Oil Money (Bill Morrissey)

In the early 1980s, I rarely played a set that didn’t include a Bill Morrissey song, and this was the one I sang most frequently — in part because Bill didn’t do it all that often, so I could kind of lay claim to it. bill-morrissey-lpUnlike a lot of Bill’s songs, which were beautifully written but didn’t have much in common with my own experience, this one felt familiar to me – not in the details, but I appreciated the prosaic way it evoked homesickness and the sense of losing track of who you are and where you come from. I was doing a lot of traveling, and trying to figure out where and how I might fit in, and in the process had gradually become aware that I liked places that felt like New England — it didn’t have to be exact, but I wanted some mountains, and I wanted them to be low enough to have trees on them. So this one worked for me, and I played it a lot.

In 1987, I took a break from writing and playing the clubs to hitchhike down and around the coast from Boston to Mexico, and I made a point of going through Morgan City, mostly because of this song. I was coming from New Orleans — that was my first visit, and I’d put in a few days playing for tap-dancers on Bourbon Street with an amp borrowed from David and Roselyn, who are wonderful street singers and twenty years later would marry me to Sandrine (who will show up playing clarinet at some point in this project). I hitched down route 90, coming into Morgan City over a bridge that the driver said was where Dennis Hopper got shot in Easy Rider which I believed until I just looked for a picture of the bridge and learned that Hopper was actually shot near Morganza, about a hundred miles inland, west of Baton Rouge.

Anyway, the driver was kind enough to take me home to the trailer park where he was living with his wife and two small kids. He was a big fan of the Texas songwriters and I played him some Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Joe Ely, and he was happy with that, so I figured we were on the same page and played “Oil Money.” He’d come down from Michigan to work on an oil rig, so it was pretty much his story, and I expected it to blow him away. But it didn’t work for him — not enough Texas, I guess.

That was briefly disappointing, but ever since this song has reminded me of that guy in Morgan City. I went back a few months later, and he’d left town — his wife and kids were still there, not sure where he was or what they’d do next, and thinking about heading back  to Michigan. It was the sort of story Bill told in song after song, though in real life it was just depressing, not romantic.

I don’t know if there’s a lesson to that story, but it marks a kind of break for me because by that time Bill was changing directions as well, writing fewer songs about working class guys from New Hampshire, and I was doing fewer gigs and often got through them without singing his stuff. I still do this one now and then, and still think it’s one of his best – though almost forty years later, a couple of generations of listeners probably won’t understand the ending, because it’s been almost that long since you could call anyplace and get a local operator. Which, for me, makes the song work better than ever, because time is the most unbridgeable form of distance, and I miss things like that.