By Rob Patterson
Cory Morrow is a man who needs no introduction to Texas music fans. Along with his college buddy Pat Green, Morrow has led the charge for a generation of new songwriters and music makers, helping build a large and loyal young audience who are devoted to Texas music and the acts that play it. Since dropping out of Texas Tech in 1993 and moving to Austin, Morrow has built a viable career as an independent artist, starting out playing small clubs for a handful of people and now packing some of the biggest venues in the Lone Star State.
Morrow also made news last January when he was arrested in Austin for driving while intoxicated and cocaine possession, a legal situation that still hangs heavily over him. But perhaps adversity might also be his best inspiration, at least if his fifth studio album (and first studio recording in more than three years) gives any indication. Aptly titled Nothing Left To Hide, it represents a great artistic leap forward for Morrow, signaling a new maturity and assurance in his craft. Produced by Keith Gattis, the album features Morrow’s best crop of songs yet recorded with a quality that matches the work of just about anyone out there making Texas and country music today. So even if, for Morrow’s many fans, it’s another album from an old favorite, Nothing Left To Hide also introduces a new Cory Morrow whose music is ready to go national without at all forsaking his Texas roots.
Did you feel like Nothing Left To Hide might be a breakthrough album when you were making it?
It’s a difficult thing to determine when you are in the middle of it, because you never know how it’s going to end up sounding, but while we were making it, I could kind of feel that each song was taking on its own little life. It was really one of the best times I’ve had in the studio. Of course, pretty much anytime in the studio is good. But we were having a great time in there.
How did you come to work with Keith Gattis?
I heard a record by a guy named Waylon Payne and saw that Keith produced it and just loved the sound they got on it. As soon as I heard that album I said, I have to have this guy do my record, there’s just no two ways about. And met him through Waylon and gave him a call back in November and told him I wanted to make a record and wanted him to do it. Once we started talking I knew we had to do it.
What did he bring to the table on this record?
He was really organized and tight in making the budget and stayed within our parameters, and spent a whole lot of time with me asking what I wanted to get out of this record and what I wanted it to sound like, and kind of get the spirit of the music out of me. He was really kind of able to guide everyone and get the grooves right. He brought a lot of vision.
I told him I had about 25 songs to choose from. And he said, “Well, if we’re going to make a record, we’re going to make a whole record. I don’t want to just have a couple of good songs and then some filler.” I told him that was refreshing to hear and that I didn’t want to make a record with any filler either. So we basically got together and started picking everything out, and he was like, “Well, these eight will work.”
I was like, eight? We don’t have a full record yet? He was like, “Nope, you gotta go write a few more songs.” So I went away and wrote three more songs and he was like, “That’s it, we’re ready to go.”
There was talk about a year and a half ago about Radney Foster producing you. What happened with that?
That just never came to fruition. I was with a different manager and he and I split ways. Radney and I wrote a whole bunch of songs together, and when we started talking about the idea of what the record was going to sound like, I never got 100 percent comfortable with the way it was going to turn out. So we decided not to do it and we’re both still friends and there’s no hard feelings. I just don’t think we had the same vision of what we wanted the record to sound like.
So what was your vision for this album?
I really wanted to torque the music up a bit and not have it be a country record and not have any labels on it. I just wanted to have whatever the songs called for be what we played and the sounds that came out of it. I wrote these songs about these different things. And I don’t feel necessarily like I am 100-percent straight-up country anymore, and I just really wanted to get each song to have it’s own little life. And Keith understood what I was talking about, and when I played the songs for him acoustically, we talked about the vision of what each song was going to sound like. I really feel like each song on this album has a different sound than every other song on the album.
It also sounds like you and Keith spent time working on your vocals on the album. Is that what happened?
That was one of the things we worked on and talked a lot about. We both really wanted to capture my natural voice instead of trying to sing it for the record. He wanted me to back off a little bit and have a little more grit and a little more of me in it. It kind of took a little work but I think we finally found it. I’d get in there and sing as hard as I could, and he was like, “That’s real good. But I’m not buying it.” I’m really enjoying what I’ve learned because it gives a feeling to the words and the song, and it makes singing and playing the song a lot more fun when you can work on the subtleties and nuances instead of just blowing it out.
Is there any significance to the title, Nothing Left To Hide?
I would imagine so. I don’t think I did it on purpose. But I think it found itself in there. It was absolutely coincidental, but I really don’t believe in such things as coincidence.
Are you alluding to a recent problem you have had?
