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The Morells are finally back

By Andy Turner, May 2001

It's been nearly 20 years since their first and only album and about 15 years since they used the name. But members of The Morells have been anything but inactive.

Bassist Lou Whitney, guitarist D. Clinton Thompson and keyboardist Joe Terry played together in The Skeletons. Drummer Ron Gremp holds down the same position in the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

More recently, Terry has been a part of Dave Alvin's Guilty Men, and Whitney and Thompson have played together around their home base of Springfield, Mo., as combo.com, with drummer and singer Kristi McInnis.

Combo.com had begun work on an album, but the group fizzled out when McInnis decided to pursue other options in Los Angeles. Whitney and Thompson phoned Terry and Gremp to join them in the studio, and The Morells name was brought out of retirement.

"Why change the name again and be confusing?" Whitney says.

Maralie, Whitney's ex-wife and The Morells' original keyboardist came up with the band's name. The Morells, by the way, were named after the mushrooms, not Dr. Morell, Hitler's alleged favorite cocaine supplier, Whitney explains.

"Shake and Push," the band's first album, was released in 1982 on the band's own Borrowed Records imprint.

Featuring songs like "Gettin' in Shape," "Her Kind of Guy" and "Push Kick Shout," the album was highly acclaimed and received a four-star review in Rolling Stone.

The band rode the critical success of the album and nearly signed with MCA, but the deal fell through when the label's A&R staff was fired. The Morells died out in the mid-'80's, and The Skeletons were reborn.

Now the band has resurfaced with a self-titled effort on Missouri-based Slewfoot Records.

Despite the time between albums, the four had never really traveled to far apart from one another: Whitney, Thompson and Terry were Skeletons, and Whitney and Terry worked with Gremp in the studio from time to time.

Getting back together and playing as the Morells was like "riding a bike," Whitney said.

The band plays fun and loose songs, mixing together all their favorite rock, rockabilly, country, blues and R&B influences. Thompson was responsible for finding the band's obscure cover material. His findings included two from Springfield native Ronnie Self, "Hair of the Dog" and "Home in My Hand," and "Hot Rod Baby" from Pittsburgh's Skinny Vincent.

Whitney said technology is making it harder to find truly obscure material. "Even old 45s and 78s are turning up on some CD compilation," he said.

Whitney owns The Studio in Springfield, where he's produced or worked with the likes of Robbie Fulks, Dallas Wayne, Blue Mountain, the Domino Kings, Wilco and Bottle Rockets.

But, alas, owning your own studio and hanging out with Americana heavyweights is not all glitz and glamour, Whitney admits.

"When you run a small businessÉeven a recording studio, it's still a small business," he says. "You're trapped. You have to keep working if you're going to keep the doors open."

And while Whitney says he loves cutting tracks that he can "whip into shape" for bands, there are plenty of other things he does to "keep the doors open" that he's less enthusiastic about.

Like editing, recording voice-overs, commercial jingles and "13-year-old girls making Jesus tapes."

Only two songs - Whitney's hilarious "Don't Let Your Baby Buy a Car" and Terry's "Mom's Got a Headache" - on the new album are originals.

But Whitney says the band's always tried "to do material with originality if not original material."

And don't expect Whitney to approach the music too seriously.

"Everything in rock music these days is serious as a heart attack," Whitney says. "I come from the school of irreverence. We played VFWs and frat parties. You play your songs; you yap it up with the crowdÉI'm a jokester. I'm the kind of guy, when I start, I tell a joke. Funny is part of the deal...I come from the bars -- entertainment is a two-way street with the band and the audience. There's a lot of co-activity both ways. That just the way I am."

However, he adds, "It's not like I say the same joke at 10:15 each night."

Whitney's twisted humor is evident in the country-tinged "Don't Let Your Baby Buy a Car," a song that explores the "dumb ass side to the male thing," according to its writer.

The man "gets heavy into softball and takes to dipping snuff," after his girlfriend gets her own transportation and "a night out with the girls, you know just to have a little fun, then the house plants started disappearing one by one."

"Girls like it," he says. "They can all relate."