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One of the many musicians ignited by the incendiary fusion of the early Mahavishnu Orchestra was a teenaged guitarist out of Georgia named Steve Morse. Fellow teenager Pat Metheny heard Morse the day he arrived at the University of Miami and "about had a heart attack." Hearing Jaco Pastorius the next day, Metheny almost got on the bus back home, thinking there must be players like this everywhere. Later, Metheny would realize "they were both one-in-a-billion-type players."
Based on a musical friendship with Andy West—a bassist and fellow virtuoso he met in high school—Morse formed Dixie Dregs (later abbreviated to the Dregs). Taking the fusion idea to its logical extreme, the band melded strains of bluegrass, Southern rock, and classical into a boiling cauldron of distinctly American, and sometimes blindingly fast, instrumentals they've referred to as "electric chamber music."
By the 1990s, Morse had won Guitar Player magazine's readers' poll for Best Overall Guitarist five years in a row, after which he became ineligible in order to allow others time in the limelight. He'd toured and recorded with Kansas, started his own solo band, developed his own signature guitar with Ernie Ball, earned five Grammy nominations, tried his hand as a music columnist, and even done a stint as a commercial airline pilot.
In 2005, Morse is the lead guitarist for Deep Purple and still tours with both the Dregs and the Steve Morse Band. He spoke with Musician's Friend from his ranch in north Florida, where we interrupted him at work on the roof of his barn/hanger, which was damaged in last year's hurricanes. He is a skillful raconteur with a slight Southern twang that's sincere and friendly. He doesn't shy from hard topics and he doesn't mince words.
This week Morse talks about touring with the Guitar Trio and the early Dregs, jamming with Pat Metheny in college, and his stint as an airline pilot. Be sure to check us out next week when we discuss Morse's tenure with Deep Purple, the vicissitudes of modern recording, and his accumulation of gear.
Musician's Friend: In the early '80s I saw you a couple of times when you were touring with the Guitar Trio [Paco de Lucia, Al DiMeola, and John McLaughlin]. You opened for them and joined them on stage at the end of the shows. How did that tour come about and what was it like to play with those guys?
Steve Morse: It came about because Al DiMeola wasn't going to be able to do the tour. Or so everyone thought. So they were looking for another guitarist to finish the tour. They'd already done a second successful album of the intense acoustic things. But this one, unlike the first one, was a studio album. So I think they asked Pat Metheny if he was interested or knew anyone. And Pat recommended me because we'd played together in school, Pat and I.
So, anyway, the deal was I had to audition because John McLaughlin was familiar with Dixie Dregs' music but this was a different gig altogether and a lot of it involved learning complex things that they came up with. And also playing rhythm while they played complex things, as well as being able to solo. So they decided to have two separate auditions, one in New York City, where John McLaughlin was, and one on some obscure island near Cancun, Mexico, where Paco de Lucia was. That sounded fine.
I went to New York City, with no notice or anything—and I play electric guitar mainly—with these two Ovation guitars, an acoustic steel string and a classical style nylon string. So I played a little of my own stuff for John and he said, "Here, learn this." And he played it a few times, and said "Here play along with this." For whatever reason—and I'll never know what the reason was—he decided to send his manager word that I should go out to the second audition with Paco. When I arrived in Mexico, many hours late, on this local airline, there was no ferry boat that was supposed to take me over to this obscure island where there's no phone or radio or anything. There was also nobody there to meet me. And there was nobody that spoke English there. [general laughter]
And there were two customs agents who were convinced I had brought these two nearly new acoustic guitars to Mexico to sell them. Because, after all, wouldn't you buy expensive American-made products and bring them to Mexico to sell in their economy? So they wanted $400 in customs duty, which I didn't have and wasn't going to pay anyway, since I wasn't bringing them there to sell.
So they confiscated the guitars. I didn't know any Spanish. I didn't even learn Yo quiero Taco Bell or anything like that, because that hadn't happened yet. [general laughter] All I knew was "si" and "no." So I got a hotel with the money I had, which was not very much. Remember, I was a musician and this was after the Dregs had broken up. Anyway, the water came out green from the shower. [general laughter] I'm not kidding, it was green! I think I used bottled Coca-Cola to brush my teeth.