Yeah. Everybody’s got to make mistakes in order to learn sometime. I think the whole experience was probably a good thing to have happened, because sometimes for me getting kicked square in the head is the only way that I can wake up and get my ass in gear and start dealing with responsibilities and acting like a complete idiot all the time. It’s a lot of fun to act like an idiot, but it’s not conducive to a successful and healthy life.
Do you have an early memory of when music first grabbed your attention, when you first fell in love with music?
When I was real young, I lived in Houston and my Mom would play KILT with Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson every morning on the radio. And I think when I first started listening to Led Zeppelin — a buddy of mine got me hooked on it in high school — and I started playing guitar and learning how to play some Led Zeppelin songs, that was my first true love right there.
You first started playing on a $20 Mexican guitar your Dad won on a bet in a bar down south of the border. Do you still have that guitar?
Yeah, Pops went down there and walked into a place, and the guy wanted 40 bucks for it. And Pops was like, “Naw, I’m not gonna do that. How about 20 bucks?” The guy said, “Nope, 40 bucks.” So Pops said, “I’ll tell you what: here’s 80 bucks. It’s on the table. It’s cash sitting in front of you. I’m going to flip this quarter. If it lands on heads, you get to keep the 80 bucks and I take the guitar. If it lands on tails, I keep the guitar and I take the 80 bucks with me.” So finally the guy was like, “okay, fine.” So he flipped the quarter and it landed on tails; he picked the 80 bucks up, grabbed the guitar and walked out. I think he went back in and threw a 20 down for him. So essentially my first guitar was won on a coin toss in a border town.
I don’t have it anymore. That’s the sad part. We broke it. I was messing around in my room one day, and it was sitting underneath a really heavy dartboard. And the dartboard fell and just cracked it in two. But I do have a picture of me playing it.
You dropped out of Texas Tech to play music. Isn’t that like what your dad did when he made a bet for that guitar — betting on yourself and laying money on the table?
Yeah, pretty much every time we make a record it’s like laying money on the table. Every time we try to take a step forward, I feel like I’m making a gamble. But you just try to increase the odds and be a little bit smarter each time and make the music a bit better and try to learn and progress and evolve. But I feel like if I’m not putting everything out there, I’m not giving it my all unless I’m risking everything.
If you weren’t doing this, do you know what you might be doing?
You know, I don’t know if I could really handle much else. I sat in on a kind of town hall type meeting last night to get something passed in my neighborhood, and it was an hour and a half of pure hell. I felt like I was back in college. I was so restless; I was just moving around in my chair and coming out of my skin. I was like, man, this is horrible. I can’t believe the things these people are bitching about.
I had talked about wanting to be an English teacher for elementary school or high school. But I really don’t know what the hell I’d do if I weren’t doing this. I’d probably be a surf bum somewhere and write songs anyway.
You’ve got this big pre-release show for fans at the end of the month at La Zona Rosa. You really like giving you fans extra bonuses, don’t you?
If they weren’t out there buying the music and coming to see me play, I really wouldn’t have the life that I’ve got. So I don’t see it as anything more than what they deserve. When I win, I want them to feel like they win too. And it’s been three years since we had a studio album, and they’ve been there supporting me live the entire time since we haven’t had something new. So I just kind of want to give them something back. I’m hoping they’ll get as much out of it as we’re going to put into it because it’s going to be neat night.
And then you’ve got a free Sixth St. show right after it?
That one’s going to be fun. We’ll be on the top of the tattoo parlor right next to the Blind Pig, and they’re blocking the street off from 6-10, so that whole block of Sixth St. won’t have any traffic coming through it for four hours. We’ll be doing the U2/Beatles tribute. We’re not playing every song from the new album that night; we’ll probably play half of them and just do a 45-minute to an hour jam. And let everybody come out and let their hair down on a Tuesday night on Sixth St.
At the pre-release party you’re going to tell the stories behind the songs on the new album. Can you share one of them here?
The “Heart of Fire” song was one that Walt Wilkins and I wrote, it was one of the last three. And Walt came to me with the catch, the hook. And he said, “This needs to be about you and everything you’ve been going through.” We wrote it back in late February and early March, and recent events had been real recent at that point. He just said, “This has got to be about you learning and getting over the hump and growing.” If you read or listen to the words, it alludes to a bunch of different things. “I’ve got a wild and reckless past, I’m always going too fast” — that’s kind of a reference to my speeding ticket issue. I’ve gotten like 20 speeding tickets in a year-and-a-half. So we’re just kind of making fun of me and how I’ll always be able to pick myself up and keep going. We talked on that one about finding the edge, and for me and certain other spirits like me, it takes going to the edge and falling over the edge to find where the balance is. So that’s what that song is all about — finding that fine line you can walk and tripping over it.