(A remembrance by KEVIN RENICK)
I really don’t want to write this piece. Doing so is acknowledging that the great, legendary Lou Whitney is gone, and I never wanted to even think about that day. Lou has been such a presence, such a force in sonic artistry, such an omnipresent part of the particular landscape of music I have hung out in and sometimes contributed to over the years, that he seemed immortal, indestructible. Lou has always been around since I became a serious music fan, and he’s been a common reference point for countless musicians I’ve admired. How could there be a world without Lou Whitney? But there can be, and now, sadly, there IS. Because cancer, which he’d been battling for over a year, finally got the upper hand and Lou breathed his last breath on Tuesday, October 7. Like everyone in his inner circle, I am reeling. And I will have to just do the best I can to sum up his importance to me and pay my last respects, since there won’t be a funeral. Lou chose to have his body donated to science.
Master Lou was known for many things. He played bass: tastefully, potently, memorably, anchoring any song like few others could. He wrote songs, and collaborated on many of them. He sang, in a distinctive, character-laden baritone that seemed to put wit and whimsy above any need for emotional catharsis. He produced, and not just literally as Springfield’s most heralded producer, he turned out recordings by countless artists in almost, well, RECORD time. Most of all, Lou inspired, energized, advised, mentored and guided musicians of all genres and ability levels, making them think about and focus on their musical goals in the process. He was a contextualizer and a studio armchair philosopher, and you LISTENED when Lou was talking to you.
I can smile just a little, trying to imagine Lou’s nonchalant attitude about any kind of tributes, and he’d probably fire a sarcastic zinger at me if he knew I was struggling to sum up his importance. He might say something like, “Man, just talk about the music. Don’t bore people by talking about ME!” Well, I’ll talk about the music for sure, but… Lou always downplayed his own importance, and probably spent very little time thinking about how many people loved and revered him. He was too busy recording a zillion artists and “serving the song” in the holy church of rock and roll and roots and other stuff. He was a busy guy, and the Studio in downtown Springfield, Missouri was his lair. Artists of all stripes went in and laid down their musical dreams there, and Lou made sure they sounded their very best. You can read about the countless musicians Lou recorded elsewhere. I just want to find a way to share things on a personal level right now. It’s not easy.
I first became aware of Lou Whitney in 1983 when the Morells’ infamous debut album,SHAKE AND PUSH, somehow made its way to the playlist of a friend at Webster University, where I was in my final year. I think that friend was Tina Carl. We listened to a lot of quirky music, and Tina and I tended to trade off/hip each other to whatever we discovered in the early ‘80s. Tina was from Joplin, and knew that there was at least some interesting music percolating in the Springfield-Joplin region. SHAKE AND PUSH was a goofy, infectious record, a kind of slow burner that eventually got a rave in ROLLING STONE. It featured the song “Red’s,” about a legendary diner in Springfield, and a version of Chuck Wayne’s “Ugly and Slouchy” that made me cackle with laughter. I developed a taste for jokey throw-away songs about this time, as long as the music itself rocked. That was never an issue for the Morells or ANY group Lou Whitney was involved in. Humor always informed the music. A few years later, a group called the Skeletons started to get some press in Saint Louis, and I don’t remember how long it took me to realize that Lou Whitney and the peerless guitarist D Clinton Thompson were at the helm of both the Morells and the Skeletons. But it was kind of a revelation; it made me wonder, who ARE these guys and why are they both in two different bands? And why is this stuff so DAMN good and entertaining? I’d ask that a lot through the years.
