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With Slow Burn, Ken Will Morton Stays the Course

Ken Will Morton may not fully understand Internet culture or how to harness its power to help his music reach an audience, but even he, a self-professed semi-Luddite, joins in one of web culture’s broadest agreements: Cat videos are pretty great.

“I’ve been watching videos of cats confronting alligators,” he says. “And they’ll smack ‘em! And the alligators are like, ‘Ooo-kay.’ Of course, the alligator could kill them. But the cats are so full of attitude!”

Morton’s admiration for the feline spirit makes sense; he’s no stranger to attitude himself. A prolific singer-songwriter who’s been making music in Athens since 2004, the titles of his recent releases, like 2010’s True Grit and 2011’s Contenders, hint at his scrappy spirit. He’s developed a reputation as an underdog among a certain segment of the press, who love him and can’t seem to understand why more people don’t share the sentiment.

“Morton makes music every bit as essential as Springsteen, Earle, Townes, Mellencamp and any number of other so-called heartland heroes,” American Songwriter recently said of Morton’s upcoming seventh full-length, Slow Burn. Out later this month on Rara Avis Records, it comes with a companion compilation culled from previous releases, titled Tell It to the Wind

To celebrate its release, Morton is holding a show at Hendershot’s on Friday, where he’ll be followed by Jack Logan and Scott Baxendale (the latter of whom is the luthier behind Baxendale Guitars who was recently appointed to restore Elvis Presley’s collection). The show will be a rare treat for Morton, in that he’ll be joined by a full band—drummer Dean Johnston, bassist Tim Adams, Scotty Nicholson on keyboards, Andrew Vickery on slide guitar and John Keane singing harmonies—the same fellas on Slow Burn.

Unlike Contenders, with its mellow, acoustic vibe and understated percussion, Slow Burn finds Morton back in the shit-kicking form that many of his fans love him for.

“The guys at 1093 Boulevard [Richard Salino and J.P. Pruett], who did this record, they’re all drummers. The drums are loud in the mix,” Morton says. “My drummer, Dean, he’s like a ball of energy. When someone’s kicking you in the ass and really playing, that enthusiasm is contagious.”

Morton, who says he’s now “two albums ahead” of Slow Burn in the writing process, is looking forward to the infusion of new energy into a set of songs he’s not necessarily in the emotional mindset for anymore.

“It’s weird, because releasing a record is like looking at a photo of yourself a year ago,” he explains. “Sometimes you can make a song and love it, and then you play it with musicians or mix it, and you hear it over and over. And you’re like, ‘I’m over it; I’m done.’ It sucks all the joy out of it. Everyone’s had a song like that, where it’s like a drug. But then eventually, you can’t listen to it anymore.”

Still, it’s not so much that Morton doesn’t want to listen to, or play, tunes from Slow Burn anymore. It’s just that, as he has been preparing to release it, he’s found his musical sweet spot.

“I feel like I finally understand and get [my own sound] now,” he says, fidgeting in his chair. “You ever listen to a record that sounds like a bathrobe-and-slippers record? It doesn’t sound like they went to a big studio and made it. I knew I had a rasp to the voice, and there’s that worn-in sneaker analogy about it. I feel like I’m onto something, but I’m so slow with technology.”

It’s a common frustration among artists, who typically would rather spend their time making something than learning how to tweet. And despite his abundant enthusiasm and creative energy, it’s clear this frustration plagues Morton.

“Personally, I am not a person who likes to go and bang my own drum. I just can’t. Twitter, and like, ‘Look what I did! Look at me!’—I get my shot, and I just let music do the talking. I know I could be doing more in that arena, but it kind of creeps me out.”

There’s a song on Slow Burn called “This Ain’t No Place for a Sensitive Man,” which Morton says he wrote about the music business in Nashville, but it seems equally applicable to his current conundrum. “You see something beautiful [online] and read the comments and it’s, ‘Faggot’,” he says.

Of course, Morton also knows the Internet offers opportunities to connect with fans in ways he wasn’t able to when he moved to Athens 10 years ago. “Sometimes I get an email from some guy saying, ‘Listened to your record with my top down while driving through Italy.’ It takes you aback. You’re getting to somebody.”

So, Morton keeps writing. He’s learning, he says, to make YouTube videos. He’s trying to keep an open mind about Twitter, and he’ll always have music to ground him. With a rollicking new record to promote and his newfound musical sweet spot to mine, he’s determined to adapt to the times and keep creating. Still, there is always room to grow. On “Sensitive Man,” Morton sings, “If you’re uncomfortable, then you’re right on course.”

WHO: Ken Will Morton, Jack Logan & Scott Baxendale
WHERE: Hendershot’s Coffee Bar
WHEN: Friday, Jan. 17, 8 p.m.