In life, the moments when “it all comes together” sneak up on you. For singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Mark Erelli, that moment happened one random afternoon in his basement studio. While cutting a few Bill Morrissey songs to work on his recording chops, Erelli ended up recording a profound album that encapsulates his life in music. This September he issues this creative milestone, Milltowns, a loving tribute to his late musical hero Bill Morrissey.
“There are a lot of different themes at play on this album,” Erelli says. “The student carrying on after the teacher is gone; me being the same age now that Bill was when he made my favorite albums of his; the nature of folk music being a passed down heritage; and the fact that this project weaves together my work as a solo artist, sideman and producer.”
Erelli first encountered the music of Bill Morrissey when he was a college student and spotted the famed Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen wearing a Bill Morrissey t-shirt in the liner notes of one of Keen’s records. Erelli grew up in New England, and Bill Morrissey’s music helped legitimize the budding singer-songwriter’s perspective. “Up until then, I thought all the real troubadours were from Texas,” Erelli reveals. “Bill’s songs helped me tap into my own world and experiences and see New England as valid geography for Americana music. From that point on, Bill became one of my biggest musical heroes.”
Milltowns opens with a sweetly weary version of Bill Morrissey’s classic “Birches,” and 12 songs later closes with the title track, an original Erelli penned for his mentor. Erelli says: “Milltowns chronicles the first time I met Bill and the last time I saw him.” The two songwriters’ initial meeting was celebratory, two folkies hanging out all night drinking and trading off playing everything from Mississippi John Hurt and the Beatles, to Gershwin and the Stones. The last time the two saw each other they played on a bill together in Portland Maine. Morrissey was in bad health due to years of drinking, and Erelli accompanied him and helped him through the set. Erelli describes this painfully complex moment in “Milltowns:”
I was getting ready to go on / you said “Grasshopper, you sing ‘Birches’ / I’ve been singing it for too long” / So I sang it like I’d written it / though I wished you hadn’t asked / ‘Cause I couldn’t shake the feeling / like something was being passed
Other Milltowns highlights are an achingly beautiful “23rd Street” featuring gorgeous harmonies by Anais Mitchell, and a devastating reading of one of Bill Morrissey’s best-known ballads “These Cold Fingers,” both of which also showcase the album’s refined and bucolic production aesthetic. Recently, Erelli has been making a name for himself with his nuanced and atmospheric production style—prior to Milltowns, he produced an acclaimed album for Lori McKenna—and the album is a wonderful showcase for his stunning studio recordingchops.