Cut to early 1991, when the Skeletons were the backing band for Jonathan Richman at a now-legendary Mississippi Nights show that I was lucky enough to attend (being a Richman fan). Richman was crazily entertaining and weird, a rep he had slowly built over the years, but it was that BACKING band that blew me away. The rhythm section absolutely killed (Bobby Lloyd Hicks on drums and Whitney, who played bass, were a combo that could not be beat), and the backing vocals turned this concert into something way more special than what I was expecting. I particularly remember a catchy song called “Reno,” which was about as infectious as anything I’d heard at the time, and some Skeletons classics like “Hardware” and “30 Days in the Workhouse,” brimming with high energy and choruses that stuck in your mind. I’d learn about half of what I know regarding choruses and call-and-response vocals from Lou Whitney and company, who had a knack for picking songs that featured the best of these musical elements and then TOTALLY making those songs their own. Which brings us to the REAL touchstone moment for me with the Skeletons, their version of Ronnie Self’s “Waiting For the Gin to Hit Me.” Holy crap. From their amazing third album, WAITING, this song provided one of my true hall of fame listening moments, a hysterical, spontaneous, blow you out of the water session with my friends, Ted Moniak and Jon McSweeney, one evening in the early ‘90s. The song was over seven minutes long and celebrated drinking, music itself, the breaking of expectations, the glory of weirdness, the art of complete surrender, and more. It’s a brilliant, brilliant track that seared itself into my consciousness, showing how fearless Lou Whitney, Donnie Thompson, Bobby Lloyd Hicks and Joe Terry could be at their best. This was the point at which “The Skeletons” became part of my new musical DNA. When I was lucky enough to catch later Skeletons shows here and there in Saint Louis, I was always amazed by two things: Their propensity for performing delightfully unexpected covers from the history of popular music (these could effortlessly range from old country standards to stuff like the Monkees and the Beach Boys), and the snappy, peerless rhythm section. Oh, and Thompson’s searing leads, too. At one of these Skeletons shows in the ‘90s, I’m sure I went up to Lou and complimented him on the song selection, though I don’t recall which song or what I said. But Lou appreciated my enthusiasm, and I was glad to express it in person at last. Gradually we got to know each other a little. The Skeletons released their final studio album, NOTHING TO LOSE, in 1997 and soon after seemed to mostly disappear.
But then, the Morells made a surprising comeback. At the dawn of the new century, Springfield’s Dale Wiley launched Slewfoot Records, and the Morells self-titled THE MORELLS was among the initial releases. Featuring most of the original members and a sharper, more overtly rocking sound, this was a real party album and it came out during a time when I was a music reviewer. I raved about the Morells’ latest incarnation, saw them in concert a couple of times, and could feel my adulation for both Whitney and Thompson growing in leaps and bounds. Tunes on the record like “Seven Days Without Love” (which Lou sang), “Hot Rod Baby” (one of Thompson’s finest moments) and another pair of Ronnie Self covers, “Home In My Hand” and “Hair of the Dog,” just had that killer authentic roots-rockin’ vibe that always tended to put a smile on my face. I just loved this stuff, truly. A bad mood never lasted for long if I put on something by the Morells or the Skeletons.
A curious thing happened a couple of years later. Brian Capps, of Springfield’s killer trio, The Domino Kings (whose records were produced in stellar fashion by Whitney, like almost anything else GOOD recorded in town), began doing shows in Saint Louis and beyond as “Brian Capps and the True Liars.” The band included Whitney and Thompson, and alternated drummers between Bobby Lloyd Hicks and Ron Gremp (from the Morells), depending on who was available. The singularly atmospheric Venice Cafe became a regular haunt for the True Liars for a few unforgettable years. This was a magical era in my concert-going life; I hardly ever missed a show by these guys, and they became my absolute favorite country/roots/old time rock combo of all time. With the charismatic and soulful Capps front and center and an expanded catalogue of songs that could on any night include both Skeletons and Morells tunes, these shows were just the best there was for my taste. I danced, I brought multiple friends to the shows, I got to know all the guys much better, and… the music became real THERAPY, because I was experiencing the aftermath of a painful breakup at the time, and somehow this music was the ultimate medicine. I started to learn where all these songs (the covers) came from, listened ever closer to the powerhouse playing of Lou and company, and absorbed truckloads of stellar songcraft that served as a real education. I eventually interviewed both Capps and Lou Whitney (see my piece on Lou, in conjunction with the Morells’ final release, separately, as published in PLAYBACK STL).When it came to comparing these guys to almost anyone else I knew in their genre, well, there WAS no comparison. They were the best, and they ALWAYS made me happy when they played. I will never forget racing out to the dance floor for particular songs they would tend to do; one that Lou always sang was “Nervous Breakdown” by Eddie Cochran. It was ferociously energizing, everything about it. Lou sang the shit out of that song, and the band rocked madly. The stuff great shows are made of…
