Interview: The Morrisons, Smoke on a Foggy Highway: The Bluegrass albums of Paul Kelly

The Morrisons
Image Courtesy of The Morrisons

Last night I was witness to something magical. Sitting in a suburban Sydney lounge room while the members of The Morrisons – James Morrison, Jimmy Daley, Iain Tallis and Anna McInerney – treated me to a private a cappella performance of Paul Kelly’s “Meet Me in the Middle of the Air”. To say I had goosebumps is an understatement – I was transported.

Somehow I’d scored an invitation to The Morrisons’ vocal rehearsal ahead of their Paul Kelly tribute show Smoke on a Foggy Highway: The Bluegrass albums of Paul Kelly this Friday. I felt like an intruder – getting a sneak peak of The Morrisons take on some of my favourite Paul Kelly songs before the rest of Sydney. But I was so glad I was there because what I witnessed was pretty special. And it also gave me the opportunity to interrupt the practice and chat to the guys about why the music of Paul Kelly and these albums in particular are so important to The Morrisons.

James Morrison: Jimmy is probably the one who is most into them to be honest. He’s a massive Paul Kelly fan. He gave them to me when we first started the band. I heard him play a bunch of the songs in Bellyache Ben and the Steamgrass boys – they used to play “Our Sunshine” and “Sydney From a 747” in that band. It’s nice take on what’s quintessentially an American style of music and Paul Kelly makes it quintessentially Australian.

Iain Tallis: As far as song writers go he’s as good as it gets in Australia.

JM: And they just sound f**king great. I mean Paul Kelly’s great on them but the whole band…

Anna McInerney: Some of the best bluegrass players in Australia are on those two albums so we’re naturally drawn to them.

Jimmy Daley: It was my idea because I love them. For me as a young person writing music in this genre in Australia he’s the best at it. Writing songs that evoke some kind of feeling about being Australian and it’s very genuine and sincere so it resonates with me just as a person in Australia. And as a musician I admire him for doing something that I’m trying to do as well. And why these two albums? Because I like bluegrass better than I like pop music.

AM: And we’re a bluegrass band.

JD: We couldn’t really do any of the other ones [laughs]

AM: We could try!

JD: These two albums for me represent a benchmark of being able to write good Australian music in an American style. And it’s very good practice learning these songs for our band as well – good singing practice, good playing practice…

GHE: I’m sure it’s good songwriting practice as well.

JD: Yeah, getting deeper inside the songs and finding out more about what makes them so good. Rather than just listening to them getting to know the arrangements intimately as well.

JM: We’ve worked on these songs as a band rather than one of us – Jimmy or I – writing a song and bringing it to the table pretty much done. Everyone’s had a massive amount of input on this and everyone’s had a massive amount to do as well. It’s been a real collective experience which I think has been good for the band as a whole.

JD: I think we’ll be a much better outfit out the other end.

GHE: I feel like “Our Sunshine” has become an Australian standard. You guys do it and almost every Australian bluegrass band worth their salt has a version.

AM: It’s in the repertoire now.

GHE: And “Sydney from a 747” to an extent as well. And there’s a bunch of others.

AM: “Rally Round the Drum”

JM: “Meet Me In The Middle of the Air”

AM: There’s also some amazing singing on both of those albums. Some amazing harmonies – 5 or even more part harmonies. We’re not going to completely be able to replicate that but we’re going to try. It’s just really fun to sing those kind of harmonies as well.

IT: It’s not all straight ahead bluegrass either which is cool. Especially on Foggy Highway.

JM: The majority of the songs on both the albums are bluegrass interpretations of old songs. All of the originals bar one I’d never heard before until we started rehearsing for this and I thought “I want to go back and listen to the original recordings”. And they’re great songs in their own right but those two albums are just brilliant. He’s just captured such a great sound – he’s done it so well.

GHE: It goes to the power of Paul Kelly’s songwriting that his songs can be reinterpreted in various styles including bluegrass.

JM: Yeah, I completely agree with that. But most of all they’re just so fun to play. We love playing Paul Kelly songs but we’ve always been a bit conscious in the band of not playing too many of them.

AM: Apart from the original songs that we do the other covers are pretty much all written by American songwriters, they all come from America. It feels good to be representing Australia and an Australian songwriter and playing songs that are as well written and arranged as the Americans.

JM: What you said before about “Our Sunshine” becoming part of the repertoire of the Australian bluegrass scene is fantastic – if we can have any part of promoting that a bit I think it’s a good thing. Writing about Ned Kelly on “Our Sunshine”, that’s a good story. It’s a heaps better story than John Henry. It’s Ned Kelly! Americans would kill for a story like that! He wore a metal suit and bucket on his head. He was a badass and really well respected guy. One of those great folklore stories. Songs like that should be classics. And not just that song – a lot of them are nice, classic Paul Kelly takes on ordinary situations. Like “They Thought I Was Asleep”, a song about him falling a sleep in the back of his parents car while they have a fight. There’s not anything Australian about that but the way that he writes about it is Paul Kelly which is in turn is Australian.

IT: The imagery in it is always Australian too.

GHE: There’s that great line in “Sydney From a 747” – “Now the red roofs are catching the first rays of the morning sun”. I don’t think a single line has captured Sydney more.

JM: I listen to that song almost religiously almost religiously when I’m flying into Sydney. I lived overseas for a bit and that’s probably when I really got into Paul Kelly. The only songs I really knew of Paul Kelly when I was growing up were “Dumb Things” and “To Her Door” and those really popular ones. Which are great songs but I’d never really listened to too many others until I was overseas. “From St Kilda to Kings Cross” and “Sydney From a 747” are two songs I listened to sitting on a bus from Prague to Amsterdam over and over again.

