California blues guitarist Laurie Morvan and her band are in that place right now where they draw two-paragraph mentions in local newspapers, generous but usually short features, CD reviews in small-circ blues magazines, and generally positive festival appearance reviews. Morvan is a rigorously practical and effusively grateful working musician — as an indie artist who does all her own booking and management, she knows all too well the heavy lifting involved in finding and nailing key gigs and making herself available to what periodical press is still out there. Being picky about her press is both against her low-key nature, as well as not in her own interest.
Still, you don’t have to look too far before you find someone in print comparing her fleet and fluid Stratocaster style to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and, sorry, but for the most part, we don’t hear it. Danny Gatton maybe?
“Oh, now you see,” she says, “all that chicken-pickin’ stuff that my ear just sort of gravitates to, and the chordal things I do. … Yeah, I love Danny Gatton.
“It’s always interesting to me when I get a Stevie Ray Vaughan reference, because I never really set out to sound like him. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I loves me some Stevie Ray Vaughan. But I just don’t like I play like him, so I find it interesting when people say that. Honestly, though, anyone who plays a blues-rock guitar, I just think it’ll be a Stevie Ray Vaughan reference because he’s the biggest thing in blues-rock guitar. It’s kind of like anyone woman who sings with even the slightest rasp in her voice will be compared to Janis Joplin. Period.”
Morvan and her band are spending the hottest and driest summer since the Dustbowl plying the clubs and scattered blues festivals across the nation’s midsection (we caught up to her en route to Topeka by way of Kansas City). Their latest CD, Breathe Deep, copped plenty of good ink last winter for its vacuum-tight arrangements and Morvan’s songwriting, which swings neatly between catchy longneck saloon stompers like “No Working During Drinking Hours” and “Beat Up From The Feet Up” to sultry, coal-fire torchers like “Bad Love Blues” and “It Only Hurts When I Breathe.”
Morvan’s guitar work is the stuff of axe-nerd fantasy, elastic and fluid when it needs to be, marksman-like when she needs to punctuate, relentlessly feral when she stretches out. She’ll be the first to call it “blues-rock,” but unlike a lot of her hit-hungry peers, the emphasis is on blues and swing, not stürm und drang.
“There’s a lot of people who will go out and copy other guys and try to figure out what amp they use and what settings and so on,” Morvan says. “I just haven’t ever done that. For me, I’ve just always tried to find my own voice. I use a lot cleaner tone than most guys use, and that’s on purpose. Playing with dirt is a whole lotta fun, but there’s like a kabillion guys who do that, and I’m like ‘OK, maybe I should do something different. Wouldn’t that be nice?’
“I don’t play the blues like a typical blues player. Some people will see that as a negative, and some will see it as a positive. When you’re on the way up and you’re a little bit different, it’ll be seen as a negative. But once you hit, it will be seen as a positive and everyone will want to be like you.”
But unless you’re ready to splinter your way through a few genre-biased doorways, being like Laurie Morvan is likely to be a challenge. Born and raised in rural Illinois, she got turned on to music by a music-obsessed stepfather and started playing guitar in her teens. She attended the University of Illinois on a volleyball scholarship, graduating in the mid-1980s with a degree in electrical engineering.
“I would walk into class,” she says, “and there’d be 50 guys. And me. … We had 6:30 a.m. workouts, and then 2:30 p.m. workouts, and so I’d walk into class all sweaty and gross, and it’d be, ‘Hi guys.’ “But really what helped was … you get As. That’s what helps, cause then nobody can argue that you don’t belong there.”
She moved to California after Illinois and worked for three years as an engineer in the aerospace industry. The job was a little too restrictive for an aspiring musician with her eyes on the road, so she moved onto teaching, securing her Master’s in applied mathematics some years later. She currently holds a faculty position at Cypress College in Southern California, teaching calculus and trigonometry.
Blues guitarist on the weekends and in the summer, a college math instructor the rest of the time. She doesn’t make a big deal about it — plenty of club artists have day gigs to keep themselves afloat, and Morvan, who could go back to engineering more or less any time she wanted, approaches the whole thing with characteristically balanced logic.
“I kind of feel like, if something’s going to take me away from music, then I want it to be an extremely worthy cause,” she says. “As long as I’m teaching, I still feel like I’m in the dream business.”