Well, tragedy was soon to come to my own life, and for a long while, I traded writing ABOUT music for a shot at being a musician and songwriter myself. In the unlikeliest twist of fate imaginable, my song “Up In the Air” landed in director Jason Reitman’s highly promoted film starring George Clooney, and the guys, including Lou, congratulated me. I never truly felt like a PEER exactly with musicians of their calibre; after all, they’d been doing this way longer than me. But we had some different things to talk about now, and the discussions about music and shows, whenever they had time to share with me, became richer and more interesting. I always listened to whatever Lou had to say. He was a funny, irreverent guy and I never knew what he’d say. His aura was fascinating; to me, he always seemed both detached and thoroughly engaged at the same time. He could focus on the details of the performance at hand, but he was a big picture kind of guy regarding music overall. Lou always had a lot of people wanting to talk to him, and other than the time I interviewed him, I never felt right about taking too much of his time. But he made me laugh, and he always had something to share about a particular song or artist. As time went on, Lou only became more and more the “grand old wizard” of music that everyone in Springfield viewed him as. My trips to Springfield increased after 2009, due to finding that a long-lost friend lived there, so I saw shows by Brian, the Domino Kings and Lou’s Combo.com on subsequent outings. These amazing musicians became part of my extended musical family, I felt, even though I had an awful lot to prove to myself to be worthy of being around them. But trips to Springfield were magical, and I always came away with great memories and new ideas about music.
In late 2013, after growing as a musician and self-releasing what I thought was a pretty solid effort, I started thinking about working artistically with Lou and Brian Capps for the first time. I wasn’t sure how that might go, but I had a song called “Down That Endless Highway” which was in a western swing mode, and I thought it would be the perfect song to launch a project with Lou. I tried to book some time with him in early 2014, and the scheduling was difficult. I found out that Lou had health problems, and was not at the Studio as continuously as he used to be. But I didn’t know how bad things were, and I naively started planning a full album, boasting in a blog that I was going to have the great Lou Whitney produce a record for me. In April, finally, we had a session, and I could hardly contain my excitement. My friends, Rick Haegg and Bob Jones, were along to do whatever I needed, Brian brought in his gorgeous standup bass, and Lou drafted Lloyd Hicks to play drums. Things were not as well organized as they could have been and progress was slow, but Lou was patient with me and offered plenty of advice. He had me slow down the tempo of one song considerably, and conferred with Hicks on what the drums should do. We finally ended up cutting two demos, for “Down That Endless Highway” and a personally significant song called “Just Movin’ On.” Each one had a little magic, and I was thrilled to watch these masters at work, and to have my own songs just starting to get the “Lou Whitney treatment.” But Lou was not feeling so great that day, and he cut the session a little short. He promised me we’d resume next time I came down. I should’ve gone back down in May to record again, or June at the latest. I wanted to, I NEEDED to. But my money ran out, I had some terrible stress in my personal life, and I procrastinated. Bad, bad luck. Still, I returned to Springfield in early June for a Domino Kings show, and afterward, Lou told me to come by the Studio for a mix. I watched him do a simple mix of “Just Movin’ On” for me, and he talked openly about his cancer treatments. He also talked openly about music in general, about the Springfield scene, and about the importance of getting the genuine FEELING across in your songs. It was a great time, the only time I would ever be with Lou completely one on one, and I felt grateful. Lou misplaced the mix of “Down That Endless Highway,” or at least he couldn’t find it that day. But I walked out with a nice demo of the other song, and we talked about setting up a date for the next session. I hoped it would be real soon, and I told him I would call him with my calendar in hand to see what might work. Whatever I said, it was sadly going to be the last thing I would ever say to Lou Whitney. And there would be no more magic from him for my dreamed-about recording project…
