Bluegrass player doesn't fret success

April 26, 1991|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

WHILE THE full force of spring did its best to inspire dreams of greatness, bluegrass music star Lynn Morris told students at Mercy High School just how it is that women get ahead.

"If you remember one thing from my visit, I want you to remember these three words: 'Yes I Can.' It seems ridiculously simple, but there have been so many times in my career when someone told me I couldn't or shouldn't, and I bought it. I didn't know I had options," she said.

Yesterday Morris brought her critically acclaimed bluegrass band, The Lynn Morris Band, to the all-girl Catholic school for a performance and a pre-concert pep talk. She is one of the relatively few women performers in her field, and one of even fewer to head her own band. After almost 20 years as a professional musician -- her second album on Rounder Records will be out this summer -- she is the only person to have twice won the coveted National Banjo Championships. And she recently became the first woman elected to serve on the board of the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Instead of talking about her achievements, however, Morris wanted her young audience to realize how many times she had reached the end of her rope, how many times she had lost faith in herself and in her choice of career. In fact, she told the teen-agers, there have been more times she thought she couldn't make it than times she has thought she could.

Take last summer, for instance, when she lost the use of her right arm because of a ruptured disc in her neck. The surgery necessary for her to continue as a musician presented the risk of losing her voice. Six weeks after the operation, her voice hadn't come back. People in the business began to say she was finished and she suspected they were right.

She admitted that her complete recovery had as much to do with others' faith as it did with her own.

"We tend to think that success is the absence of failure. That's not the case. Success is getting through the failures. The winners are the ones who keep going."

Morris is a handsome, energetic 42-year-old woman, about 5-foot-3, with bright blue eyes and waist-long chestnut hair which she piles onto her head in a bun.

As she refered to points she had carefully written down on a yellow legal pad, Mercy students formed an attentive semi-circle in front of her. Sixteen-year-old Marisa Ferraro wanted to pursue a career in dance; Stephanie Libonati wanted leadership tips she could use when she becomes a politician or diplomat. The students were a study of brown and white uniforms and blazing aspirations.

As she spoke, Morris seemed to represent the triumph of the long haul and the disciplines of the road. Wearing jeans, a blue work shirt and sneakers, she showed off her 1952 Martin D-18 guitar, which, as she put it, looks like it's been through a war. The only guitar she owns, she has used it for the last 15 years.

"It's a good road guitar because you don't have to worry about it enduring," she said. "It frets out true. If I put it in tune, it stays there . . . And it's a good loud guitar."

Born in Lamesa, Texas, about an hour's drive from Lubbock, Morris began playing guitar when she was 12, taking lessons in classical guitar when she was in high school. She says she spent her childhood listening to Johnny Cash and Burl Ives on Lamesa's one radio station. Not until she went to study art at Colorado College did she hear the bluegrass music which captured her.

By the time she graduated in 1972, she wanted a career as a performer. She joined Toastmasters to overcome the shyness which kept her from talking into a microphone on stage. She took dance lessons to learn how to move more gracefully. Acting classes showed her how to express what she was feeling.

"I just fell in love with the music," she said. "And the only way I could play as much as I wanted to was to become a professional."

And the only way she could play with a band which met her exacting standards was to form her own.

"Did your parents encourage you in music?" asked one student.

"Absolutely," Morris answered. "They were wonderful until they found out that I wanted to play professionally."

She described herself as a middle child with too much of a tendency to accommodate people, as someone who had wasted a lot of time erring on the side of compliance. In high school, she told the students, she longed to become a veterinarian. She decided against it, however, when the local vet told her she was ill-suited to the profession because she was too small to handle large animals and because men wouldn't be comfortable doing business with her.

"At the time, I said, 'Gee, that makes sense. Forget that.' So I did."

She told the students that she is married to Marshall Wilborn, who plays bass in her band. It's an arrangement with more advantages than disadvantages, she said. And, yes, she has achieved most of her ambitions in heading her own band and by recording and performing internationally. However, she would like to spend more time on her music and less time on the business.

This month Morris has worked more nights than she has taken off. When she's not performing or traveling, she's booking dates, making plane reservations, handling her own publicity.

A student asked what keeps her motivated.

"I go out and listen to other musicians," she said. "Bill Monroe's still touring on the road and he's almost 80. The Lord willing, I'll be doing this a long time, too.

"You've heard that life begins at 40? Well, you don't have to wait that long," Morris told the teen-agers.


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