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Sunday
Feb192012

Prop Him Up Beside The Jukebox: Danny Morrison's Blaze of Glory

            Danny Morrison didn’t like me. And that was putting it mildly. I was the new girl, hipster/journalist/opinionista department head from LA, and he was the old school country songwriter/manager with Kenny Rogers, Lee Greenwood and Johnny Paycheck cuts.

             It wasn’t worlds colliding; it was universes exploding.

            “Make it work,” said my sometimes exhausted boss, the always elegant Mike Martinovich with a sigh. “You can do this…”

            So I was on a horrible puddle jumper to Coyote Joe’s in North Carolina to try to get an Electronic Press Kit interview done – with a demi-hostile manager and an equally old school country star named Joe Diffie, who was on the verge of breaking through.

            Nobody disputed that Diffie was the finest honky tonk singer in Nashville, but a lot of what swirled around him made the rest a challenge. During the strip mall, beer joint and return of the mechanical bull revolution, it was a redux of the back-combed chest-hairfarians.

            Did I mention Danny Morrison hated me?

            Arriving with stomach flu, fevered and throwing up, he looked at me, and said, “Why are you here?”

            I couldn’t say  “cause your Cracker Ass perspective is what’s not getting this act over in the real world?” Instead I tried, “This is a very important EPK, we need to get it right. You know, I wrote for The Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone…”

            Danny wouldn’t let me ride over to the venue with them.

            Martinovich said I had to make it work. He didn’t say how.

            Black Irish women take a lot. Humiliate us. Abuse us. Make us suffer. We are stoic. We can take it. We’ll put up with it. But know this: once we’re done, there’s nothing like the wrath of a Black Irish woman done wrong.

            At the venue, the lights were set up. Two chairs were placed. The questions began. The answers were stock, rote. Not special. My stomach churned : Was it the flu? The tension? The fact this interview was sucking?  I didn’t know.

            But the more we muddled, the more my frustration grew. Then I saw Danny out of the corner of my eye snickering. I could read the crawl tape: that big city know-it-all don’t know nothing.

            My blood ran cold. The nausea passed. I was going to kill him.

            He didn’t understand what I was talking about, so he was sure he knew better. Just because you haven’t been exposed or don’t realize, it must not be important. A fatal crime that dooms more artists than anything: ego over questioning to get to a truer, more effective place.

            I was going to kill him. Just as soon as we exhausted any possibility of something interesting being said. That didn’t take long either.

            “You…,” I hissed at the man who looked like a svelte cube. “You…”

            He laughed. Thought it was funny.

            That was his second mistake.

            “Let’s go,” and I dragged him out of the bar room, away from a stunned group of gaffers, Diffie and straggling musicians.

            “What the….” Danny Morrison, redneck seen-it-all’n’done-more was clearly stunned.

            “Let me tell you, you piece of shit,” I snarled. It was a good five or six minute tirade. The usual planks that are either going to be a bridge of understanding or the wall that keeps out OUT! The facts of who I was, where I came from, what I know, but especially who his act was, why he mattered, what wasn’t working.

            “You’ve got easily the best hard country singer since Jones, maybe ever,” I barked. “He can sing like nobody’s business, and he looks like a third tier tacky piece of nothing from some strip mall in Smyrna…

            “And I don’t doubt how much you believe in him, and that may be the only thing we have in common. But just because I don’t look like you or talk like you, that doesn’t mean I can’t help – and if you really give a damn about this act, you better get your head out of your ass and start knowing where your allies are.”

            Danny Morrison was crimson in the face. Looking like a stroke fixing to happen.

            I was right there with him…

            People were trying not to look, but you knew they were.

            I didn’t care. This couldn’t go on, and I was not gonna loose Joe Diffie.

            Then Danny Morrison blinked twice. I think he licked his lower lip.

            Then Danny Morrison burst out laughing. Howling really. Thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Tears seemed to well up behind his glasses, salt’n’pepper curls on his head bobbing from the force of his merriment.

            Like Alice down the Redneck Hole, I wasn’t sure what to think any more. If a Caterpillar with a can of Skoal in one of his rings showed up, I’d know it was all making sense.

            “Come here,” the fireplug said, trying to pull himself together.

            “What?”
            “Come here,” he said again and opened his arms.

            “Seriously?” I was flabbergasted.

            “Yeah,” he said, nodding. Men don’t say they’re wrong, but they know when they’ve missed the mark.

            “For real?”
            “Well, unless you make my change my mind.”
            So, Danny Morrison hugged me – and we laughed about how odd he thought I was. I told him how tacky I thought some of those old lounge lizards were. We laughed at ourselves, the way people miss what’s great for what doesn’t make sense.

            Danny Morrison and Johnny Slate were old school, at a time when old school was already long gone. They were technically out of step, but they knew – especially in that moment – country music the way it existed in lounges and beer joints, where people went to Kiwanis rodeos and 4-H shows, strip malls before they were high end and ubiquitous.

            They were characters. Quick with jokes, quicker with hooks and songs. They loved life, loved artists, loved to push what was possible – and if they weren’t always the most sophisticated, they were open.