Many, many artists were lucky enough to work closely with Lou and have their records produced by him. The legacy of Lou’s work is overwhelming; they weren’t kidding when they called him “the Phil Spector of the Ozarks.” When Lou passed, countless musicians posted their recollections of collaborating with him and how supportive and encouraging he was. He wanted every artist to do their best, and he wanted to absolutely do right by them. Although my project was cut prematurely short and I was terribly disappointed by that, in the context of all the music I enjoyed from Lou and the long years of seeing him at work at his craft, perhaps ending my saga by getting to record one or two songs with him myself was a fitting capper. I got to BE IN THAT STUDIO, where so many had recorded before, just one day, in Lou’s last period of activity. Maybe I am one of the last people to start a hopeful album with him, I don’t know. But despite falling short, I was deeply touched by Lou’s knowledge, his wit, his confidence and his involvement in the art of making music. There was a potent energy in the air when you were around Lou, just talking to him or listening to his stories. Other Springfield regulars are far more qualified to talk about all this than me. I was a VISITOR, an evolving artist, a friend to the bands forging my own unique path. But I loved what Lou did for music, how he recorded so many fantastic albums, how he cherished the art of individual songs, and how he kept going and going and going, past the point where it was good for his health. I danced at one final Skeletons show at the Outland Ballroom in early 2013, and Lou was still doing it, rocking it up. When the band roared through my favorite Dave Clark Five song, “Bits and Pieces,” I was in ecstasy. But when I saw that the Skeletons stopped playing their weekly shows there, I suspected something was up. Lou’s performing days were apparently over, and there weren’t going to be too many records finished now, either. Not mine, certainly.
No one is ever “ready” for a musical hero to depart, and it became clear that a lot of Lou’s friends and colleagues were just “waiting” for the day they knew was inevitable. Lou may not have dwelled on it; in fact, he was downright casual about his cancer treatments last time I spoke to him on the subject. But things were only going in one direction, and Lou arrived at his final destination on October 7. It’s a tough, tough loss. Incomprehensible, really. Lou Whitney NOT being at the Studio in Springfield, ready to guide yet more hopeful artists in their next creative project? How could that be? Such is the nature of life, though… and death. Mister Lou Whitney has left a rich legacy behind, a ton of great music for anyone wanting to discover it. I will console myself with all those vibrant, deliriously fun recordings. And I can especially console myself imagining the words of this crusty old legend if I were to dare and be depressive or pessimistic about any of this in his earshot. “Just keep on playin’, man,” I think he’d say. “Try to write songs that stick, with a chorus worth singing along to. And avoid being too pretentious, that gets in the way of a great song.” Lou’s actual words about so many aspects of music are well-preserved; there’s plenty of his wit on the web right now. But no matter what he might say to me or anyone else, the plain, enduring truth was always there in Lou’s words, the knowledge and insight he had earned over so many years, through so many incarnations and sessions. Lou was the Grand Master of the Ozarks, the historian, the overseer, the funny geezer with an answer to everything. The only thing he couldn’t answer was, “When will the story end?” We have our answer now, and it’s time to grieve. But Lou Whitney’s spirit lives on, and any musician who ever spent time around him is different because of it. There may never be another Lou, or one with his vast reach into so many genres, so many lives. But we had the ONE. Thank the Gods of music for THAT…
SOME WORDS FROM OTHERS:
Lou made me a better player, better songwriter and a better person. There were no short cuts when we were recording… He encouraged us to know our parts so well we could cut them in one take. And if ya got something in one take… You would be greatly rewarded with a smile and a witty comment by Lou. He made you feel like your record was the most important thing in the world yet would joke that “people like music but need tires.” I made five records with Lou… I treasure every minute I spent with him. He was my mentor and friend… I’m the luckiest girl in the world for that. I plan to honor him by continuing to make the best damn records I can. – KRISTIE STREMEL
The loss of Lou Whitney weighs heavy on all who knew and loved him. Even though I’m from New York and he lived in Springfield (he called it, “the buckle of the Bible Belt”), we were intimately connected by music and humor. I think of Lou as the “Mark Twain of rock and roll” always ready with a joke or quip for any situation.
