NORTH COUNTRY PRIMER #7: RAYMOND MORIN, PITTSBURGH. PA
Originally published at North Country Primitive in May 2015
The seventh instalment in our North Country Primer series features Pittsburgh-based guitarist, Raymond Morin, who many of you may also know as the head honcho of the excellent fingerstyle blog, Work & Worry, a key inspiration for our own humble efforts. While Work & Worry has gone on the back burner for the time being, Raymond has been finding plenty more guitar-related activity to keep him busy - as well as repairing and building them as part of his day job, he is also organising regular gigs for like-minded musicians passing through Pittsburgh and, alongside David Leicht, playing as one half of acoustic duo Pairdown - more of which below.
Tell us a bit about yourself and the musical journey that took you to a place where you concluded that playing an acoustic guitar on your own was a good idea…
I grew up in an old mill town in northeast Connecticut, pretty removed from anything interesting. I initially started playing music just because it was something to do when the weather wasn’t conducive to skateboarding. My girlfriend at the time - now my wife - had a guitar sitting under her bed, and I asked her to show me some chords. Her dad jokes that because he originally taught her the chords that she passed on to me, he’s the one who basically taught me everything I know!
I originally put down the pick back in my band days, when I played in a sort of chamber-pop group called The Higher Burning Fire. I guess my initial thought was that it would distinguish the sound of my playing if I picked with my fingers and came up with the most physically demanding chord shapes I could think of, stuff that I couldn’t imagine other guitarists going to the trouble to execute. As I developed as a “fingerstyle” player, I came to the logical conclusion that not only could I play somewhat orchestrally on my own, but there was a tradition of doing this thing on acoustic guitars, which had their own exotic appeal, and travelled a lot more easily than electrics plus amps.
What has influenced your music and why?
I loved alternative and college rock in high school, R.E.M., Morrissey and The Smiths, Jane’s Addiction etc, but I always had Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan rattling around in my head, from when my parents used to listen to the oldies radio station on family trips. I got really into indie and post-rock for a few years after high school, stuff like Unwound, Fugazi, Tortoise, June of 44, Boys Life, etc. When I started playing acoustic guitar and fingerpicking more, I started digging deeper into the older stuff, in addition to writing my own songs, and naturally found my way to my longtime favorites: Bert, Davy, John Renbourn, Martin Carthy, that whole generation of players just never ceases to enthrall me.
So in addition to the records that I was listening to, I was lucky enough to befriend a few players over the years that have continued to have a massive influence on the way I play and perceive music. The first is a great friend of mine named Matthew Goulet, who I met when I lived in Boston. I was a year or two into exploring British folk and blues music, and Matt had all of that stuff down cold, but was also an exceptional ragtime picker. As a guitarist, that was a big door to have someone open for you! Within a couple days of meeting Matt, I knew that I would never be happy until I learned to play like him, and I’ll be damned if I’m not still trying.
The second biggest influence on the way that I think about guitar playing is probably Milo Jones, a criminally under-known guitarist from Boston and another good friend. I can’t begin to describe how deep Milo’s music goes, he’s a very accomplished player and singer who has a pretty unique vision, a harmonic sophistication that’s unrivaled in the “solo guitar dude” world. More rooted in jazz, I guess. His YouTube videos are great, and you can listen to a ton of his recorded music on his Bandcamp page.
The biggest influence is my ongoing partnership with David Leicht. We play as a fingerstyle duo called Pairdown. When I first moved to Pittsburgh and met Dave, we were both plying our wares as solo singer/songwriter types, he was fingerpicking just a little bit… I think initially we both just liked each other’s lyrics, and we just got on really well together. In the time I’ve known him, Dave has become a real master at composing for the acoustic guitar, and it’s a huge challenge for me coming up with parts that are worthy of being attached to his songs. He has also become a fantastic fingerpicker in his own right. He can play Ton Van Bergeyk’s Grizzly Bear for crying out loud. That ain’t easy.
What have you been up to recently?
