These seem like good days for T. Hardy Morris.
Last year’s album Hardy & The Hardknocks: Drownin on a Mountaintop — an exhilarating, sort-of-dirty melding of southern rock and grunge — was a hit with both fans and critics (and one of my favorite albums of last year). Morris just finished up a run of shows with Shakey Graves and has just been confirmed for the 2016 Savannah Stopover. Hardy & The Hardknocks will be opening for Dwight Yoakam at the Georgia Theatre in Athens on March 4. He’ll also be joining American Aquarium at the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh on Feb. 5th for the band’s 10th anniversary celebration.
On top of all that, Morris seems to be adjusting just fine to life as a father, writing songs on a screened porch outside Athens after his wife and baby have gone to bed. Plus, the 36-year-old can still pass for 19. He must be doing something right.
I’ve been a big fan of all of Hardy’s projects for a few years now, and I’m convinced that he will become an increasingly important figure in the music and culture of the South. So when he and The Hardknocks came to Savannah in December for a MusicFile Productions gig at The Jinx — Stopover 2016 performers Justin Osborne of SUSTO and Breakers were also on the bill — I snagged him for an interview. We talked for a while across Congress Street at Sorry Charlie’s, where he ordered four — just four — of the briniest oysters available (maybe that’s a creative secret?).
In conversation, Morris is soft-spoken, thoughtful, warm. This interview has obviously been edited, but fairly lightly.
hissing lawns: So what type of music did you grow up listening to?
T. Hardy Morris: The earliest songwriter that I really got into was John Prine, from my dad. Some of the first songs that I remember ever hearing were John Prine songs. My mom was a big Neil Young fan. John Prine and Neil Young were the first things that I learned how to play on guitar. And then after that a lot of the southern rock stuff – the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and like 90s country was big in Augusta at the time. My middle school years were filled with southern rock and 90s country, though I really did kind of clamber on to Neil Young and John Prine early on.
HL: Were you listening to early grunge?
THM: In ’91, I was 11 or 12, so I was a little young to be really into it. I was still playing basketball and shit in my yard, so I wasn’t quite old enough to be that into music. I was a pretty regular kid, but I started playing guitar when I was around that age. I remember having some older friends that were listening to that stuff, and me and my best friend across the street were listening to a bunch of Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, Guns N’ Roses, and I thought all that was cool. I had some Metallica t-shirts. I didn’t really love it, but I thought it was cool and I liked the way that it sounded. It didn’t necessarily resonate with my soul quite like Neil Young and John Prine had, but of course I’m not going to tell my friends, “Oh you like that Metallica stuff, you gotta listen to this. John Prine’s first album will rock your socks, buddy.”
I didn’t know what the music was doing to me. I was just listening to shit and hanging out with my friends. But then truly the Nirvana stuff was kind of a marriage of all that — great melodies with cool lyrics that worked and it rocked too, but it wasn’t trying to sound like the devil; it just worked, it fit my mode. And I remember when I was starting to become aware of that stuff, I was like “Oh I like that a lot more than the Metallica-y stuff.” I remember a kid came to school in a Meat Puppets shirt, and I didn’t have any idea what they sounded like, and I was like “I like that”, whatever that is. I just liked the name, I liked the artwork, so I tracked that stuff down. And then when Nirvana did Unplugged [in 1993], I was like “OK, I’m on the right track.”
HL: Did you already know at that point that you wanted to be a musician?
THM: I was starting to figure it out. My friend had a bass, and we had a guitar, and we figured out buying a drum set together — this spare-parts-put-together drum kit kind of thing — and we started scrapping around in the backyard. There was a trailer in his backyard that we would set shit up in and play.
And I’ve been doing that ever since, I guess. Since I was 15.
HL: Were your parents supportive of all that?
THM: Yeah, my mom’s a musician and an artist. She’s always been like, do whatever. She’s always been super supportive, you know, in her own way. She probably doesn’t love every single song I’ve come up with, but she’s the same way with her art and her music – it’s whatever she’s feeling at the time. I mean, I see where I get it. Every time she does an art show, it’s way different than the last.
HL: Do you do any artwork in addition to the music? Not like you need to.
THM: No, not really. I write some other stuff, I write some poetry. I draw with my kid, cartoons and stuff.
HL: How is being a father changing everything in terms of what you’re writing and producing? I mean, having a one and a half year old . . .
THM: I’ve been writing a lot actually just recently. I kind of took a break for a while. I was just kind of waiting for it to happen, and then I’ve written a bunch lately. They’ve been a lot more low key and mellow. Are you familiar with Audition Tapes, the record I did before the latest one?
THM: A lot of the new songs are more in that realm, I guess. It’s all about your environment. I’m usually writing after my baby’s asleep and my wife goes to bed. I take a guitar out on the screen porch and light a candle and strum and hum, so it’s inevitably a lot more quaint, quiet, and lyrically a little more tuned into the day that I just had moreso than “what’s to come.” I mean, what’s to come is now.
HL: So you live out in the country?
THM: A little bit, it feels like it. We’re just a few miles from downtown Athens but we’ve got a couple of acres, a little pond, so it feels like you’re out in the sticks.