Lou grew up in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and experienced the early days of rock and roll as a fan and a musician. He once regaled me with stories about his experiences playing bass for a black R and B band touring the Jim Crow south in the ‘60s. It seems that as the sole white member one of his jobs was to book the motel while the black musicians waited in the bus! We’ve come a long way. Thanks for the memories, Lou. – ANDY (ADNY) SHERNOFF
Lou made you feel right at home in the studio. He brought so much positive energy to recording. He was extremely witty, very wise, and a great musician to boot. I will always appreciate how much he cared and how encouraging he was. Lou was one of a kind. My condolences to family, friends, and the state of Missouri.- EXENE CEREVENKA
It is hard to sum up the humility, generosity, and just plain contribution to humanity that Lou Whitney’s life represents to me. In an attempt, I offer that “his contribution is not about a particular piece of work, rather it’s a celebration of his entire life’s work”. I can only speak to what I perceive as truth. Even though, this truth spans further than the 38 years that I have been on this planet. Every day I am reminded of this as I am struck by my own emotion when another person comes forward with, yet, another deeply personal story connected to my dad. Yes, I refer to him as Dad, even though it is only by marriage that he received this title. But, the degree of depth to which he accepted this title has earned him my unwavering loyalty and respect. He filled the void in some personal aspects of my life that my own father did not. In this way, I am the luckiest guy in the world: To have two dads who lived and breathed music for a living. As a matter of fact, at one time both played in a band together called Count Three (but that’s another story). I would have loved to seen that with my own eyes.
Biggest lesson learned from Lou – I learned humility. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would ask you to hold his award (if you know what I mean) On the contrary, you wouldn’t even know he received one if not for the fact that others who knew this about him would brag on his behalf (myself included). The others I am referring to are the dozens of people whose lives he touched along the way to earning whatever award it was, at the moment. That was the magic of Lou – he somehow found a way to include a person so that they felt a part of his projects to a degree that the pride you felt in his accomplishments became very personal. Love you, Lou – STONEY COTTENGIM
A QUICK SELECTION OF LOU WHITNEY CLASSICS:
RED’S. A rollicking tune from the Morells’ debut album about a famous diner that once graced west Springfield. “It’s a crazy little place where I takes my honey/I feed her real good, it don’t cost much money,” Lou sings over a classic rockabilly arrangement with strutting guitar and bass. You’ll wish you could go there right now, if only it still existed.
SEVEN DAYS WITHOUT LOVE. A quick, jaunty rocker from THE MORELLS; what a gas to hear Lou sing about the mounting stress a dude experiences as each day without a woman passes by. Lou has grit in his voice, and the electricity is palpable.
HAIR OF THE DOG. From the same record, another drinking song by Ronnie Self. Lou lived long enough to inhabit songs like this from the inside out, and there is angst underneath his delivery. A staple of both the later-period Morells and the shows Lou did with Brian Capps.
HOW COME MY DOG DON’T BARK. From THINK ABOUT IT, maybe not the Morells’ most memorable effort, but still fun. This wry and typical half-spoken-word tale of a man whose dog has apparently gotten TOO used to visits from the neighbor to see his wife is the kind of thing Lou could do better than anyone. Lou clearly had fun with such songs.
ONLY DADDY THAT’LL WALK THE LINE. From the Skeletons album WAITING, one of Lou’s absolute finest vocal performances. The Jim Alley tune is a rock and roll powerhouse with blistering guitar work, and the Skeletons pulverized it. Lou loved the song so much he performed it countless times through the years.
PLAY WITH MY MIND. Cornell Hurd wrote this. Who, you say? Well, as sung and rocked within an inch of its life by Master Lou and the Skeletons, it could’ve been written by anyone, but Lou totally makes it his own. A companion piece of sorts to the above.
WAITING FOR MY GIN TO HIT ME. Lou doesn’t sing lead on this, but as one of the Skeletons’ very finest moments, it’s a hall of fame performance by the entire band and they all deserve credit. Belongs on ANY list of the best drinking songs of all time.
