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All in Stride 

Greg Morton, the ultimate nice guy, celebrates the release of his new CD

Greg Morton is three days removed from an operation that cut a small hole in one of his lungs to remove a piece of foreign matter. Although on the mend, he is still weak as he relates the details of a four-month ordeal that began with a dentist's drill bit popping out of its housing and into his trachea.

After many visits to different doctors (one told him he had valley fever), Morton's own hunch was eventually confirmed by something no less scientific than courthouse security. Apparently, he could not pass through the metal detector without tripping the alarm.

While you or I would rant, rave and file lawsuits, Morton takes it all in stride. He blames no one, assumes the best in everyone and confirms what most people who have met him already know--he is perhaps the nicest guy in the world.

One could argue that Morton's raw talent as a bluegrass guitarist would eventually get him noticed--but there are many great musicians who will tell you that talent alone is no guarantee when it comes to getting discovered. For Morton, however, his humility and genuine aw-shucks attitude, communicated through his soft-spoken Tennessee drawl, may have karmically led to his storybook rise.

Consider this: In 1970, as a 14-year-old, he and his twin brother, Randal, attended a bluegrass festival in Alabama, headlined by Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music.

"Monroe's brother James was at the admission gate, and he saw we had some instruments in our car, and he asked if we played," recalls Morton. "James says, 'Come on up and play a few tunes.' The next thing I know, we're up there on stage and on our second tune, and out walks Bill Monroe (with his mandolin) to come pick with us."

From that time on, both Mortons were hooked and began hitting every bluegrass festival they could get to in the Southeast. It was a community-oriented atmosphere that did not delineate between who was a musician and who was in the audience, and that may well have contributed to that part of Morton's persona that is completely approachable.

In 1973, in his hometown of Memphis, Morton's musical education and circle of friends were infused with their first dose of John Hartford, Sam Bush and the New Grass Revival. "That really opened my mind up to this new kind of bluegrass," Morton says. At the same time, he had become somewhat of a traditional bluegrass phenom and was being invited to jam with the likes of Mother Maybelle Carter and daughter June, along with the venerable Monroe. It was at this time he also met up with Mark O'Connor, a then-little-known fiddle player who would go on to win multiple Grammy awards. Morton would end up backing him in a national fiddle competition, which O'Connor won.

By the time Morton arrived in Tucson 15 years ago, he had already tasted the kind of success most folks only dream of. But instead of coming off like an established star, Morton was content to let people learn who he was via the aw-shucks thing and his amazing guitar work.

For more than a year, he fronted a Friday-night bluegrass jam at Nimbus with local fiddler Tim O'Connor and bassist Brian Davies. This is where he met Mark Robertson-Tessi, a budding virtuoso on the mandolin. Although Robertson-Tessi's rhythmic approach to the mandolin was a dramatic contrast to Morton's fast-and-fluid way with the guitar, they formed a musical partnership, richly complementing each others' strengths.

"He was already great back then," says Morton, recalling their early days at the Nimbus jams. "When he hears something, he not only knows the melody, but he already has the harmony figured out."

Three years ago, with bassist Jim Stanley, they formed the String Figures. While Morton's new recording, When Pigs Fly, is being released under his name, the String Figures form the nucleus around which Morton's many special guests revolve. Some of these include old friends Sam Bush, John Cowan, Barbara Lamb and Roland White, along with locals Heather Hardy, Peter McLaughlin, Michael P. Nordberg and Tim O'Connor.

Somewhere at home, Morton has a guitar adorned with almost 100 autographs, including those of Béla Fleck, Doc Watson and many of the other big names with which he's had the pleasure to share a stage. But it's also got the signatures of folks like local teenager Trevor Smith and Robertson-Tessi--autographs he treasures every bit as much as the others, because in the amazing world of Greg Morton, they, too, are his heroes.

More by Jim Lipson

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