I just waited there all day and tried to make a few phone calls. A couple of phone calls cost me almost $200. I had to call my wife at the time—I've had many—to accept charges and put it back on our credit card. It was a disaster. Then finally somebody contacted me. It had been 36 hours since I'd played a guitar, let alone practiced or gotten in shape with an acoustic guitar. So I was freaking out. And finally Paco arrives with another guy. And he's listening to the story and laughing. So we drive up to the customs place and he's speaking very quickly in Spanish—Spanish Spanish, not Mexican Spanish. And they're speaking very quickly in Mexican Spanish. It goes on for a long time. And finally Paco grabs one of my guitars and hands it to me and says, "Here, you play something." So I played some of my stuff, which no one would know.
So they speak very quickly in Spanish back and forth and Paco's laughing. He says, "They don't think you can be a professional musician, because they have not heard any of the music that you're playing. They don't know it. You can't be very good and you must be here to sell the guitars." [general laughter]
Paco got a little bit agitated and spoke to them very loudly in Spanish and then they backed off and we left.
SM: With the guitars.
MF: Did you have to pay the $400?
SM: No. And we got on the boat and went over to Paco's place. Beautiful, right on the beach, just one of those unbelievable places. Sort of like a palace, sort of indoors and outdoors, patios everywhere. So he grabs a guitar and starts playing "Spain" by Chick Corea. But there's no drummer, there's no metronome or anything. He says, "Here, you play this." I said, "Can you play it again slower? I need to find out where the one is and everything," because I didn't know the tune. And he played it a couple of times fast and he's starting to get impatient. And I'm going "Oh crap, this is not going good." Finally I got it.
And then he started playing some just ridiculous flamenco rhythms. "Here, you play!" [laughter] But DiMeola became interested in this to begin with because he met Paco and they really hit it off. Al's rhythmic sensibilities are incredible and he is really adept at the type of rhythms that Paco preferred. So I was kind of learning from scratch and I wasn't quite there. But I managed to learn stuff, to get to it. I said, "Look I can improve on this, just give me a little time. I haven't had my guitars for a few days." And Paco sort of laughs. And I think he saw some potential there. But he said, "OK, we play!" And we just jammed a little bit. And that was a lot better.
So I ended up getting the gig and we started rehearsing and then, bingo! Al's back, back on the tour. The manager telexed me from England to say it was not happening.
MF: After you'd already learned all this stuff?
SM: Yeah. And had told the guys in my band I was going to be doing this gig. John, Al, and Paco ended up saying. "Why don't you be the opening and at the end we'll all play together." I said, "That would be fine." The money went way down, and I had already promised the guys in the band some money each week, because they were waiting for me. Since we were working full-time as a band, I needed to keep them on retainer. It got a little weird but at the same time it was a great opportunity. So I went for it and we had a great tour.
MF: I'll say! I thought it was a fantastic tour. In opening for that tour you played mostly solo classical guitar. Had you done that a lot before in front of an audience?
SM: Not so much in front of an audience. I did a similar show to that except with classical guitar and electric guitar when I opened some for Pat Metheny and Eric Johnson—solo things when I didn't have a band after the Dregs broke up. And of course I had my senior recital. I had a very heavy concert there where everybody was watching. The theme of the senior recital is to show you the worst-case scenario of nerves.
MF: [laughs] What did you play for your senior recital?
SM: Pieces that I wrote for classical and pieces that I wrote for the Dregs ensemble, which was called the University of Miami Rock Ensemble II, technically. It was basically the Dregs.
MF: Your style is very different from DiMeola, de Lucia, or McLaughlin because it seems to be more informed with blues, rockabilly, and Southern rock sensibilities. Where did those influences come from?
SM: Just from those styles. I played in a bluegrass band. I studied classical. And when I played electric guitar it was rock—starting from "Satisfaction," The Beatles, and Beach Boys on up to Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," and the British rock invasion. So I had a lot of these influences and had discovered John McLaughlin already with Mahavishnu. And that was a big deal to me.
MF: You saw them when you were at Miami?
SM: Correct, in the early '70s. I knew where John McLaughlin was coming from. I'd also seen him play with Shakti with the Indian-influenced stuff. So it was a neat melding of different styles. I very much enjoy it.
MF: You said you'd met Pat Metheny there at the University of Miami. Tell us about that.
