Let the Theme Reveal Itself: T. Hardy Morris on Grunge, Spontaneity and Small-Town Living

Music Features T. Hardy Morris
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“I was in Nashville for a few days and did some demos. I had a couple of songs that we were calling ‘crunge’—like country grunge? We had the song ‘Drownin On a Mountain Top’ and maybe another one, and we were just kind of laughing about the whole ‘crunge’ thing. And I was looking at the calendar going, ‘I don’t know when I’m going to record this. It’s going to be a while, but, well, I don’t have to worry about anybody else doing it in the meantime.’ And we finally got around to recording here, and, yeah, we were doing those demos maybe a year-and-a-half ago and, still, nobody has done it. So now we’re good.”

T. Hardy Morris is laughing and relating how his new solo album came about. It’s a beautiful blue-sky day in early June, one of the last warm, bright days before the weather breaks into full summer with its soup-thick humidity and soul-melting temperatures. We’re sitting outside the funky neighborhood restaurant White Tiger in Athens, Georgia, his adopted hometown. Morris is propped up on his elbows at our picnic table; he is a lean, angular guy, so thin there’s not a lot to him, but what’s there is both striking and substantial. The same description could easily be pinned on the songs that make up Drownin On a Mountain Top (out June 23).

For those of you who are unaware of Morris—and that should be less and less people as time passes—he is the voice of the dense Southern psychedelic band Dead Confederate, the most interesting voice of the indie supergroup Diamond Rugs, and his own voice in the shape of previous release The Audition Tapes (Dangerbird, 2013), under his own name, and now this new record under the moniker Hardy and the Hardknocks.

His “crunge” description is highly accurate. The opening song ‘Young Assumption’ is a rocker that immediately strikes the ears with its unusual combination of distorted guitar, pedal steel, and huge, contemporary drums. It’s the sound that reigns throughout the 11-song romp, and as striking as it is from the start, it grows on you as it goes.

“The whole grunge thing just went to shit real fast,” he says, while describing his fascination with that musical model. “You know, bands like the Meat Puppets, who had kind of done it before, were doing cool stuff and then Nirvana blew it up. Besides bands like Sonic Youth and a few other lesser-known bands—I don’t know that that sound got explored quite the way it should have.

“What I’ve always liked about it, and the reason I think it works with this, is what was going on with the Meat Puppets being from Phoenix, out in the middle of Arizona, and Nirvana being up in Aberdeen, it was rural music and I don’t think it’s that far off base with a lot of where we grew up in the South. It’s kind of like Southern rock. I kind of wanted to marry those things.”

It is a departure from the more sedate The Audition Tapes, which largely relied on the pedal steel of Matt “Pistol” Stoessel and the keyboards of Thayer Sarrano to create a setting for a group of songs that seemed as if they were trying to make peace with the ghosts of his past—tales of his friends, growing up in Augusta, Georgia, who started down the wrong path and then just went down. Drownin on a Mountain Top, on the other hand, is the sound of a man who has learned to accept himself while rejecting the things that don’t fit his life anymore.

Like many great songwriters, he makes it sound effortless, but that is simply because he doesn’t force something to happen.

“A lot of times lyrically I don’t think about what I’m writing and what the song means until I hear it recorded,” he explains. “I just come up with the riffs and I start writing the lyrics and I don’t hear how pointed they are until I hear it back, and then I go, ‘oh, wow, I said that,’ but I don’t think about it when I’m writing it. A lot of it is just sonic, what fits the song. I’ll kind of come up with a certain place I want to go or a thing I want to write about, and the theme reveals itself when I’m halfway done with the record.”

“The better songwriters learn, hopefully before too much embarrassment, that the complex thought, simply put, is the key to a great song. Distilling that subtle truth down to its very essence and expressing it in a way that cuts through the bullshit and takes the listener by the heart into the depths of the intended emotion,” wrote Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers, while listening to the tracks back in February, in what would become the liner notes for the record.

That is an excellent description of Morris’ process, directly from one of the South’s current master writers. The album features repeated choruses, phrase repetition and first verse repeated at the end—some of the “simple” elements referred to by Hood, which are processes also abused by the inexperienced. In the case of the songs on Drownin On A Mountain Top, they are used in that emotionally engaging, heartfelt way that creates a sense of unity between a songwriter and a larger world of listeners. Simply put, they resonate.

One of the other things that sets this batch of songs apart is the spontaneity with which much of the album was created. There is a fresh, self-assuredness, the work of a man who knows from experience how to do what he does, yet holds true to Flannery O’Connor’s theory of Mystery and Manners: practice what you do, learn how to do, then surprise yourself.

