relationship sound equal to losing faith.

His electric guitar sound turns "No Good," a simplistic theme of ruination with one simple verse, into something with fire and grit. His 1960s Sears Sratotone guitar imitates with bluesy notes the rhythm and timbre of his gritty, baritone vocal.

"It’s the idea of the call-and-response," Morey explained. "It’s the idea of the way Lead Belly would play ‘Alabama Bound.’ He’d sing his melody, and then he’d play his melody on the guitar. I think this one just went a little bit further. It was heavy enough to keep it really percussive, but at the same time, keep that simple call-and-response with the vocal and the guitar."

"No Good" also features a very authentic blues style electric guitar, making Morey sound more like one of the original players from the early 1900s, and less like a modern day bluesman.

"It evolved through my writing," Morey said. "I think my approach was very folk, very simple, almost a 50s and 60s Tin Pan Alley style of putting a song together with the open chords and kind of a campfire style folk."

Morey focused even more on the blues when he recorded for Delmark Records.

"I met Bob Chester from Delmark Records. He had made me come into Delmark to do a record. Maybe subconsciously I thought more of the blues. It’s always something that’s been there within the vocal and style of songwriting, and I think that my guitar evolved into playing a little bit more when I started getting a little more electric. I think it just came natural. It’s not much different than my acoustic style of playing. The amplification gives it that Howlin’ Wolf sound - not the style but the sound of the amplifier and the guitar. I think that’s what drew me to that kind of playing; that old sound - the natural sound of a guitar and amp with an amp played too loud. It was unintentional at first. It was just turning an amp up at a show, just trying to get over to the people when we had kind of crappy equipment, and it turned into what that sounds like."

His latest disc, Made In USA, recorded four years after the Delmark Sessions, is a fresh interpretation of a very consistent style from Morey. The songwriter said it is only a matter of growing and maturing as an artist, and he said he let his band come up with their own ideas for the accompaniment.

"This is the most freedom I’ve ever given another musician on a record," he explained. "When I put a band together, I don’t look for the things I want them to do. It’s what I don’t want them to do that really matters to me. When we get into the song and keeping it nice and simply adding the right touches, it really makes the difference. I was pretty simple with past records. With this one, I allowed a little more input. Scott and I have been playing together for six years now. He can read me before I can read me. He adds to a lot of the sound, especially on this record. I really let him go to town with his performing and his style."

Morey only made the one disc for Delmark before going independent again. The guitarist-singer-songwriter had just over a day to record that disc for Delmark.

"We were really plugging in and playing and the sound that we got was the sound we got that day," he said. "There wasn’t really that much thought involved with the production of the record, as it was making sure the songs had all the pieces together. I was playing an old Resonator guitar through an amplifier, trying to make it sound like an electric guitar, and it came out with this really crunchy sound. And I had a couple of acoustics with me as well."

When he isn’t touring the country, Morey can be seen performing at The Plough and Star in Cambridge, and the Terra Blues in Greenwich Village in New York City. These gigs, he said, give him a chance to share his sound with real die-hard fans, and people dropping into Boston from out-of- town, as well as people visiting New York City from outside of the U.S.

"The owners are extremely art-first when it comes to their music series and their poetries," Morey said. "They’re such creative folks. They just want to hear something good or have a cool vibe going on."

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