A man of many talents, country singer Gary Morris plugs volunteerism on MPT

September 10, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Gary Morris has sung opera at the Grand Ole Oprey, and once, when he was playing Rodolfo in the New York Public Theater's production of "La Boheme," he reportedly blurted out: "Y'all."

It was apparently a case of "you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy."

And although Morris continues to be best known as a country music singer, his varied career also includes starring as Jean Valjean in the musical, "Les Miserables," on Broadway in 1988.

Clearly, versatility is what Morris should be known for, and he will demonstrate some of that tonight as the star of "Project Reach Out," Maryland Public Television's fifth annual telethon to encourage volunteers to work in public schools. Co-produced with the Maryland Department of Education, the show airs from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., with the first hour simulcast on WJZ (Channel 13).

Charitable, social and even political causes are nothing new to Morris. "For an apolitical person, I've done a lot of things," he acknowledged over the phone from the Denver airport, following an elk-hunting vacation.

Morris won his first recording contract after a music executive heard him perform at the Carter White House, a gig that resulted from his participation in Carter's 1976 whistle-stop campaign. This time around he isn't doing any whistle-stopping, but he did sing at the Democratic National Convention. "It's time to take back the country," he says of his current political stance.

Although many of Morris' biggest hits have been romantic ballads -- including "Wind Beneath My Wings," "Velvet Chains" and "I'll Never Stop Loving You" -- he's been known to slip social themes into his songs. For example, he describes "Time Will Tell" as a song that addresses "hypocrisy in public office, hypocrisy in organized religion; it's kind of a social commentary based on a gut feeling I was having the day that I picked up the pen to write it." And, he donates his co-writing royalties from "Somebody Lives There," a song about the homeless, to Habitat for Humanity, an organization that provides housing for the poor.

Tempering his remarks with the comment, "don't get me started," Morris suggests the country music industry isn't always delighted when songs -- or singers -- take a political or social stand. But then, the 43-year-old Texas native is accustomed to ruffling feathers in Nashville, where, he claims, variety is rarely rewarded.

Morris has no intention of limiting himself to one medium.

"In 1988, when I did 'Les Mis,' I had like four or five No. 1 records in a row," he says. "Coming out of it,there were some stations that wouldn't play my records."

Nonetheless, it's clear Morris has no intention of limiting himself to one medium. In fact, these days he's expanding his visibility on TV. A camera crew accompanied him on his elk hunt, shooting footage for a new show, "North American Sportsman," he will host for The Nashville Network beginning in November. And last weekend he was in Los Angeles talking to Roseanne Arnold about a possible role on her show.

While such diversity may not appeal to the powers-that-be in country music, it's one reason he was selected for tonight's "Project Reach Out," following in the footsteps of previous guest stars Pearl Bailey, Melba Moore, Hal Linden and Ben Vereen. Executive producer Donald H. Thoms, who had interviewed Morris twice for MPT's "New Country Video," explained, "His whole outlook on country music vs. pop music vs. Broadway is fascinating. He's kind of transcended all of them."

And, if the country music world is occasionally less than thrilled with Gary Morris, well, the truth is, he wasn't always thrilled with country music. In fact, when he was growing up, he didn't care for it at all. "I didn't like people who sang through their nose," he says. "I still don't."

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