“A lot of it is memory or just feeling,” T. Hardy Morris says of his extraordinary debut solo album, Audition Tapes. “But there was also a lot of happenstance and circumstance.”
Stark and startling in its evocative, atmospheric power, Audition Tapes sees Morris – best known as frontman for Southern psych-rockers Dead Confederate as well as a member of the collaborative supergroup Diamond Rugs – unleashing something quite unique, a kind of outlaw country grunge, haunting and forlorn and possibly even dangerous. Morris’ fourth release in just a single year, the self-described “sit down record” reveals new facets to the Athens, Georgia-based singer/songwriter’s quickly growing canon. His world-weary vocals rich with nostalgia and sympathy, songs like “Disaster Proof” and the stark album closer, “Own Worst Enemy,” find Morris chronicling a rich cast of characters devastated by drink, drugs, and depression, both personal and economic.
“It’s largely about the hometown me and the other guys in Dead Confederate grew up in,” he says, “and the way a lot of the friends we had down there slipped away to their vices. Friends that dabbled and then couldn’t quit dabbling.”
The idea of a solo album first occurred to Morris when the inveterately prolific tunesmith found himself with a sheaf of material – including fully fleshed songs and ramshackle home demos – that didn’t quite jibe with Dead Confederate’s imposing psychedelic riffola.
“I still liked ‘em,” he says. “I’d written ‘em, created ‘em, so I figured it would be silly not to record ‘em.”
Morris decided to make the record at producers Adam Landry and Justin Collins’ Playground Sound Studios in Nashville – the same site where he’d cut the acclaimed Diamond Rugs album just a year earlier.
“I thought, maybe this would be the place to tackle some of that solo stuff,” Morris says. “It’s not something I can put a finger on, but when I hear stuff back there it just feels right.”
Morris traveled to Playground Sound for a series of sessions spanning much of 2012, in between little things like tours with Diamond Rugs and the recording of both a “full-on” new EP and album with Dead Confederate. While the transitions might’ve proved jarring for another artist, Morris swears to have had no trouble switching gears between projects, rather viewing each of them – rightly – as individual cogs in the overall machine.
“I’ve always been a little ADD,” he says. “I guess that’s one of the benefits.”
Where Dead Confederate demands epic rock soundscapes, Morris’ single goal for Audition Tapes was to keep things as grounded and spontaneous as humanly possible. With no official band to speak of, Landry handled bass duties from the control room, while a number of friends “dropped by” to lend a hand, including Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez, Black Lips/Diamond Rugs guitarist Ian Saint Pé, steel guitarist Matt “Pistol” Stossel, keyboardist Thayer Serrano, and drummer Julian Dorio (The Whigs).
Together, the players limned out a distinct aural environment, as intimate as if it were home recorded at Morris’ dinette table but also raucous, richly textured and unerringly inventive. The languid “Quit Diggin’” and the album’s visceral centerpiece, “Share The Needle,” mark the musical crossroads where timeless country meets the New Southern Rock.
“I love old country music, down to the ground,” Morris avows. “I’ve also always loved when you find things like pedal steel in music where you don’t think you should, where it doesn’t turn it into a country song but just works. So I really wanted to have that on the record, it gives it that somber quality I was looking for.”
The evocative sonics underscore the simple power of Morris’ intensely intimate songwriting. A lyrical hybrid of fiction, memoir, and journalism, his songs crackle and hum with both humility and reckless energy, none more so than the masterful title track in which Morris revisits his preteen best friend in order to touch something tucked away deep within his current self.
“There wasn’t a whole lot to do back then other than getting into trouble and trying not to get caught,” Morris says. “We were just living in abandon. We didn’t think before we did anything, we just did it. I want to be more like that kid.”
That carefree spirit already defines Morris’ constant state of artistic forward motion. Currently his plans include recording still another Dead Confederate EP, as well as a lengthy tour supporting their new full-length, In The Marrow. As if that weren’t enough for one artistic annum, he recently united T. Hardy Morris & The Outfit, a small combo of Athens-based friends and fellow musicians – including the aforementioned Stossel, Serrano, and drummer Jim Wilson. Altogether remarkable though it may be, Audition Tapes is also but a single chapter in T. Hardy Morris’ marathon body of work.
“It felt good to get this record out of the way,” Morris says, “so I could get started working on the next one. If I hadn’t recorded them, those songs would be rolling around in my head, over and over. But now they’re done, they’re gone, and there’s the next batch of songs rolling around in there.”