SM: The second year I went there, he was in some of the classes. There was about a half dozen guitarists playing, including Pat, and they invited me to play with them. And we all got to be friends. Some of them were hard-core jazz and some of them were like Pat—they were initially attracted to the jazz department but had a little bit more distant vision of a mixture of styles.
At the time Pat played a Les Paul, as well as that acoustic/electric. We sat down once and just played for about an hour and a half with no accompaniment, just two guitars improvising the whole time. That was one of the most enjoyable experiences I've ever had. He really listens and reacts very well.
MF: You don't have a tape of that, do you? [laughs]
SM: Yeah, in fact I do. But I have to find a tape recorder that'll play it, and then find where it went. It was on a 3-3/4 IPS reel-to-reel tape. But I don't know exactly where those tapes are. Mainly because I can't play them.
MF: Maybe this is too personal to talk about, but I've always wondered about Twiggs [Lyndon].
SM: No, I like talking about Twiggs. He was a very good influence for all of us. He was just a gung-ho, incredible, do-it-all, fix-it-all, multitalented, mechanical genius, hard-driving, cowboy, sort of road technician. [laughs] When the Allman brothers quit, he was just like a fish out of water. He didn't know what to do, so he worked a little bit with Sea Level, which was Chuck Leavell's band, the keyboard player. And right after that Chuck started playing with the Stones and hasn't stopped since.
But anyway the way we got together was he was with Sea Level when we played at the same show. And they both remarked to Phil Walden of Capricorn records that they really enjoyed the band. And I think that led to us getting signed with Capricorn. Then he volunteered to work with us. He said, "Hey, I got a truck and I've got sleeping quarters in the truck and I know how to do this stuff. And I can teach you guys how to tour on the road and do it efficiently. And he did."
MF: What year would that be, roughly?
SM: '76, maybe '77. And really up until the day he died he was just full on. In fact we were driving an old bus that we'd bought. We took it on the tour for transportation, but we didn't have any interior in it. We were sleeping on blow-up air mattresses on the floor. Because when we started the album, Twiggs was going to build the interior. And Twiggs could do it, he could make it exactly like a regular RV.
That was his thing. He invented things and made things happen. For instance, he made a fully articulated suspension for Chuck Leavell's piano in the Allman Brothers. The grand piano traveled in a truck and he made this cradle inside a cradle with shock absorbers that would hold the piano so it wouldn't go out of tune. Stuff like that. And he came up with a device to blow hot air across Chuck's keyboard when they played outside. [laughs]
MF: How did he die?
SM: He was interested in parachute jumping and he had gotten a new sports chute, one of the first square sails that were available down here. And he was participating in multiperson jumps, the star formations, you know, where they all jump out of the plane and connect and hook up together. This was back when it was a new kind of thing.
MF: Were the rest of you guys doing that too?
SM: No, I only jumped twice on the same day, just to do it. Back then they would just hand you a parachute and tie the rip cord to the static line and you could just jump out of the plane. Now, of course, there are too many legal liabilities for anybody to let you do that. Anyway, I dropped him off at a jump site down in Georgia and he did the star formation there. We both lived in Georgia. But the way I dropped him off was I flew over it, and he jumped out of the plane. [laughs] We were just doing it for a goof.
Later, while we were on tour, he'd planned to hook up with these guys in upstate New York to do a star formation with 14 people or something like that. They practiced on the ground. It was freezing cold. The band was going to have lunch while he was jumping and then go on to the gig, because we had a gig that day. Twiggs and I were talking about the wind. It was really windy. I was wondering how many knots forward speed you could get out of a parachute. Otherwise you wouldn't have any control. And we agreed that it was close to the limit. So that was not a good sign.
The next thing was Twiggs didn't have winter clothes. He was a guy who lived in Georgia. He didn't dress that warmly. And neither did I. It was just freezing cold with this biting wind. And they practice outside for about an hour, how they are going to hook up, who is going to go where, which direction they're going to exit the star formation so they don't hit each other when they open up their chutes.
They finally went up in a Cessna 206 or 207 with no door on it. So that was freezing. By the time they got up to 13,500 it was way below zero. They jumped. He made the formation and the other guys opened up, and I guess he was one of the last ones to open. And he had a problem with his chute. He cut away and right about then I think he had a heart attack or passed out or something. Because he just plummeted. I was watching him. I went tearing into the woods. And after about 45 minutes we found him. And of course he was dead.