            They had a kid with a stringy mullet who had a first album no one cared about that featured “Welcome To The Club” and “Memory Lane,” whose videos was more tragic bad country. Rumor was he’d been signed to Curb as a favor, and Curb was a label where most of the acts were considered jokes.

            There was something about “the kid,” you could see it in the videos if you could see past the hackneyed shooting and clichéd set-ups. Morrison and Slate wanted him on tour, opening for Diffie. Epic Records – Diffie’s label – did not.

            After three #1s from his debut, they wanted to make sure Joe Diffie got broken.

            “You should really look closer at that kid,” I remember saying in the meeting. “This isn’t just nepotism. That kid’s got something. Let him stay, but demand a marker.”

            That kid was Tim McGraw. His next single would be “Indian Outlaw,” and he’d be a superstar by the end of the next single. Danny Morrison and Johnny Slate knew… and whether he was signed as a favor or not, they never treated McGraw that way.

            It was fascinating to watch, before McGraw was a star. He’d sit in their offices, which could’ve been an insurance company as easily – except for the gold records on the walls, and have the easy laughs that pass among songwriters, push to get more attention and take in the advice that was given.

            Even when he was blowing up… When he was being introduced to the director Sherman Halsey for the “Indian Outlaw” clip… the sales kept spiraling upwards and upwards, people like The New York Times Jon Parales reviewing his records… you’d still find him slouched in a chair, laughing and sharing stories.

            They cared the way a favorite uncle cares. It wasn’t just business, it was faith in talent. It was recognizing what music means to people living lives, not a bunch of executives hyping each other about how great their next big thing is.

            They didn’t seem to really care about the hype. They knew they weren’t ever gonna be part of the Rodney Crowell/Rosanne Cash club – though they knew, respected and liked them – and Danny and Johnny were okay with that.

            Because they knew there were an awful lot of people out there just like them: people who had families, had dreams that weren’t winter on the French Riviera. They drove American cars, headed to the Florida panhandle, played cards with their buddies, watched their kids grow up and have kids.

            They even came to see the power in that. After trainers and nutritionists couldn’t slim Joe Diffie down – and my pain at the weekly weight reports had become palpable – I found myself in Martinovich’s office.

            My “Nature versus Nurture” spew hadn’t gove ever well in the Artist Development meeting. When I explained to my boss that a lot of people looked like Joe Diffie, and he could be totemic as their “Uber-Buba,” Martinovich smiled.
            “Write it up,” he said. “Come back and we’ll figure this out.”

            We did. We figured it out. Then Johnny and Danny came over. They got it immediately. Rather than hunking him up, let him be the Superest Bubba of them all. They went back to the office, started shifting their studio notion around. Regular Joe – with its good ole boy validating “Regular Joe,” real life romantic breakdown of Morrison’s “Is It Cold In Here” and the wrenching tribute to dreamers “Ships That Don’t Come In” – was a beachhead.

            Honky Tonk Attitude, which came next, was atomic. “Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox: and “John Deere Green” slammed. A nerve was hit, an audience was born. Platinum went to triple – and there was no looking back. By mining who they all were, an entire nation found the guy who sang their lives.

            They loved when things went well for people. They laughed when things went sideways, not out of spite, but just the recognition of how jacked life can be. They’d fight like Hell for McGraw or Diffie, even the very talented Ty Herndon, whose rocket to superstar imploded after an unfortunate arrest in Dallas.

            It was unconditional with those guys. Once you were in, it didn’t matter.

            They used to take my best friend from when I lived in LA and I to the Palm, Emily, with her heart-shaped face and string of pearls, was the kind of rock girl who was captivated men like Paul Westerberg of the Replacements and Tom Petty. In flexing their big country songwriting credits, it didn’t connect… so they asked what kind of songs she liked, and then listened as she described several Replacement songs, actually finding hillbilly parallels.

            They didn’t care that she wasn’t from their world, couldn’t have cared less about Lee Greenwood or Kenny Rogers. She was my friend, so they knew she must care about music. From there, the rest could be sorted.

            When I left the label, I was still family. “How come you don’t come around?” They’d ask, and mean it. Be thrilled when you’d drop by. Just to hear what was going in your life, to tell you about some new song they’d written or some fishing story of recent vintage.

            Danny Morrison got life. Understood living. Wanted more. Happy with where he was. Figured if life wasn’t a song, it was certainly an incessant string of hooks – and knew enough stories about the rest of the old school, he could keep you in stitches.

            When I think of Danny Morrison now, I think of him laughing. I see him at the Palm in LA, having a steak. I hear him on the phone, asking some question about a showcase that was coming up – or wondering about why “Letterman” doesn’t get that kind of country that appeals to people in the flyover, but not the New York Times.

            Danny Morrison wanted to take care of business. But he wanted to pull a few pranks, tell a few stories. In an odd way, the sudden good-bye almost feels like a prank, but the kind that gets us to tell all those stories… the ones that make us rich, even though we forget to take’em out and think about’em every now and then.

            Funny thing, too. When I heard the news, all I could think was somebody oughta closedown a honky tonk. Prop Danny up and let us all say “Good Bye.” It might not seem the most respectful way to go, but something tells me, he’d have a ball. Maybe in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

-- Holly Gleason

17 Feb 2012