COUNTRY BOYS DON’T CRY. A short and lively fiddle-laced song from the third Skeletons CD; Lou actually wrote this one. Probably took him less than an hour, but it’s a smile-inducer that lives up to its title.
MIRTH AND MERRIMENT WITH THE MORELLS (THE “BIG NOISE FROM SPRINGFIELD”)
(The following feature story was originally published in PLAYBACK STL. In 2005, Kevin interviewed Lou as he and the Morells were touring to support the new THINK ABOUT IT album.. The story appears through the courtesy of the publishers.)
If Missouri had a music hall of fame, there’s no doubt the Morells, one of Springfield’s merriest combos, would have been voted in by now. The high-spirited quartet have only released three albums in 23 years (including the brand-new THINK ABOUT IT), but their legacy goes much deeper. Lou Whitney, dubbed the “Phil Spector of the Ozarks” by some, is a wizardly 62-year-old veteran of the recording studio (his Springfield facility is simply called “The Studio”) and has produced dozens of albums over the past two decades. He’s also an exemplary bass player, a wryly funny storyteller and a savvy musical strategist. His partner in rhyme, D Clinton (Donnie) Thompson, is one of the best guitarists in the country not regularly appearing on “Top 100 Guitarist” lists in the national rags. Thompson’s playing is so economical, it’s easy for his abilities to be overlooked by those who expect axemen to be flashy and in your face. But his dazzling bursts of gloriously perfect tones do the six-string mighty proud. Then there’s the affable Ron Gremp, a fine drummer who also makes it look much easier than it is. Newest member Dudley Brown rounds out the quartet on keyboards, and his lively playing can be heard for the first time on the new disc. The Morells debuted in 1982 with the release of SHAKE AND PUSH, which almost immediately became a cult album. The classic song “Red’s” – a memorable bit of inspired Americana with a terrific call-and-response chorus – was an ode to a legendary drive-up hamburger joint on Route 66. Infectious, often cheerfully silly tunes such as “Ugly and Slouchy,” “King of Love” and “Eager Boy” also helped make the album a boredom-slaying delight. In the years that followed that release, Whitney and Thompson played in other configurations, the best-known of which was the Skeletons (with drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks). They served as backing musicians for an amazing variety of artists including Jonathan Richman, Syd Straw, Boxcar Willie, Steve Forbert, Robbie Fulks, John Sieger & NPR’s Michael Feldman, and most recently, hometown comrade Brian Capps (joining them on the current “Big Noise From Springfield” tour). A curious project called Combo.com initiated with singer Kristy McInnis had to be aborted when she suddenly left to pursue other interests. Whitney and Thompson refashioned the tracks already recorded, cut a few more and released the second, self-titled Morells disc in 2001. It was a straight-up classic party record, with nailed-down grooves and a liberal dose of whimsy. This year, the band signed with respected roots label HighTone Records, which released the upbeat THINK ABOUT IT. We chatted with Whitney on his cell phone on the eve of the Big Noise tour, surely the biggest cross-country venture ever for these seasoned veterans. A good place to start seemed to be asking Whitney about his productive partnership through the years with Thompson.
“I met Donnie pretty quickly in the early ‘70s; he was playing in a band called Spillwater Junction,” said Whitney. “Thought he was pretty good. I was in a goofy-ass combo doing top-40 stuff in bars and lounges. We needed a guitar player, so I thought I’d see if Donnie was interested. We always had a little fun together, did a variety of things. You know, when you get along with somebody, you get along!”
Whitney didn’t start out planning a career in music. In fact, things could have gone in a distinctly different direction for him had fate not stepped in. “I graduated from college and majored in real estate,” he said. “There was a large nationwide real estate firm called Stroud Realty, and they offered me a job and I took it. A year later they fired me, cause I didn’t really mesh with the type of corporate interests they were looking for. I was broke and I’d just gotten a divorce, so I just stayed there (in Springfield).”
