Visiting planet Gurf has always been an enlightening experience. After all, this Gurf Morlix fellow – Buffalo born, Texas bred – has provided us with countless indelible musical moments in the last 40-plus years: his exemplary guitar and production work with Lucinda Williams; his instrumental accompaniment to artists ranging from Blaze Foley to Warren Zevon; his production of watermark albums for artists such as Ray Wylie Hubbard, Robert Earl Keen and Mary Gauthier – and, since 2000, a series of eight solo records that have a singular worldview and can be both harrowing and heartening, often at the same time.
Now, prepare yourself for “The Soul And The Heal”. Gurf Morlix’s ninth album is another chapter in a songbook that pithily relates the human condition. But though Morlix’s signatures are still present on this masterstroke – lyrics that don’t waste a syllable, instrumentation without a spare note – there is also a hopefulness and vulnerability not always readily evident on his recent releases. The fact that “The Soul And The Heal” is pivotal for Gurf is immediately clear from the striking front cover image of a heart-shaped cherry with its pit exposed, and from the stark title that he says speaks to “the healing of the soul from all the damage we inflict on ourselves”.
It would be too easy to attribute Gurf’s evolution to the fact that in February 2016 he suffered a heart attack while dead stopped in the fast lane, in a traffic jam, on his way to a gig. In fact these new songs were all written before this episode, from which he has fully recovered. But there’s no doubt the emotions stirred by the unexpected December 2014 passing of Gurf’s musical mate, rock keyboard legend Ian McLagan, contributed to the career pinnacle that “The Soul And The Heal” is for Morlix.
The album was recorded at his Rootball home studio. Morlix comes by his musical minimalism naturally: “It’s the way my brain is wired. I like to hear everything clearly.” It’s a solitary sound, different from the sonics he brought to his outside productions – but, as always, it’s anchored by Morlix’s sinewy, expressive guitar. The other constant is drummer Rick Richards – who shares Morlix’s straightforward aesthetic (and whose rhythms Gurf echoes with two foot drums during his almost 100 solo gigs a year).
This batch of songs yields the expected Morlix darkness and humor, but woven between are numbers imbued with a warm light. The call to positive action on “Move Someone,” the mindfulness of “Right Now” and the sensitive finale “The Best We Can” balance this focused collection, an album that manages to run the gamut of emotions without being cloying or obvious.
With “The Soul And The Heal” Morlix continues to create his own singular musical universe, but the yin and yang of his outlook has never been as in sync as it is now, making it even more inviting to join him on Planet Gurf.
Jody Denberg 2017
The Sound of Infamous Integrity
Once, when asked by a promoter for a copy of his biography, Gurf Morlix responded with just two words, “legendary integrity.” He would later admit that his response was perhaps a bit pompous, “but true,” he added. “Well, half true anyway.” The story is a telling one, demonstrating not only Morlix’s directness, which is famous among his musical colleagues – or perhaps infamous, depending on who you ask – but also his dry sense of humor and no-bullshit approach to life, music, and the music business.
Had he sent the promoter a more traditional bio, it likely would have noted that Gurf was born in Lackawanna, New York (near Buffalo), saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, formed a band (in which Peter Case made his stage debut), moved to Austin to escape the cold and play music, befriended Blaze Foley and a bunch of other Austin characters, moved to Los Angeles, worked for more than a decade as Lucinda Williams’ guitarist, band-leader and backing vocalist, produced Lucinda’s acclaimed Sweet Old World and eponymous albums, famously left Lucinda, toured with Warren Zevon, moved back to Austin, produced a number of classic Americana albums you likely own if you are any kind of Americana music fan, played on many more albums you probably own if you fall into that category, got inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame, received the Americana Music Association’s “Instrumentalist of the Year” award, went on to make seven critically acclaimed albums of his own, and then toured the world supporting them. He now continues to play live, produce albums for the artists that move him, and make his own albums. He even goes fishing ever once in a while.
That’s the resume, but it’s Gurf’s integrity, combined his near innate sense of music and how to make it sound not just good, but great, that have attracted so many well-respected artists to work with him over the years – folks like Ian McLagan, Patty Griffin, Robert Earl Keen, Buddy Miller, Mary Gauthier, Tom Russell, Butch Hancock, Slaid Cleaves and Ray Wylie Hubbard, just to name a few. And, oh yeah, he can make nearly any instrument with strings either sing or growl, depending on the needs of the song, like no other musician out there.
Gurf’s eighth album, 2015’s Eatin’ At Me, kicks off with wailing guitars and an annual family car trip to “Dirty Ol’ Buffalo.” Never one to shy away from the gritty side of life, the portrait he paints of the rust belt city of his youth, with its rugged roads and smoky orange air, ain’t pretty, but it’s real and authentic to the core. Unlike the shiny city of today, all polished up with money and a thin coat of paint barely hiding the grease below, “Dirty Ol’ Buffalo” is the kind of place that stays with a person long after they’ve left.
The nine songs that follow on Eatin’ At Me have that same lasting quality and clearly come from a man who looks at life and the world around him, with all its grit and glory, unflinchingly. His songs tell tales of love and regret, happy memories and heartbreak, the kinds of things that stay will with a person, eating away at them, if allowed. What makes the songs unshakable is indeed Gurf’s “legendary integrity,” the authenticity of the characters he introduces, the empathy and fearlessness with which their stories are told, and the care with which the songs are made. No word, no note, is out of place, and like the many well-known and well-loved albums he’s produced and played on, Gurf’s own records are infused with his trademark grit and muddy groove resulting in quality that’s so real, listeners will feel it in their bones. Indeed, it’s the kind of album that stays with a person long after they’ve listened.
–Tiffany Walker 2015