ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JUNE 6, 1991
By Steve Newton
Guitarist Steve Morse might not be one of the best-known instrumental recording artists around; he’s certainly not as familiar to the general record-buying public as someone like Jeff Beck or Joe Satriani—or even the new-found phenomenon Eric Johnson. But the folks that do know him know him well. They’ve chosen him best overall guitarist in Guitar Player magazine’s reader’s poll five times. And Morse doesn’t take such honours lightly.
“It’s a show of support,” says Morse, “and it just makes me work harder every time I go out on the road, because I think those people that sent in those cards are gonna be in the audience, and I don’t want to let them down.”
It isn’t too likely that Morse will be letting anybody down when he brings his band to the 86 Street Music Hall next Thursday (June 13). And though you might expect that a decorated player of Morse’s calibre would be one of those lock-themselves-in-their-room musicians who eats, sleeps, and breathes guitar, that’s not the case. He makes a concerted effort to live at least half of his life as a normal, everyday bloke.
“It’s not that I’m consciously thinking of how I’m going to live my whole life,” explains Morse, “but it just seems natural to me that if you’re gonna live a long life—with stories to tell your grandchildren besides war stories of the road—that you do normal things, too, like be with your family, take them places, have hobbies other than music. I just find that necessary, and I divide my time into day and night. Daylight I don’t normally think about music, and at night is when I really go at it. I transform into a different kind of person at night.”
One of Morse’s non-musical daytime pursuits involves cruising the wild blue yonder in his own airplane. A flyer for 16 years now, he actually took time off from music to spend half of 1987 as a professional airline pilot, flying a 35-passenger, twin-engine turboprop. But even during that aeronautical sojourn he’d keep his guitar chops fresh with a customized guitar that he’d finger in his lap while commuting to the airport every day.
“That was a long drive,” says Morse, “and the interstate highways in Georgia are wide, smooth, and have very little traffic. So I could just drive with my knee and sit there and play the guitar the whole way.”
Now that he’s gotten back to the musical side of things by releasing a rock-oriented instrumental album titled Southern Steel, Morse is starting to get some of the recognition he so richly deserves—at least in the musician-oriented press. His smiling face graces last month’s issue of Musician magazine, along with those of rockabilly ace Albert Lee and rock god Eddie Van Halen. The three guitarists came together to play two shows at the last NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) convention in Anaheim, California. And needless to say, they packed ’em in.
“I think Eddie’s name had a lot to do with it,” says the ever-modest Morse. “We do pretty well at the NAMM shows because they’re free shows anyway, but normally we wouldn’t do two. And it was a great gig.”
One might wonder if Morse is ever tempted to ask the “Emperor Van Halen” (as Musician calls him) to make a guest appearance on one of his albums, maybe to help Morse win over a portion of the enormous Van Halen following.
“In general I’m very careful about not trying to ask favours from my friends,” says Morse, “especially things that would obviously help me more than they would help them. And it’s probably discouraged by [Van Halen’s] legal powers that be, anyway.”
One person that has joined Morse in the studio is Night Ranger guitarist Jeff Watson, who’s all over Southern Steel’s rambunctious opening track, “Cut to the Chase”. The two players initially hooked up when Night Ranger toured with Morse’s previous band, Kansas.
“Every night we’d hang out, and we got to be best friends. So it was just me saying, ‘I’ve got to put Jeff on this album somewhere, and this is the perfect spot.’ ”
Before his one-album/one-tour enlistment with Kansas, Morse spent numerous years in the Dixie Dregs (later known as simply the Dregs), a band that gained huge critical acclaim for its technical virtuosity and incredible range of musical styles. Morse points out that there are some similarities between the four-time Grammy-nominated Dregs and his current trio, which includes primo bassist Dave Larue and hot-shot drummer Van Romaine.
“I’m practically doing the same thing now,” says the 36-year-old guitarist’s guitarist. “I was writing the music for the Dregs, and I write the music for my band, and we exist in the same kind of underground strata—a very dependable, nice underground strata, though, with a really good audience.”
Morse laughs heartily when asked if there are any times when he wishes his musical career was a little more above ground.
“Sure! When you’re driving or flying a huge long leg, and you’re staying in a roach-ridden motel—those are the times. But you gotta think about what that means, you know. When you’re way up there in the high altitudes there’s only one place to go. So I would rather spend my life doing what I’m doing than to have one big run at the top and then crash.”