The figures passing through Bill Morrissey's songs have been cursed, spent, haunted, pursued and resigned to it all. They drink, a lot, not for the escape but, it would seem, for the craft -- it's what they do best. They are redeemed by a wistful perseverance, or maybe by a love for the only life they've ever known: Drifters in a freightyard in Barstow; a couple at the end of an affair; a snowed-in factory worker missing the night shift; a woman standing outside a prison after visiting hours; a priest who, after a few drinks, hears Jesus laugh in the night; or a cabbie who pulls over to watch "young girls in their first heels step like colts across the square." Morrissey's finest song, and one of the purest narrative songs in the English language, "Birches," is a simple winter's tale of a husband and wife and a choice of kindling: "And she knew the time, it would be short/Soon the fire would start to fade/She thought of heat, she thought of time/and she called it an even trade." His images are as vivid as drops of blood on snow, but they make no effort to teach or explain. They hold too much wisdom for that.
His latest album, The Songs of Mississippi John Hurt (Rounder), earned him a Grammy nomination, but don't let that scare you. Recorded while Morrissey worked on his second novel, Imaginary Runner, Songs sets his checkered, loamy growl against some surprisingly lush New Orleans soul arrangements, and all the wit, loss and lonely gaiety of Hurts' blues floods through. There's no better singer/songwriter on the road today. Don't miss him.