Down at the Ranchhouse

Tom Morrell keeps Western swing alive on the best set of records you've never heard

Sitting at the bar, slumped over his beer with an unfiltered Camel smoldering between his fingers, Tom Morrell looks more than out of place. He looks out of time. In this Houston's restaurant across the street from Prestonwood Mall, filled with suburbanites returning Christmas gifts, Morrell sticks out something fierce--his cowboy hat, his weathered countenance, and his low-key manner are only a few tip-offs that this man is just a visitor to these parts.

Morrell, who lives several miles north of Dallas in Little Elm, is indeed a man displaced by history. For more than 40 years, the Adamson High School graduate has made a modest career playing Western swing music with his pedal steel guitar, recreating that legendary amalgam of jazz and country and blues and Tex-Mex border music made famous decades ago by the likes of Milton Brown, the Light Crust Doughboys, Spade Cooley, Hank Thompson, Cliff Bruner, and--of course--Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Morrell has never held a steady day job, instead leaving his home in Oak Cliff as a teenager in the mid-'50s to pursue the lifestyle of a music journeyman, sharing the stage, but rarely the studio, with some of the most famous country musicians. He is like a guide through the world of classic country music, a place filled with purists and historians who can trace a player's style back to 15 other players before him. Throughout his career, Morrell has played with or heard live or simply met notorious legends and forgotten nobodies.

The old Longhorn Ballroom was his classroom as a young man, days and nights spent watching Dewey Groom and Johnny Gimble. His first band as a kid featured guitarist Leon Rhodes, who would become a member of Ernest Tubb's band for more than two decades, and drummer Ronnie Tutt, who became Elvis' sideman during the Vegas years.

He has shared the stage with Buck Owens and Ray Price and Hank Thompson. He has recorded with Willie Nelson, lending his pedal steel sound to the 1976 album The Sound in Your Mind (not one of Willie's brightest moments, but still); he has recorded with the likes of David Byrne, adding some steel guitar sound to the sound track for True Stories. ("I never even heard the durn thing," Morrell says of the latter.) For a couple of years in the mid-1960s, Morrell was even a member of the Texas Playboys and got to know Bob Wills.

But like many of great, respected country musicians of his generation--guys like Billy Gray, Leon Rhodes, Maurice Anderson, Dickie Harris, and dozens more--Morrell now resides somewhere between anonymity and obscurity.

"Y'ain't s'post to know any of this," he drawls. "This stuff's real obscure." But he is known and respected among a small circle of players and purists. They are the folks who attend the annual Western swing and steel guitar festivals and conventions in places like Oklahoma City, Texarkana, Ruidoso, and even New York; they are among those who make up the small circle of swing fanatics who still believe the music will again become as popular as it was during its heyday of the '40s and '50s. And they are musicians like former Playboy Leon Rausch, Asleep at the Wheel's Chris O'Connell and Tim Alexander, cowboy singer Don Edwards, and the late pianist Pee Wee Lynn who, for the past three years, have accompanied Morrell on a series of tapes and CDs that rival anything to come out of Nashville in decades.

Since March 1991, Morrell and his band, the Time-Warp Tophands, have issued six releases in their "How the West Was Swung" series, re-recording obscure chestnuts from the Wills songbook and other, better-known "tunes of yesteryear" like "Minnie the Moocher" and "Sweet Lorraine."

The albums, each of which was recorded in a matter of hours with little or no overdubbing, accomplish what few modern country records have been able to do: capture a classic sound without trapping it in time-capsule nostalgia. To listen to each album--whether it's the raw downhome swing of How the West Was Swung (volume 1) or the brassy big-band sounds of volumes four and five--is to hear a huge, buoyant sound made by just a few people, a jumpin' jive that transcends genre and time and sounds "as fresh and vital today as it did to your grandparents," as one Austin music critic once wrote of the best Western swing.

"It's fascinatin' music, it really is," Morrell says. "It combines so much. If you do it right--if you have twin fiddles and twin guitars and piano, bass, drums, a couple of horns, and steel guitar, and vocals--it's basically a big band deal. You've got a lot of arrangements, a lot of organization, a lot of parts, and lots of solo time.

"If you play the stuff they're doin' nowadays, if you play steel guitar with a band you'll be lucky to get a solo. I took the guy's place at Cowboys one night, and I think I got two solos the whole night long. I mean, why even hire me? I spent the money, don't get me wrong, but it's just a different deal nowadays."

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