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At Passim, a song circle of Bill Morrissey’s pals on the anniversary of his passing

Bill Morrissey, the New England singer-songwriter who died at 59 on July 23, 2011.
Bill Morrissey, the New England singer-songwriter who died at 59 on July 23, 2011.

As a guitar-strumming college student in Maine in the early 1990s, Mark Erelli was looking for inspiration. He’d become enamored of the Texas songwriters — Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt. Unable to find Robert Earl Keen’s latest album in his local record store, he ordered it by mail.

On the back cover, Keen was wearing an unbuttoned shirt. Underneath was a concert T-shirt featuring the songwriter Bill Morrissey — a quintessential New Englander.

All at once Erelli realized he didn’t have to seek out material in some exotic corner of the country.

“I don’t have to write about places I’ve never been,” he remembers thinking. “I can stay here and write about the things I love and have known all my life.”


Morrissey, who died of heart failure at age 59, was a distinctive songwriter who specialized in the mundane details of small-town Yankee life. This Friday marks the 10-year anniversary of his death. To mark the occasion, Erelli has assembled a few of Morrissey’s friends and peers — the songwriters Cormac McCarthy, Cliff Eberhardt, and Pete Nelson — to join him for a song-circle tribute at Passim in Cambridge.

McCarthy, who lives in southern Maine, met Morrissey way back in the early 1970s, when both were aspiring musicians attending what was then called Plymouth State College in New Hampshire.

“We were instant friends,” McCarthy says. “Bill knew more about folk music than I did, and I knew more about literature. I often say I traded him James Joyce for Mississippi John Hurt.”

They stayed close, sharing an apartment in Boston as young men. Morrissey, who had an unvarnished croak for a voice and a melodic style that was very much his own, once called to his roommate from another room.

“Come here!” he yelled. “I just had vibrato.”

“He was very dark, kind of craggy and scratchy,” says Erelli. “But he had a real lightness to him as well, a gentleness. And he was a really funny guy.”


A few years after Morrissey’s death, Erelli covered a batch of his songs on an album called “Milltowns.” For the title track, the lone original, Erelli recalled how Morrissey called him “Grasshopper” when they first met, and how he urged the younger performer to sing perhaps his most beloved song, “Birches,” when they shared a stage together in Portland.

“So I sang it like I’d written it/Though I wished you hadn’t asked,” Erelli sings. “I couldn’t shake that feeling/Like something had been passed.”

“It’s so easy for collective memory to fade,” Erelli says. To him, Morrissey was like New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountain, the granite ledges in the White Mountains that collapsed without warning in 2003.

“It’s this immovable thing that one day falls down and is gone,” he says. “It’s the same with Bill — his songwriting felt indelible and durable, and he did too, at least to me. Then one day he’s gone.

“You learn to appreciate the impermanence.”

For the Passim show, the musicians will take turns playing their favorite Morrissey songs and telling stories about him. Each will also play one of his own songs about or influenced by their late friend. McCarthy has one called “The Crossroads,” written after a dispiriting visit to see Morrissey, who was in rough shape.

“In his own whimsical way, he was anti-health,” McCarthy says. Inevitably, it caught up with him.


Morrissey earned a couple of Grammy nominations in the 1990s, a decade that also saw the publication of his debut novel, “Edson.”

“He had ambition, no question,” McCarthy says. “He had some highlights.”

The lasting appeal of Morrissey’s music is mostly a credit to his knack for “monumentally sad, heavy, beautiful story ballads,” Erelli says. But he’s quick to add that the musicians would be remiss if they ignored the humor in his songs.

On “Morrissey Falls in Love at First Sight,” a 90-second lark from his 1984 debut, the singer wants the object of his affection to meet his mother, who “looks like Betty White.”

After Morrissey’s death, Erelli played a gig in Pennsylvania. Morrissey’s brother brought their mother, who did in fact look just like Betty White, Erelli reports.

The lesson? “Nobody is really making anything up,” he says. “We’re surrounded by poetic details. You don’t have to go anywhere.

“You just have to pay attention.”

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.


Featuring Cliff Eberhardt, Mark Erelli, Cormac McCarthy, and Pete Nelson. July 23, 8 p.m. Club Passim, 47 Palmer St., Cambridge. $28-$30, www.passim.org