“If you can’t surprise yourself, you are not going to surprise anybody else, that’s for sure,” Morris responds when presented with that idea. “I enjoy that, just going in with the ideas and I might just have one verse and one line of the chorus and we all flesh it out and record it 10 minutes later, and you go, ‘woah! That’s cool!’ Not overthinking it. In the past, when I have tried to overthink it and craft it down more, it just doesn’t work for me. It kind of waters it down.”

“I don’t know anything about Hardy’s actual writing process but he makes it sound as if it just flows out of him very naturally,” Hood says. “It never sounds labored or forced. There’s an almost conversational aspect to his lyrics that I love, and they sound very unified with his excellent sense of melody and his gorgeous voice. Plus he’s a great live performer with a smoking band.”

Morris has, indeed, been lucky enough to attract musicians who are amazing players, but also get what he does, then deliver what he wants.

Case in point, the bridge between Morris’ two solo albums is Matt Stoessel’s pedal steel. “Pistol,” as he’s known in the Athens musical community, is a go-to studio guy for pedal steel and amazing electric lead work. He has played with Will Johnson in South San Gabriel, and is currently a member of David Lowery’s reformulated band, Cracker.

“I’ve been lucky to have worked with a number of excellent songwriters over the years, and Hardy is right there at the top of my list,” Stoessel says. “There’s no bullshit in his writing, and his sense of melody is as beautiful as it is complex. The first time I saw him play solo, I was immediately drawn to his songs and couldn’t wait for a chance to work with him. His songs are one of a kind and being a part of that creative process has been and continues to be a truly fulfilling experience.”

That admiration is mutual.

“I like it when instruments are used kind of out of their comfort zone, and I wanted to keep the pedal steel,” Morris says. “We’re using it, still in kind of a nontraditional sense on the first record, but even more so I kind of wanted to exploit it on this record. But I wanted to keep it because that was the only thing that was tying it with the last record. And I love playing with Matt—he’s been a big part of the solo thing and I needed him along for the ride.”

The album may emphasize a nontraditional mix of elements and lots of amped-up spontaneity, but the centerpiece, literally, sitting in the sixth slot of the 11-song record, is “Starting Gun,” which is also the longest track at 5:17. The song has an anthemic quality, which is driven home with the repetition of “I ain’t never giving back the things I took” and “I ain’t never taking back the things I said,” delivered in a way that tells you Morris isn’t joking around.

“When we play it live, I always mention it, like ‘alright, this is a real song,’” he says, laughing. “It is the song that I had more completely done when I went into the studio. It was one of those like that—when I wrote it, I wrote it. It wasn’t just a riff with ideas; it was a song that really happened. So, yeah, that was kind of a centerpiece song. I wanted some of the record to sound like a good time and have a little bit of that Southern punk rock thing going on, but I really like that song because that’s kind of the main message of the record.”

It is that contrast of various elements and approaches, used to create a greater whole, that defines the album and illustrates Morris’ gift. It is a mixture of diamonds intentionally left rough, and a few allowed a little polish, that keeps the album flowing and going where Morris chooses to take it. And he does make it sound easy, like he’s having a very good time, like he’s relaxing and playing with his concepts. In the title song, he even asks himself “How can you call this a song?”

The answer to that is easy: He has obviously learned by paying attention to a long line of songwriters who have come before him, yet he has the experience and confidence to build on that in a way that is uniquely his own.

“What I like most about Hardy’s songwriting is his uncanny ability to simultaneously channel Neil Young, Merle Haggard and Jagger/Richards, yet it’s always subtle and never overt,” offers his Diamond Rugs bandmate Steve Berlin, a longtime member of Los Lobos as well as an estimable producer and session guy. “To me the last Diamond Rugs record [Cosmetics] is all about Hardy and his tunes. I can’t wait to see where he goes next.”

“I was thinking maybe I’ll do an album called Real Songs,” Morris jokes when asked about the future. Then he tells it like it is: “Pretty much all I can ask for is the ability to record one more time. That’s all I’m ever looking for. ‘Are you going to put it out? Sweet! Can I do whatever I want? Awesome!’ That’s all I really care about. I’ll figure out how to make a little money to pay my mortgage or whatever I gotta do.” He laughs again. “I don’t do it for money, obviously. I would do something far more lucrative if I was living for money.”

“That’s one of the beauties of living in a town this small,” Morris explains, tying back into what has been a repeated theme, throughout the afternoon, of loving Athens, Georgia. “It’s beautiful, it’s dirt cheap—and that is combined with a world-class music scene and nice weather, in a town full of sweet people who do amazing things. I’m from Georgia and I don’t ever plan on leaving.”

Spoken like a man who has, indeed, learned to accept himself.