Well, I have a young daughter who is at the top of the priority list these days. I manage and do repairs at a musical instrument shop called Acoustic Music Works here in Pittsburgh, so that’s the full-time gig. It’ll be three years ago this summer that I started learning to build acoustic guitars, so that takes up a lot of my time, just exploring that and honing that craft. I’m very fortunate to have access to a lot of insanely nice acoustics at my job, stuff like Collings and Bourgeois, some fancy luthier-built stuff and my share of old Martin and Gibsons, so I take a lot of notes.
Since I started at AMW, I’ve also been presenting a lot of guitar-oriented concerts at the shop. When I was writing about guitar music for workandworry.com (still online, but kind of dormant these days, with everything else going on) I got to speak to a lot of these guys whenever they had a new record in the works, and now I’m able to give them a cool place to play when they’re on tour. Pittsburgh is not exactly known as a raging guitar soli town, you know? But we have a good time, and I’ve been able to get cash into everyone’s pockets, which I know wasn’t the case at a lot of the places that these guys and gals used to play when they passed through. If you’re reading this blog and are planning a tour that passes through Pittsburgh, feel free to hit me up about a gig at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other than that, we’re currently gearing up to record a new Pairdown LP, which is very exciting. Some of our best guitar-work so far, for sure, but also some of our coolest songs. We have a couple real epics on our hands, some real dynamic tunes that have lots of twists and turns… so we’ll probably record that starting this summer sometime, maybe early in the fall.
What are you listening to right now, old or new? Any recommendations you’d like to share with us? This would be a good time to score some cool points, but I’m afraid my music listening has no agenda, rhyme or reason behind it. Lately it’s lots of Mastodon, First Aid Kit, Sturgill Simpson, John Renbourn, Steve Gunn, Phil Ochs. I got to hear what I believe are the final mixes for the new James Elkington / Nathan Salsburg duet record, those guys are incredible. Their first one, Avos, is easily one of my favorites from the current generation of guitar players, and Nathan’s solo stuff is nothing short of breathtaking. I’d recommend that anyone who wants to hear great guitar playing listen to Milo Jones. I also love LOVE the ragtime playing of John James, and Stefan Grossman has been reissuing James’ Kicking Mule LPs on CD over the last couple years. The guitar nerd bit: what guitars do you play and what do you like about them? Is there anything out there you’re coveting? My main guitar is a custom by Trevor Healy, who builds acoustics and electrics in Easthampton, MA as Healy Guitars. It’s called his RM model, it’s a small jumbo (16” lower bout) and this particular one is 25” scale, with an Adirondack spruce top and Cuban mahogany back and sides. I’ve had this guitar for over three years now, it sounds wonderful and it just gets better and better, all the time. Your readers might now Trevor from the Beyond Berkeley Guitar CD that came out on Tompkins Square a few years ago, he’s a great fingerpicker in addition to being a great luthier. I also recently built myself a ladder-braced L-00 sized guitar, a copy of the new Waterloo WL-14 that Collings came up with. Those are based on the old Kalamazoo KG-14s that Gibson built for the catalog/department store market during the depression, something like a $15 guitar at the time. Mine is a really dry sounding guitar, with a very quick and immediate response. It’s great for the really snappy ragtime and country blues stuff, but honestly pretty much everything sounds awesome on it. It has a really chunky “V” neck, which scares off a lot of people, but I love it. I’m around hundreds of brilliant guitars all day at work, so a certain amount of self control is required. One day I’d like to build myself an OM-45 out of one of the sets of Brazilian rosewood that I have, or better yet, have Trevor build it! Banjos: yes or no? For sure! Corn Potato String Band from Detroit just played at my shop a few weeks ago, and they had a two-banjo version of “Nola” played in harmony… totally blew my socks off! What are you planning to do next? I’ve got a bunch of guitar building commissions and other projects lined up, pretty much through the end of the year, so between that and the new Pairdown record getting recorded, I’ve got my work cut out for me. What should we have asked you and didn’t? Nah, I’ve gone on plenty. Thanks, keep up the good work!