Whitney’s first project with Thompson to garner attention was a band called the Symptoms, who played a style much closer to the New Wave music popular at the time. That didn’t last long, and pretty soon circumstances led to the creation of the Morells, with Whitney’s ex-wife Maralie along for the ride. How’d the band develop their style of offbeat, often irreverent, rootsy-tootsy party music?
“An incredible fear of boredom,” laughed Whitney. “When we started playing, we used to sit around and make fun of shit – mostly how bad original songs were that bands did. We didn’t ever wanna get caught dead doing that. And there were so many good songs out there. Donnie was, still is, a fan of oddball stuff, and a lot of it demands to be performed. What we were doing was kind of ‘billy,’ if you know what I mean. Fill-in-the-blank BILLY. Party-billy. We’ve all been tested party-rock-proof positive. We cut our teeth by learning a batch of songs that nobody else was doing. And really working on the concept that if you’re tight, well-rehearsed and consistent, things’ll work out.”
In concert, the Morells are likely to pull out a bewildering variety of covers from across the roots, country and rock and roll spectrum. Their records have surprising covers, too – on the new album, we get Morellsian versions of Chuck Berry’s “Nadine,” Duane Eddy’s “Guitar Man,” Paul Revere & the Raiders’ “Ups and Downs” (done to perfection) and a lively version of the Monkees’ “Let’s Dance On,” one of numerous Monkees tunes the boys have been known to do. “When we were on Slewfoot, Dale Wiley said ‘Hey, I’ve got a song I think you guys oughta do,’ said Whitney. “We’ve done Monkees songs in the past live but… that song, he went to the trouble to bring it down. We’d all heard it and sort of remembered it, and we learned it.”
Whitney said the band tends to look for less obvious material rather than major hits to cover, and he rarely disagrees with Thompson’s suggestions. “Donnie’s real good at picking out songs that will fit our thing. I don’t have to think about it. He thinks up a song for Dudley or a song for Rongo (Gremp), songs that we can accomplish. I’m better at talking to the press lunkheads (laughs).”
Their original tunes are a kick, too. On the new record, such numbers as “She’s Gone,” “Get What You Need” and the instrumental “Popbelly” are guaranteed to induce smiles and foot-tapping. The Morells’ aesthetic seems to be to offer slightly eclectic, no-holds-barred entertainment, with a balance of discipline and irreverence. “It’s gotta be fun,” Whitney said. “If people are out dancing and drinking, pouring beer on each other and screaming, that’s more fun than… people NOT doing that. We’re like the band next door, mainly. I don’t know, if everybody in the crowd can’t sit back and say ‘Shit, I can do that,’ then you’re not even playing rock and roll.”
There seems to be a spirit of unity in the Morells missing from many other bands. Hard to imagine any drunken brawls or objects being tossed at each other in the recording studio over “creative differences” with this bunch. “As far as the band, we can’t really do anything else,” said Whitney. “We HAVE to do this! I’m 62 years old, I’ve done nothing but work for myself all my life. I just wanna keep on doing it. I’m pretty lucky to have another shot, to be in a band that a record label’s taking a chance on. That doesn’t happen a lot unless you’re established. We’re not, really, except with guys like yourself with no lives. I’m being facetious. But… for people who care about having fun and listening to music that’s a little bit left of center, it’s a good thing.”
Whitney spends most of his time at the Studio, the little recording facility where he’s been helping area artists put their music to tape since 1993. The four acts on the Big Noise from Springfield tour – the Domino Kings, the Bel Airs, Brian Capps, the Morells – all have new records out produced by Whitney, and he helmed numerous projects before that. “I think the main thing that draws people in is that the rates are attractive and the air’s clean. Lodging is very reasonable. There’s only one other real studio in Springfield that’s on the street, and where all we do here is record.”
Whitney’s a hands-on producer, interested in helping the artists get the most for their money. “I’m one of those guys who can’t keep his mouth shut,” he said. “I’ll give advice to guitar players, or drummers, or singers… anyone. I work with a lot of young bands that aren’t highly skilled professionals yet, but they all wanna learn something. It boils down to a lot of stuff like where you play your strings so they sound better, or when you cut off your note. If they’re self-taught, they just haven’t gotten there yet. But… we try to make it good and tight and professional.”