GHE: A couple of years ago I saw Uncle Bill at JamGrass in Melbourne. I think Gerry Hale might have been the only member of the band left from the Smoke sessions but probably half their set was Paul Kelly songs. And it was so funny looking at the audience because everyone was singing along to all the songs – it made me think that Paul Kelly can be a gateway drug into country music. Someone might see that you guys are playing a Paul Kelly tribute and come because they’re Paul Kelly fans, but leave as bluegrass fans.

JM: I almost thought the opposite. That people who know our band and who are bluegrass fans would come along and only know Paul Kelly in terms of his rock and roll stuff will go away and listen to Smoke or Foggy Highway. When I was first listening to bluegrass I didn’t know that they existed. In the same way it’s a gateway drug for them to realise that Paul Kelly’s the boss. He’s an Australian treasure.

AM: I thought that some people might think that Paul Kelly’s actually playing [laughs]

JM: I hope that people think Paul Kelly is playing [laughs]!

AM: I also thought what you thought, that people would go to the show realising that it’s us playing Paul Kelly but maybe not realising it’s bluegrass. Just saw the name and thought “There’s a Paul Kelly tribute show on, let’s go!”. If they turn up I’m sure they’ll like it.

JM: I know in terms of Jimmy’s songwriting that’s who he aims to be. He absolutely idolises him. He’s been wanting to put on this show since the Steamgrass Boys.

GHE: One question for Jimmy and Anna in particular. For the show, how slavish will you be to the solos and fiddle tunes?

AM: The fiddle tune is going to be as it is. But whatever’s easiest really because there’s not a lot of time to learn two whole albums. Plus both of us have to sing so it’s a matter of trying to fit something in between singing a line and playing a lick. Being able to switch from one to another.

IT: But you are playing most of the cool stuff.

AM: Yeah! If it’s a “line” I’m going to learn it.

JD: You’re not going to learn every single note because obviously there’s a lot of improvising on their albums as well. But the stuff that’s really quintessential, like the solo in “Our Sunshine”, we’ll learn. I’ve tried to learn as much of it to the note as I can. It’s great practice anyway because the playing is awesome.

JM: I think the way we’ve approached it definitely been [Jimmy and Anna] have been the bedrock of learning it as it is and then we tweak it a little bit after then and make it a little bit more Morrison-y. Try to put our own spin on it.

JD: We’re trying to do it as close to the albums as possible but trying to put ourself into it as well.

GHE: That’s the whole point of the exercise.

AM: So there’s going to be bits that are improvised and then like Jimmy said the quintessential bits that wouldn’t be the same song without will be learnt and played.

JM: To perfection

AM: [laughs] That’s right! You won’t be able to tell the difference between us and the record.

GHE: It’ll be perfect!

AM: I guess we’ve also been trying to find out how to make it visually interesting as well because it’s just going to be us for two hours. There’s no support and nothing else to change the dynamics.

GHE: Have you got guest artists or anything?

JM: It’s all us. And it’s the first time we’ve done that – for the Country and Inner Western and the O Brother Where Art Thou? tribute show they’ve been reliant on having artists that will sell tickets. And it’s great playing with friends and all of that but this time we thought we’d go out on a limb and really try to cut our teeth and see how we go doing it ourselves. So far the ticket sales have been really promising and it sounds really good from our rehearsals – it’s going to work. It’s a little bit nerve wracking as well, doing it ourselves. Not being booked for a show as well.

GHE: Putting a show on yourselves.

JD: And the other shows we’re playing our own music that we know really well, so this is challenging to learn a whole bunch of songs that we know to listen to but making them sound good. It’s gonna be so fun. I can’t wait!

AH: I tell you what: we’re going to have to do it again because I don’t want to learn all of these songs just for one night.

GHE: You need to do that classic country thing and release an album – The Morrisons Sing Paul Kelly.

AH: Like Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe.

JM: That’s a good idea!

GHE: The Morrisons Play Uncle Bill Playing Paul Kelly. Are you playing the albums from start to finish? Or are you mixing it up?

JM: Pretty much start to finish.

JD: Give or take a song here or there.

JM: Basically because “Our Sunshine” is a killer opener and “Meet Me in The Middle of the Air” is a killer closer. It’s just the way the albums work.

AM: Who wants to write a set list? It’s done for us.

JM: And some of the stories on them are continuous especially on Smoke. Marriage is a theme that goes through a number of songs.

JD: Marriage, divorce and then murder. And then a couple of songs later still-thinking-about-her-occasionally.

GHE: Are you doing any Paul Kelly songs not from these albums?

JM: We’ve got a few of those up our sleeves.

GHE: All right guys I’ll let you get back to practicing. Thanks so much!

The Morrisons will be playing Paul Kelly’s albums Smoke and Foggy Highway this Friday at The Basement in Sydney. To get your hands on tickets for Smoke on a Foggy Highway: The Bluegrass albums of Paul Kelly visit Moshtix here.

1 Comment

  1. March 27, 2015 at 15:56

    […] “For me as a young person writing music in this genre in Australia [Paul Kelly’s] the best at it. Writing songs that evoke some kind of feeling about being Australian and it’s very genuine and sincere so it resonates with me just as a person in Australia. And as a musician I admire him for doing something that I’m trying to do as well. And why these two albums? Because I like bluegrass better than I like pop music” – The Morrisons chat to Gareth Hugh Evans ahead of their Paul Kelly tribute show tonight. Interview here […]

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