by Jane Roser
Fusing elements of Southern rock, pop and country with a tinge of blues sprinkled in for good measure, The Morrison Brothers Band is putting DC’s country music scene on the map. They’re racking up die-hard fans and critical acclaim for their playful, energetic live shows and insightful, witty lyrics.
Having shared the stage with such iconic artists as Alison Krauss, Tim McGraw, Steely Dan and Maroon 5, the band went on to win first place in the 2009 Mid-Atlantic Songwriting Competition for the opening track off their album Midnight In Virginia. In 2010 they were selected as the Gigatone Songwriter and Performer of the Year. Now, with five prestigious Washington Area Music Award nominations (Wammies) under their belts, including Album of the Year for their third full length album, State Of The Union, The Morrison Brothers Band are poised to have their best year yet.
Lead singer Willie Morrison and his brother, Truman (lead guitar), started the band while they were attending college in L.A.; their first show being at The Roxy. Then in 2008, the Morrison brothers met the Nolan brothers while attending the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest.
“We all wound up watching Derek Trucks’ band,” recalls drummer Matt Nolan, who was attending college in New Orleans at the time, “I was planning on going back to DC for the summer and my brother (Kevin) was still living there. Neither of us were working with any other bands at the time, so we decided to work together. I think that summer we rehearsed 150 times and played twice, but we’ve been together as a band going on over six years now.”
Bassist Dave Benson accompanied the band to a festival gig in Athens, Georgia just to “help with sound and also to play some bass, which turned into having to learn all the songs and being told to ‘just play on everything-it’ll be fine!'” At the end of the trip, Benson became the fifth band member, while rounding out the group is Nashville Star finalist Alyson Gilbert. “There’s no shortage of talent and experience,” says Nolan, “we all bring something different to the table.”
Each member’s diverse background is what sets The Morrison Brothers Band apart from other country rock bands. You can’t really pigeon hole them specifically into that genre of music- they’re so much more encompassing than that. Benson loved Motown and old school, soulful blues music as a kid. Matt Nolan grew up listening to jazz and tries to incorporate those elements into their recordings, while Willie Morrison had more of a country influence; listening to Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam and attending concerts with his dad. “It became a big part of my life, ” says Morrison, “it’s almost impossible not to be inspired when you’re seeing great live music.”
Now based in DC, the band sees their demographic as an advantage. “We’re half-way between New York and Nashville and there’s a lot of places on the east coast that we can easily tour to,” explains Nolan, “plus some of the greatest venues in the country are in DC. There’s just great places to play here.” Benson agrees and adds, “I think there’s a lot of room for country music to grow in DC. During the 60s it was huge in the suburbs. My grandfather told me that he used to drive up to DC to see Buck Owens and other country singers; you wouldn’t expect that here, but for some reason it really resonated with the local audiences.”
Morrison adds, “part of it is the appeal and the idea of having a story in a song that really captures the audience and makes them pay attention. When you can do that, you are able to relate to a person and they can relate to you. That’s a connection that’s normally very hard to make. Country music is a genre that has continued to create songs as stories and is very good at adapting and keeping itself relevant.”
The Morrison Brothers Band has no shortage of talented songwriters able to capture a song’s gut wrenching soul since almost every song is, in one way or another, written as a collaboration. “That’s the interesting thing about the band, ” Nolan says, “with two sets of brothers there’s the general air of honesty and directness, so there’s no shortage of opinions. If one of us thinks that a song we’ve written is strong enough, we’ll bring it to the group and we’ll all try to work on it together- sometimes to finish it, sometimes to refine it- it really depends. I think the common thread amongst the songwriting aspect of our band is that everybody knows when they think they have a good idea and each person is very receptive to that notion and focuses on what the end result is going to be. Some of us write more lyrics, some more music and we all have our different style of writing, but once we’ve passed it around and refined it, that’s when we end up with something that sounds like The Morrison Brothers Band.”
Morrison adds, “when you first take these songs to the group, they’re so raw; it’s just acoustic guitar and vocals, but when I’m writing, I think about what Matt would be doing, which helps a lot, but that only happens when you’ve been playing with someone for a long period of time. And I think that with country music, you have a lot of ways in which you can be very clever. You can use imagery and be poetic, but it’s very honest. I saw this great interview with Sheryl Crow where she mentioned that with country, you don’t have a lot of room to hide. You have to have a story and a theme and it’s got to be something that people can relate to and understand.”
What struck me when I first discovered the Morrison Brothers Band was their penchant for beautifully written, poetic, heartbreaking laments such as “If There’s Love” which speaks of how “love’s battle scars once built bars around my heart. Doing time, numb my mind, left me in the dark. Used to protect myself to keep heartbreak at bay; but walls that stood too tall left me alone at the end of the day.” And then turning around and writing the feel-good, catchy and highly addictive tunes “Easily Pleased” (a song about the simple joys in life, such as PBR and barbeque) and “Little Miss Whiskey”, which combines deliciously sassy lyrics, a killer guitar solo and percussion accompaniment that kicks your ass and your Harley boots to the dance floor: “Little Miss Whiskey, keeping me tipsy, I’m gonna need a chaser all night long. A little bit of crazy, a little bit of Tennessee, singing the words to every country song.”
Lara Supan of Americana band South Rail explains their appeal as such: ” I first happened upon the Morrison Brothers Band when I was listening to bands that had been nominated for Wammy awards this year. I was blown away by their robust harmonies and sharp beats. They remind me of an Americana John Mayer mixed with straight up country-super soulful and catchy.”
The music video for “Little Miss Whiskey” has already racked up well over 11,000 views and I’ll just go ahead and dare you to try watching it only once and see how far you get. “That was a really great process,” recalls Benson, “it was directed by Taylor Morden and filmed at the Mason Inn, then the performance shots were completed at a vineyard in Leesburg. With a song like that, the imagery is very obvious- hot chick, a smoky bar, some sort of dark bourbon whiskey….” Nolan adds, “what’s interesting is that the lyrics are rather transparent, but if you had to communicate it to an audience without the music, would they still get the right impression of this song? We thought about that when choosing shots and adding complexity in some places and clarity in others.”
The Morrison Brothers Band are gearing up for a tour this summer and are already writing new songs that they plan to release as singles instead of on a full-length album, “why wait a whole year for something we could put out in two months?” Nolan says, “our fans are amazing and they’ve supported us all this time, so we want to keep giving them fresh music.”
So shake a tail feather and catch one of The Morrison Brothers Band’s highly entertaining, live-vicariously-in-the-moment, devil-may-care live shows. Then pop in their State Of The Union album for the drive home. You’ll be easily pleased.