When T. Hardy Morris, one of the principle members of the psychedelic Southern grunge-rock outfit Dead Confederate, put out his first solo album in 2013, it was quite the curveball. He'd spent more than 15 years with his childhood friend Walker Howle making wide-screen rock epics that stretched from gritty riff-rock to jam-band extremes, so no one expected an introspective, largely stripped-down collection of ballads. But that's what Audition Tapes was: A mostly acoustic, low-key group of tunes that jettisoned the bombast and noise in favor of a hushed, intimate atmosphere.
"I've always written all kinds of different stuff," Morris says. "With Audition Tapes, the songs were written during a period where I was recording and touring heavily with Dead Confederate, and I would corner them off in the back of my head. That's what became that album. It was just songs that didn't fit the band."
Now, with his new album, Drownin' on a Mountaintop (released under the name Hardy & the Hardtops), Morris has reshuffled the deck again. The key word here is loud. The guitars are cranked past 11, rampaging through the songs like a hurricane. Even on the slow tunes, like the album-opening "Young Assumption," the six-string fury is ear-splitting. That was often the case on Dead Confederate's albums, but here, the racket sits comfortably alongside a bittersweet country twang, punctuated by a weeping pedal steel and some good old-fashioned regret and recrimination in the lyrics.
It's a loose-limbed, raucous album, written and recorded quickly with a cheerful warts-and-all attitude. "With 'Drownin', that was more of a deliberate thing than the first album," Morris says. "I'd written a few songs that meandered between country and the more revved–up, grungy rock that Dead Confederate does, and I wanted to marry those things. It wasn't really that different from my other bands or anything; it was an experiment to find out how creatively can I marry these two genres of which I'm a big fan and both honor and make fun of them at the same time."
Morris says that though he wasn't thinking about it at the time, there's a definite thread between loud, cranky guitar rock and country, at least in his mind. "They're both rural-feeling," he says. "There's a certain rural sensibility to both of them. I'm playing grungy kind of stuff; I'm not using punk rhythms. And grunge, for whatever reason, feels more rural to me, and obviously country does too. But that's something I only thought about after the fact when people asked what I was going for with these songs that bounced back and forth like that. It came naturally to me. I was just writing songs and having fun with them."
In fact, Morris says it can often be a mistake to assume that he or any other artist has some grand musical plan in mind before going into the studio. "I'm sure some musicians do, and every artist puts thought into what they're doing, but it's not always from the same angle that you might be thinking," he says. "Or it might not be as deeply thought out. Sometimes you're just having a good time writing some songs and seeing what makes the cut and if you can surprise yourself, or others. That was kind of my goal. I just wanted it to be interesting and fun. I wasn't trying to take over the world; it's probably one of the more lighthearted efforts I've put forth."
That being said, the lyrics on both Morris' solo albums come from a place close to home. "There's definitely a lot of autobiography, especially on Audition Tapes," he says. "I don't do a lot of character sketch kind of things. It doesn't come naturally to me; it's felt forced or strange when I've tried it."
Even then, though, Morris warns that things aren't always what they seem. "Oftentimes art is really just exploiting a moment," he says. "You'll have these moments in songs when they're wrapped around these certain chords or rhythms and they have this weight that makes it sound like the darkest day of your life, and sometimes it's something that just may have been a little unpleasant. But that's what art is."
But with two solo albums under his belt, and another in the works, there remains some uncertainty about his day job, the Dead Confederates. And when asked about the band, Morris doesn't seem to be in any hurry to go back.
"We're essentially on hiatus," he says. "We hang out and talk about what we're going to do next all the time, but we haven't made any plans. We keep threatening to make another record, but right now, I'm doing my own thing, and some of the other guys are in other bands, some of them do visual arts ... we're still a band, but we're not extremely active right now."
Morris performs with Shakey Graves during night one of Graves' two-night stand at the Music Hall. SUSTO will open night two on New Year's Eve.