One of the musicians Whitney’s helped the most is Brian Capps, formerly of the Domino Kings. It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship, as Capps’ constant gigging has given Whitney, Thompson and Gremp the opportunity to play out more than they would have otherwise.
“Playing regularly is a good thing,” said Whitney. “I’ve always tried to keep a playing face on myself when I’m in the studio. I consider myself a bass player, but I’m really a small businessman. I’m a better recording guy, though, when I’m playing. I just feel that way.” Whitney acted as both mentor and collaborator to relative youngster Capps.
“I liked Brian in the Domino Kings days, you know. I love the Domino Kings, but aside from that, I really liked the songwriting that Brian did. When they split up, Brian really wanted to do something, and I encouraged him. I told him I thought he was totally capable and that there’d be a market for it. Donnie and I played on the record. We liked the feel Brian had. He’s a music-loving son of a gun. When we started playing together, I told Brian personally that even though you’re doing country stuff, the fact that you’re a young guy, a young buck with a pretty face and a nice butt, the fact that you’re playing with some codgers who go under the guise of ‘defenders of the song,’ with no resumes to enhance other than trying to make Brian look and sound good, there would be kind of a chemistry there that people would latch onto.”
Indeed that has been the case, as the band have been getting a great response wherever they go. With Capps, the Morells play as “The True Liars,” to avoid confusing audience members who might otherwise show up to see the Morells. Their incredible professionalism and rock-solid backing have helped Capps develop into one of the liveliest acts in the roots music spectrum these days.
“He got a chance to stand out there…you know, it takes a lot of nerve to do that,” said Whitney. “When you’re a bass player in a band and you only sing half the songs, it’s new to you to be out there like that. It’s better if you have someone around that you can count on, that you can lean on, to pick up the slack. And we just kind of performed that function. Brian, he warmed up to it, got his feet wet and just moved right on forward with it.”
It’s doubtful there are many other musicians in the Springfield area with Whitney’s experience and broad perspective. He’s seen a lot of acts come and go and witnessed the enormous potential through the years of the Springfield area itself as a music center.
“The scene in Springfield has way more to do with historic events as opposed to there being more of a talent base,” said Whitney. “There’s plenty of talent, but I don’t think it’s anymore than any place in America. What really got things going is that the OZARK JUBILEE was there – that was a live television show on ABC from 1956 through 1962. It broadcast live out of Springfield every Saturday night across the country. That was an absolutely astounding event for a town like Springfield. You can imagine, those New York guys descended on that town and they were there 26 weeks a year for years. That came out of the fact there was a radio station called KWTO that had a lot of live shows on it, Opry-type shows. And out of that sprung publishing interests, recording interests and people who made money off the music and entertainment business. People came to Springfield to try to get on the OZARK JUBILEE; they’d hitchhike into town with their guitar, thinking they could just go in and audition. It became a destination. All that helped make Springfield a thriving music scene even though a lot of the kids there don’t even know now why the hell they might have a foot up on a town like Columbia or Kansas City, for a town of its size.”
The Morells seem content in Springfield, and they’re all earnest, hard-working musicians. They want this thing to last. And the Morells “brand,” as Whitney referred to it, seems to be the best banner under which to peddle their lively wares. “Unless something happens, as long as it’s making progress and not moving backwards, not repeating itself or becoming a caricature, why change it?” said Whitney. “You can’t just do it to milk a cash cow, and God knows we’re not doing that.” He does hope the HighTone Records situation brings new opportunities and new fans. It’s a heady time to be a Morell, but Whitney knows nothing is guaranteed in this business.
“The ultimate hope would be that people warm up to the record, and respond in a commercial manner and buy it,” he said. “And that it gets some airplay on the stations it fits on, and we could go around and play music. Make a living doing it, you know? That’s it. We don’t need to get rich. Although if we DID, that would be great…”