To many musicians, Texas is both vast and insular. On one hand, as singer and songwriter Pat Green points out, "Texas is a pretty big place." A performer can drive seven hours to a gig and still be well within Lone Star State lines. On the other hand, the music community there seems tightly knit, and those who choose to can spend lucrative years gigging, as Green and fellow country singer-songwriter Cory Morrow have, without having to leave the state.
There is a "microcosm in Texas," as Morrow puts it, where musical cross-pollination makes for fruitful tunes, and allows Green to speak from Willie Nelson's ranch and to have invited Willie to play guitar on Green's 2000 release "Carry On."
While both Green and Morrow, whose most recent project is a joint, just- released collection of covers, "Songs We Wish We'd Written," are "very much in favor of taking our stuff out of state," in Morrow's words, they remain rooted in the Texas music scene. The album showcases the work of their (predominantly Texan) songwriting heroes and was produced by Lloyd Maines.
For Green and Morrow, the Nashville skyline, although not out of sight, remains hazy.
Even though he isn't even 30 yet, Green is already something of a veteran recording artist. His collaboration with Morrow marks his sixth release, and Morrow's fifth.
"Songs..." is a 12-song collection that gathers the work of Haggard, Jennings Nelson, Cash and Shaver, among others, and presents it to the listener with tight, polished production, replete with deft guitar solos, steel guitar and fiddle, unmistakably country. It combines Green's Robert Earl Keenish vocals with the basso twang of Morrow. Each gets four songs to himself, and they sing together on the rest.
Green and Morrow met at Morrow's fraternity house while both were undergrads at Texas Tech. "We just started pickin' away," recalls Morrow, who says the two would test each other to see how many songs the other knew.
Soon, Green says, "we were playing every Wednesday nightÉat a friend's apartment, but we trashed it every week. They kicked us out and that's when we started playing shows."
Morrow, who was the more seasoned musician at the time (in fact, Green comments that during college, "I was nowhere near as good as he was (on guitar)"), recalls, "I was real unhappy in school."
After two sold-out live shows with Green, he told Green, "I think I wanna do this," and because for country singers "It was either (Austin) or Nashville and I didn't have the money or the guts to go there (to Nashville)," Morrow headed for Austin, where he released a 5-song EP in 1994.
Green, for his part, stayed in school, where he majored in "I think everything for a while."
By the time he earned his degree in 1997, however, he already had one album under his belt: 1995's "Dancehall Dreamer." The album, ' made up of originals and two covers, is straight-ahead Texas country, without the slickness of Nashville nor the poetic mope of alternative country. It was put together by respected pedal steel player and producer Maines, whom Green has worked with ever since.
The story of how Green got Maines to produce his music is a testimony to the young singer's drive and chutzpah, qualities that accelerated his path to a recording career, and that add an unmistakable spark to his live performances (as a listen to 1999's "Live at Billy Bob's" will attest).
Green was not "discovered" by Maines, nor, he says, did he have any connections to put him in touch with the producer.
"I just cold called (him)," Green recalls. "We went for Mexican food. An hour later, I started playing him songs, and an hour later we were talking about when we were going to record (them)."
After this fruitful meeting, Green introduced Maines to Morrow, and Maines has also had a hand in Morrow's work since then. Maines "makes us sound good," says Morrow, who is pleased with the relationship
Unlike Morrow, who taught himself guitar in junior high on an instrument his stepfather won in a coin toss in Mexico, Green took a more circuitous route to the guitar. He studied piano as a child, played drums in bands in high school, and, he says, "I only started learning to play guitar when I got to college."
"The second I was able to sing and play (simultaneously)," says Green, "I started writing."
Of his methods for penning a tune, Green explains, "I don't really have a pattern yetÉIt just kinda happens when it hits, usually after two beers."
But, he's quick to add, "I'm not saying it's chemically induced."
When questioned about how he gets an idea for a song, Green waxes cryptic: "I just think that it comes; I rarely sit down to write a song."
"Sometimes (a song) writes itself in 10 minutes." Other times he says a song is "two or three years" in the making.
As far as collaborative writing, Green and Morrow, though friends since college, haven't given it a college try; nor have they toured as members of the same band.
"We're both kind of leaders, and I don't think it'd be a good idea to have two cooks in the kitchen," Morrow says.
Greens seconds the observation, saying, "I'm really a kind of a loner when it comes to writing."
One exception to this rule is Green's work with songwriter Walt Wilkins. Green's brother (he has, incidentally, four of them and five sisters) knew Wilkins when both were students at the University of Texas. When Green was introduced to Wilkins, "it was instant friendship," he says, adding that their joint efforts "seemed like successful writing."
"There's not many other people I like to write with," Green admits. On "Carry On," Green co-wrote the title track with Wilkins, and does a cover of Wilkins' song "Ruby's Two Sad Daughters." In his liner notes to the album, Green calls it "the best song I have heard in a long time."
Green's deference to his songwriting predecessors, apparent in his liner notes, his songs and in the release of "Songs We Wish We'd Written," is admirable as well as shrewd. Although he would like to aspire to be a Walt Wilkins or a Guy Clark, "I would be lying if I said I didn't want that kind of ability," Green says.
But he enjoys the journey nonetheless. "I really don't have a plan or a desire to be a major superstar," he says; he admits to simply enjoying what he's doing.
This easygoing patience plays into his thoughts on signing with a major label as well.
"Nashville is a great organizationÉfor producing hits and singers, but it's not necessarily my way of doing things," says Green, who wants to build on his already substantial success. His albums have sold over 100,000 copies across the country, so that, should he decide on a major label deal, he can maintain some creative autonomy.
Any "quicker route to success," in his opinion, is akin to "selling your soul." "I would love to sign in Nashville or LA or New York or wherever, as long as it's the right deal," he emphasizes.
In the meantime, Green seems happy to be where he is, among a host of talented songwriters. Why does Texas breed such noteworthy talent? To Green, "there's just a sense of self here. People have an attitudeÉ(that) they love where they're from."
For him, a firm sense of place makes for good songwriting. Halfway through the interview, Green laughs and says, "Am I selling you on this bullshit?"
Then he states the obvious: "I love playin' music for a living."