It is fitting that a south of the border gamble nearly two decades ago would ultimately yield an acclaimed Texas troubadour. Cory Morrow’s humble artistic beginnings read like the gritty lyric of an unwritten Townes Van Zandt song. This straight-shooting musician, who drops his ninth solo release Vagrants And Kings on May 20th through Sustain Records, a branch of Universal Music, started strumming at the age of 15.
“My stepfather Joe brought home my first guitar after visiting a little Mexican border town,” Morrow remembers. After quibbling with the shop owner over the price of the guitar, Morrow says Joe laid down $80 on the table, twice what the guitar was worth. “He took out a quarter and asked the shopkeeper, ‘Are you a gambling man?’ The guy said, ‘Yes.’ Joe said, ‘Call it. If it lands on what you call, then you take the money and keep the guitar. If it’s the opposite of what you call, I take the money and the guitar,’” Morrow recalls.
One lucky coin toss later, the six string gained a new owner. Morrow enlisted in music lessons during his high school years, and soon he was banging out songs by Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top. When Morrow moved on to college at Texas Tech University, friends introduced him to the rootsy, honky-tonk fare of fellow Texans Robert Earl Keen and Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Inspired to give expression to his own emotions, Morrow began penning guitar-based compositions in a similarly stripped down, organic style. In 1993, he pulled out of college and migrated south to Austin where he would pursue a career making music. Morrow dug into the local scene. He began playing gigs with a band, honing his songwriting craft and stretching his raw vocals by studying singers like Don Williams and Merle Haggard.
Fifteen years, and thousands of live shows later, Morrow has emerged as one of the lone star state’s best-loved artists. Revered along with college pal Pat Green as a preservationist of the unique Texas music “sound,” which combines elements of country, bluegrass, swing and blues, Morrow inspires a fierce loyalty in his fans. As an independent artist, he moved 200,000 discs through his own WriteOn label.
His latest offering, Vagrants And Kings, finds Morrow at his strongest- artistically, personally and spiritually. Morrow’s rustic sound remains part singer/songwriter: poetic and acoustic at times. But it’s equal parts country rock: accessible, hooky and rowdy in the tradition of outlaws like the Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
Produced with Morrow band bassist Steve Cargill and recorded with the rest of his road crew (Hoyt Stacy on drums, J.J. Soto on guitars, Nick Worley on fiddle and Tim McDonald on keys, as well as Cargill) the 10-track album is an honest representation of Morrow’s artistry, whether in studio or on stage. The interstate warrior, who averages nearly 150 shows a year, tracked the album at his Austin home on a Pro-Tools rig acquired from producer friend Keith Gattis.
Morrow, who wrote or co-wrote every tune along with frequent collaborators Walt Wilkins and Liz Rose, among others, calls Vagrants And Kings a “snapshot” of his life. Notes Morrow, “The passion of the lyrics finally came through in the production of the music. I got to this place where everything made sense, where I was seeing life more clearly. Then the music started flowing.”
Morrow’s last studio offering, the reflective Nothing Left to Hide (2005), highlighted the artist’s struggle through an intense period of soul searching. That batch of songs found Morrow grappling with issues of forgiveness and recovery following his 2005 arrest for what he calls “serious mistakes.”
But Morrow has entered a new season. “Love Finds Everyone,” a candid, buoyant track, sets the tone for the new CD: Even if you think you don’t need it, right when you think you’ll never feel it… Love finds everyone. “When I’m writing music, either I’m healing from the pains and wounds in my life or I’m celebrating the good things in my life,” Morrow says. Songs like the tender “Radiates,” the soulful, harmony-drenched “My Baby and Me” and the whimsical “I Can Wait” pay homage to a burgeoning, transformational love.
And Morrow is unabashedly forthright about the emotions he conveys in his new songs: “Since I met my fiancée, Sherry, the last two years have been amazing. There have been problems that every day brings, but the difference is I get to share it with her, and she gives me perspective. She’s increased my faith, and she’s brought me back to the realization that I don’t have to do things on my own.”
Morrow’s first single, “He Carries Me,” continues the sentiment, albeit directed toward a higher realm. While themes of salvation and redemption are not new in Morrow’s work, on Vagrants And Kings he approaches such weighty issues with the fervor of a true believer. “Lord, You Devil,” a Radney Foster co-write, is a humorous tune offering props to a mysterious, omniscient God. Morrow’s first radio single, the impassioned, gospel-tinged “(Sometimes I Stumble, That’s When) He Carries Me,” perhaps best relays where Morrow has landed in recent days. Says Morrow, “For so long I tried to do it on my own. The thing is, you’re not supposed to do it alone. Why would you want to?”