I called his parents and told them what happened. For some reason I thought we could just take him and find a place that would take care of him. But we couldn't. We couldn't even touch his stuff. It was really weird. I remember getting threatened with jail by one of the police saying, "You can't . . ." Twiggs wore a very expensive diamond on his ear. And I was going to grab that before all these strangers just took him. And that was really dear to him. He was always wearing his life savings. That was one of his things. He said, "Why put it in the bank where you can't use it?" So they got all bent out of shape. I said, "Hey, he's my friend. I'm going to take care of his stuff." They said, "Well, you can't." And it just freaked me out.
We ended up having to back down. Because there were cops there. I couldn't even take his suitcase to his parents. I became a bus driver that day. We called the gig and told them what happened and said, "we're driving as fast as we can, see if the other band will switch with us," because we were opening up for Jorma Kaukonen. We drove to the gig and when we got there we learned that they couldn't switch and they had just unloaded our stuff from the stage because they wouldn't wait for us. It was just the most horrible day of my life.
MF: Sorry to bring it up, man!
SM: No, I don't mind talking about it. Because it's one of the best things you can do for your friends that are gone is to remember them well. But the main thing is he really taught the band a lot. And he especially was such a good example of never giving up. Because he never gave up on anything—"Just find an answer, find a solution." At times the truck was falling apart underneath us and it was real clever the things he would do to keep it going.
MF: You were a commercial airline pilot for a while. What was that like, and how long did it last?
SM: It didn't last long. I had always been friends with the airline pilots. And I was amazed at how seemingly easy it was. You fly to a gig and you're done, that's the gig. [laughs] Plus when you're 60 they tell you, "You're done, now let's pay you to stay home." The concept of getting a pension was real appealing. Because I wanted to have a family. And I was just sick of the music business, so sick of it.
But it turned out that every business has unpleasant aspects. And I learned that the hard way. There were a lot of hoops I had to jump through to get my ratings all together. I had to do all these tests and interviews. Then the flight training where you make just one mistake and you're washed out. That kind of thing. Finally after jumping through all the hoops I got the job and got to fly. And I stayed for about six months.
They ended up doing something that they said they wouldn't do, which was to schedule me on a time when I had a hard schedule and I had days off guaranteed to me. I was doing some music gigs trying to make enough to eat. Because you start off with nothing as a pilot, and that was after I'd spent months going through this process. So when they did that I was forced with either canceling a gig and probably getting legal action against me or quitting the job. So I quit the job. And I haven't really looked back since.
MF: You still fly, right?
SM: Oh yeah.
MF: What kind of plane do you have?
SM: I have four or five depending on whether you count the fifth one or not. [laughs]
MF: Our president, Al Dinardi, flies. He has an RV8.
SM: I love RV8s. I just flew one the other day. My friend Jeff has one and I was doing rolls in it. I have an aerobatic plane and I have a sail plane that's self-launching with a motor, then it packs up and goes away and you just fly as a glider all afternoon. And then a single-engine tail dragger Cessna 180 and a Cessna 310 for flying the band around. And the old fifth plane is just a 172. I actually got it for my wife to learn how to fly.
MF: So you do fly the band around?
SM: Yeah, I used to do it all the time. But this leg coming up it's 2,200 miles there, and then there's tiny little jumps that we could drive, and then there's 2,200 miles back. So for the price of the first fuel stop I can get a ticket out there. It doesn't make sense on this particular one. But I fly a lot. I fly pretty much every day when I'm home.
MF: The last time I saw you was in Reno with Deep Purple. Joe Satriani was opening for you. I was hoping you guys would jam.
SM: We do. In Reno in fact . . . Reno was one of the weirdest gigs, as I recall.
MF: It was outdoors and it was kind of windy.
SM: It's kind of a strange city for live music. I think it's because the locals are all working and the out-of-towners are going for the sensational stuff that they can't get at home. It's always been that way, even with the Dregs. We always had a problem getting the Reno and Las Vegas gigs to come out great. But Joe sat in with us and he's great. He's a great, great player.
Continue to Part II »
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