HL: In one interview that I read, you talked about thinking that the grunge sound needed a little more exploration and that there haven’t been that many people who’ve merged the grunge with the southern rock, but you see those genres as closely related.
THM: That was kind of the point of that record, to marry those two things and channel them together – it’s funny you use the word “exploitive” [ed. note: I was using the word “explore” but he heard “exploit” above the chatter, it seemed more interesting to let it slide], cause I feel like grunge was exploited commercially back then, but we kind of exploited it for this project. We put it with the country. It’s not like those songs needed to be as angular as they are, and if they were going to be angular, they certainly didn’t need the honky tonk vibes, but I wanted to do it on purpose.
HL: It works really well.
THM: If it hadn’t been working, we wouldn’t have done it. I had done a song on the first Diamond Rugs record that was like that, and a song like “Share the Needle” [from Audition Tapes, embedded below] has that back and forth between those two sounds. And then we were like, “What if we do a whole record like that?” But I can’t make that record again — I can’t do that again. Maybe a song every here and there, but on this record we just went for it. I thought it came out awesome.
HL: I think it came out awesome too. Some of the lyrics are sort of paranoid, kind of angsty?
THM: You think? Which ones?
HL: Like the title track. “Drownin on a Mountaintop”. And I wouldn’t say “My Me” is paranoid, but it’s like someone working through discovering their own differences from other people. Is that basically autobiographical? Or is that a more artful kind of persona? If that makes any sense.
THM: No, it’s autobiographical, but all that happened a long time ago. I’m not saying it’s happening now, like holy shit I just figured out who I am. I did that a long time ago when I was playing with my friend at his house.
HL: So you were working from teenage memories?
THM: Yeah, yeah. Honestly I’ve had that song title “My Me” for fucking years. I probably tried five or six times to make that into a song. I didn’t try hard, but I always had that “My Me” idea in my head, but it never worked quite right. It was always one I’d try to plug in and then eh – that’s not the one.
But you know, you’re always still trying to figure out exactly who you are. What you need to do, what you should do, whatever. It continues on.
HL: Especially as a young father with three different musical projects going on. Is Dead Confederate still on?
THM: We’re still active. We’re playing a show soon, and we’ve got some recording in the pipes we’re trying to work on. I’m staying busier than I ought to be probably.
HL: Why not go for all of it? If you have time.
THM: Well I don’t have time, but I have the desire to do it all.
HL: Tell me about the Places In Peril project. How did that come about?
THM: That was an idea my brother and I had. The guy that filmed all that, Jason Thrasher, who’s an excellent photographer and videographer in Athens, had done this series of videos — he calls them “takeaway videos” — with the Drive-By Truckers where he filmed them playing acoustic versions of all the songs from one album, in Patterson’s yard or wherever. And it looked cool and great and he asked me about doing it. With the Truckers, they had different songwriters, but for my album Audition Tapes it was just me, so I didn’t want to film 10 songs in my backyard with me sitting in the same chair. I wanted locales that made sense or had a purpose for me being there. And so we were kind of keeping it at bay and trying to figure out where to do it. And I’m a member of – I don’t know if I still am, I probably need to renew – but I was a member of The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, and my brother is a member too, or was, and he sent me the email with the new “places in peril” in Georgia in 2013. So we partnered up with the Georgia Trust.
HL: So they “got it” when you got in touch with them?
THM: Yeah, we got in touch with [Georgia Trust president and CEO] Mark McDonald.
HL: I know Mark. [He was formerly head of the Historic Savannah Foundation.]
THM: He’s from down here, isn’t he? He likes music. So that was easy.
HL: Do any of those locations still jump into your mind first when you think about the project?
THM: Well The Rock House in Thomson, where we did “Beauty Rest” — that was the first one we did, and that was a place I’d been to growing up. My parents live not far from Thomson.
And [Howard Finster’s] Paradise Garden was obviously awesome and [St. EOM’s] Pasaquan — the two extra art-related places were cool to me. Those were the only two in color, because of the art, and those were full band and the others were acoustic. But they were all a short story within themselves. I should probably write it all down.
HL: Are there things you think people are missing about what you’re doing, the music that you’re making?
THM: I have no idea what other people think. I guess I’m way off on what I think people will possibly like. I’m like, “Oh my god, this is so great, I would love this,” so I do that. Obviously, people want something much more palatable or something.
HL: But you’ve found some success.
THM: Sure. But you know, we’re not playing the theater down the street. Not that that is what I’m asking for.
I think people are often like, “Does this guy know what he wants to do?”, because I’m always doing something different. I just like to keep things interesting. I just couldn’t imagine just having one sound and riding that out. I guess I’ve been more of the Neil Young school.
HL: Well there’s an example. From Harvest to Trans.
THM: I see where he’s going. Not all of it’s great, not all of it’s perfect – none of it is perfect – but it’s all him. It’s all honest.
We chatted for a bit longer about various things, and later that night — after great sets by Breakers and Justin Osborne — Hardy & The Hardknocks killed it. As I expected. I’ll close with a handful of shots that we’ve posted of Hardy in the last 18 months: