From The Dallas Morning News – Tom Morrell bent steel with his hands. With his agile fingers and wrists, he could coax a steel guitar to cry out a mournful melody and to laugh out a happy phrase.
Mr. Morrell died Monday of emphysema at home in East Dallas. He was 68.
His contemporaries in Western swing and jazz consider him a musical genius, while many mainstream country music listeners don’t know him. But they probably unwittingly hear his session work on recordings by artists such as Willie Nelson (The Sound in Your Mind), Asleep at the Wheel (Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys ) and many others.
“There’s nobody can even touch him,” said Leon Rausch, of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, before Mr. Morrell’s death. “He’s a stone genius.”
The Dallas native, who lived 30 years in Little Elm, left behind his 15-volume Tom Morrell and the Time Warp Top Tophands “How the West Was Swung” series on WR Records.
The collection chronicles his passion for jazz and particularly Western swing. Each CD features a roster of Texas’ best musicians such as guitarists Leon Chambers and Rich O’Brien, fiddlers Randy Elmore and Bobby Boatright, vocalists Leon Rausch, Don Edwards, Chris O’Connell, Buck Reams and Craig Chambers. Mr. Morrell was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 2001.
Mr. Morrell’s next CD, Relaxin‘, is expected to be available next week at Westernswing.net, Amazon.com and some local record stores. The disc is the 15th in the “How the West Was Swung” series.
Mr. Morrell’s sisters Delores “Dodo” Boyd, 65, of Dallas and Jeanne McKinney, 59, of Garland remember their brother as a lifelong musician. Mr. Morrell first picked up a guitar when he and Ms. Boyd were students at St. James Catholic School in Oak Cliff. Ms. Boyd knew her brother was serious about music back then.
“If you lived at our house and saw every minute he spent playing with a band … music was his life, that was it,” Ms. Boyd said.
Other survivors include a son, Jerry Wayne Morrell of Monroe, La.; daughters Cheryl Denise Walker of Monroe and Laura Renée Wagner of Houston; and four grandchildren. Memorial plans are pending. Details will be posted on the guest book at Westernswing .net.
Mr. Morrell lived in Hobbs, N.M., for about a year in the 1950s. Mr. Rausch remembers seeing Mr. Morrell play in Hobbs.
“We all were amazed at him. We saw this pimple-faced kid playing more steel guitar than anybody we knew,” Mr. Rausch said.
Mr. Morrell had an onscreen band part in the 1990 movie Daddy’s Dyin’… Who’s Got the Will? directed by Jack Fisk. Also, his music is featured on the soundtracks of the movies Savannah Smiles and True Stories.
Mr. Morrell was most recently living with his lifelong friend and partner, Jody Balfour. Ms. Balfour says that the couple talked a lot about music and Mr. Morrell’s artwork. “His biggest fear was being forgotten,” says Ms. Balfour.
Bert Winston, owner of WR Records, thinks Mr. Morrell’s legacy will be affirmed by seasoned and up-and-coming musicians.
“He was one of the greatest steel-guitar players that has ever been, really,” Mr. Winston said. “I actually think he is probably more admired now than ever.”