Courtesy / Josh Huskin
This week, singer-songwriter Jerid Reed Morris will self-release his first solo effort, under the moniker Very Old Morris. The record is an EP titled From the Baptist Bookstore – the first in a planned series of three EPs over the next few months. He will celebrate the release by playing a set at Lonesome Rose for Free Week on July 27, the day after the EP drops.
Morris said making his first solo album has been “liberating.”
“Recording on my own time at my own pace takes away the cap on the imagination that comes with working with other peoples’ time.”
Morris has been active in the local music scene for almost 20 years. In that time, his songwriting sensibilities and skills have evolved considerably, and his genre of choice has changed from the emo/indie rock of earlier bands Muldoon (2002–2006) and Stegosaur (2008–present), most notably, to the alt-country/folk of his newer project, El Campo (briefly known as Pillow Talk).
Morris, 37, has settled into family life as a father of three and has dealt with the tribulations of aging and maturing – both the typical and the unexpected.
In September 2017, Morris was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma (with bone marrow involvement). The diagnosis was especially devastating, he said, because his father died from the exact same disease when Morris was just 5 years old.
Over the course of an (ultimately winning) eight-month battle that included months of chemotherapy, Morris said he turned to songwriting to deal with the immensity of the situation, to create something wholly his own, and to reckon with his immediate family as well as his father and the relatives he’s been estranged from since age 17. He ended up with material for a whole album.
After he began to feel well again, Morris got with his El Campo bandmates to record the album Goldun Stair, Meet You There. The album, which was released in February, is less adorned in terms of instrumentation and harmony than the first El Campo full-length – 2015’s Remember – and its lyrics explore the entire experience in richly poetic and unflinching relief.
With his ordeal moving farther in the rearview, Morris said he has consciously sought to retain the sense of both freedom and immediacy that the experience engendered in him at the time.
“When I started feeling better and mortality wasn’t such a sharp instrument pointed at me, I didn’t want to lose the feelings or the prolificness,” he said.
“I’ve wanted to try to ride this feeling as long as I can.”
Morris has continued to use his simple and gently forlorn music and (especially) his evocative lyrics to seek some kind of peace with and understanding of his upbringing.
The result is his most personal and arguably most powerful work yet.
Morris wasn’t born in San Antonio. He was born in Pensacola, Florida, where his father was a draftsman for defense contractors and NASA.
Shortly after his father passed, Morris’ mother, bent on keeping away from his father’s family, decided that she, Morris, and his older brother would follow Morris’ grandfather to San Antonio, where he, a rancher by birthright, a Navy man, and a Baptist fundamentalist preacher, was set to take over a congregation.
That “cult-like” congregation, its severe messaging, and his grandfather, a difficult man with whom he always had a complex relationship, figure heavily in many of the songs Morris has written for El Campo and even more so in these new songs.
The congregation was an Independent, Fundamental, Bible-Believing, King James-Only Baptist Church.
“I like to call them adjective Baptists,” Morris joked.
Then, when Morris was about 12, his mother remarried “literally through mail order” to a Christian fundamentalist man who lived and worked in Alaska.
“The first time she ever laid eyes on him was in the airport, from whence they went directly to the church and got married.”
At 17, Morris – as a means of escape and partly to go with his brother – left Alaska, where he’d been homeschooled for years, for a Bible college in Florida. Within a year, he left the Bible college and moved back to San Antonio. Apart from two short stints in Austin, he has lived here ever since and has remained estranged from most of his family except his brother.
All of these childhood experiences along with the lack of contact with his family, Morris said, have left him feeling “like there are these huge gaps” in his life. He reports feeling the need to reconcile with his past and its characters as a part of his attempts to understand himself and his future.
“I couldn’t feel more different from these people and I really don’t know anything about how they lived at all,” he said of his grandfather’s family.
“I’ve been estranged from my family most of my adult life, so without even trying a lot of my writing tends to be exploring that, trying to understand myself better by understanding them.”
Morris’ grandfather passed away last December, forever dispatching any hope of reconnection or reconciliation.
From the Baptist Bookstore is imbued with the sense of loss and searching, as well as with the cryptic severity of tone, that Morris is left with from his memories.
The four-song EP, which clocks in at a sparse 9 minutes and 52 seconds, begins with the ambling spoken word of “Field Recording, No. 1.” Morris said this poem, about a place called “Cherokee Lunch” and an imaginary figure named Hundred Dollar Bill, was inspired by an oral history that he chanced upon on Ancestry.com, told by one of his grandfather’s brothers.
As in much of the work he creates that’s explicitly about his past and the past of his ancestors, Morris is more concerned with feelings and focal points than with facts or figures here.
The first two of these songs explore aspects of Morris’ grandfather’s life and persona, his lost relationship with him, and a host of rural and fundamentalist Christian images and tropes that he associates with him. The lyrics are somehow precise, sharp even, yet cryptic, full of connotations that call to mind lost people and places.
“’93 Oilers,” the title a reference to a Houston Oilers football team that totally failed to live up to its promise and was ultimately dismantled, is a particularly aching rumination on the “feelings of utter dysfunction but also somehow beauty” that he associates with being uprooted and moved to Alaska.
“Early I knew beauty and pain came in red and blue,” he sings in his haunting and understated tenor.
“The super blood wolf moon; a languid suite of piano tunes; the ʼ93 Oilers; and other stray dogs, who by memory know all the small places the road goes under the railroad.”
Morris will likely continue his work of looking backward to move forward anew long after the third of these three EPs is released.
“This is all a part of who and what I am,” he said, adding that he’s “always had a habit of just putting something out there if I was self-conscious or in turmoil about it.”
“I just put it out there and get some sort of catharsis. Maybe by naming a thing you can take its power away,” he said.