The following appears in the October issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
Gary Morris is a born-and-bred Texan who carved out a successful country music career in Nashville and was once a hit on Broadway. But his heart has taken him both west and north.
After recording five No. 1 country singles and performing for almost every U.S. president since the mid-1970s – his big break was a gig singing during Jimmy Carter’s campaign – and crooning before the Queen of England, Morris’ preferred stage now is in the wilderness, which flanks the remote southwest Colorado ranch he now calls home. And there are few places on the planet he’d rather fish or hunt in than Alaska.
“Alaska is my favorite place in the United States – maybe second to only New Zealand in the world,” says Morris, 69. “I love it. You know, if it didn’t have a summer with no night and a winter with no day, I’d move there.”
Though he continues to record and write new music and stays busy with various charitable commitments, Morris is happier with a fly rod or longbow in his hands than a guitar or microphone.
The four or five trips he’s taken to Alaska are as big a part of who he is as playing the operatic lead in Les Misérables or the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music song of the year awards he’s won.
“The Alaska experience was always something that I guess I yearned for. And I’ve never had a time where I felt like I had enough,” he says. “I love the wild, and it’s the wildest place, certainly in America.”
WHEN HE WAS A college athlete at Cisco College in Texas, Morris was thinking about Alaska.
“I had friends who went up there when they were 19 years old and worked on the pipeline,” he says. “And I was in college playing ball and thought, ‘Damn, I’d really like to go.’”
Except he didn’t go back for years, not until long after he became a successful performer. It was worth the wait when he made his first trip in the 1980s.
Morris flew into Cordova, in Southcentral Alaska. There he met famed hunting guide Sam Fejes, who took Morris on a memorable six-day grizzly hunt.
They put in a lot of miles, staying in a tent camp and eating meals cooked over an old WhisperLite stove. The simplicity of the moment had a lasting effect on Morris. He never got the grizzly he was after, but did harvest a black bear on a spot-and-stalk longbow hunt, “which was kind of cool.”
“I’ve always said that what Alaska offers is, there are a million ways to live and a million ways to die, and they’re all in Alaska,” Morris says.
There were plenty of other adventures in the Last Frontier. In the 1990s, he hosted an outdoors show, The North American Sportsman, on the Nashville Network. His guests on Alaska-filmed episodes included actors Ed Marinaro and Wilford Brimley. The latter fished with Morris in the Brooks Range, wherethey shared the river with grizzlies.
“I’ve brought a bunch of other people up there. I’ve been in floatplanes when that migrating caribou herd was out,” Morris says. “When I hunted with Sam, we went to the lodge one day and we were in two tents in the middle of it. There were grizzly tracks around our tent after we were out all day. When we came in we said, ‘Well, look what’s been here.’”
Later, Morris brought his mother Margaret and father Stanley to fish on the Kenai River. The setting also mesmerized his parents.
“I was the entertainment for the Kenai Classic. We were at the reception and I told Mom, ‘I need to put you all to bed,’ She said, ‘But it’s daylight.’ ‘Mom, it’s 11:30 at night right now.’”
The fishing was pretty good too, particularly for Margaret. When it was her turn to reel in the next fish, their guide handed her the rod. There was a 40-pound king salmon on the other end of the line.
“I can’t get it in,” Margaret kept saying. But with the help of the guide, the massive Chinook was netted, the hook spilling out of its mouth just as it was safely secured.
And she got the final laugh out of the story when she and Stanley were back in their Fort Worth, Texas home.
“My mom called up the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and said, ‘Margaret, Stanley and Gary Morris went fishing for king salmon. Margaret caught a 40-pounder. Her husband Stanley and son Gary caught a few small trout,’” Gary says. “That got in the paper and, of course, my dad was sitting having coffee with all his boys and had to hear about that.’”
MOST OF TEXAS IS covered with private land, making it more difficult to hunt.
“My first hunting experience was a BB gun and a rat,” Morris says.
But growing up in the Fort Worth area, fishing was a little easier to access. Nearby Grapevine Lake became a regular destination to take out the family boat and fish for bass. But while visiting an aunt and uncle in Idaho during the summer before his 16th birthday, Morris got his first taste of the true wilderness.
“When we were there my cousins tied flies and I tied a few while I was at the house. And then we went trout fishing, and I was forever hooked on fly fishing.”
Still, as a teenager Morris was more focused on his athleticism as a four-sport star. He was good enough to earn a football scholarship as a defensive back at Cisco (he would have continued his college career and education at Texas Tech had he not chosen to pursue singing). A career in music – he wrote and played a few songs and sang in local choirs – wasn’t even running through his mind.
But again, it was out West where Morris became inspired.
“I went to Colorado for a summer between my sophomore and junior years in college. And I was going back to play football and I met up with two boys from Texas and we started a little trio in Denver,” he says. “And by the end of the summer I was making 1,000 bucks a week and I thought, ‘Man.’”
And there was one more reason why he went away from sports to pursue a career as an entertainer.
“It was girls,” he says sheepishly.
He tried to make a go of it in Denver, but as an aspiring country singer he did what almost everyone in that genre does in the hopes of hitting it big: move to Nashville. Morris’ time with the Carter presidential campaign helped lead to signing a record deal with Warner Bros.
Morris would record a dozen albums, which spawned 16 top 10 singles on the country charts, including the five No. 1 hits. His rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings” – Bette Midler would later famously sing it for the 1988 film Beaches – resulted in his 1984 song of the year awards. He was also honored in 1982 as Billboard’s male artist of the year.
He might have been a mainstay among the honky-tonk crowd in Nashville, but Morris showed his range when he took his talents to the New York opera stage. During the height of his success in 1984, he starred as Rodolfo in La Bohème (alongside pop singer Linda Ronstadt), and later returned to the stage to play the lead role of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (the album of the cast’s rendition of the opera went platinum, leading to Morris’ performance in London for Queen Elizabeth II).
“People have said, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t do that,’” Morris says of some of his career choices. “I was told it (singing with Ronstadt) would ruin my career. Well, it closed some doors like country music in terms of playing anything new. But it opened a million others. And I had no regrets for doing any of that.”
“I’ve made some bad choices, but we all do that and that’s where we are. And I’m pretty happy with where I am.”
THESE DAYS, MORRIS IS indeed content with writing new songs and appearing in concert in smaller venues. But mostly he is enjoying the good life in Colorado at the property known as Mountain Spirit Ranch.
“The closest town is Pagosa Springs. I’m about 4 miles from the New Mexico border,” he says. “I’m at about 7,500 feet and surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks, and I’m on the valley floor.”
A portion of the Navajo River runs through his property, a great spot to break out a fly rod and cast for trout.
“In this business you can choose where you wake up. If I’m not on the road, I want to wake up here. It’s a grounding experience. We have deer and elk, bear and mountain lion and turkey and all of that right here – literally right here. It’s somewhat wild – there’s not a house in sight from my place. And it’s peaceful and beautiful.”
But as a sportsman, his biggest thrill has been hunting with a longbow. He’s hunted with rifles before and understands those who do it regularly, but Morris prefers to hunt without looking through a scope.
“Hunting with a longbow, you’re looking at the animal, and it’s a commitment. You’re looking right at it, drawing a bow and releasing an arrow,” he says. “Something still on my bucket list is to come back up (to Alaska) and take a grizzly. And while I’m not what you would call a trophy hunter – I’ve pretty much taken everything with a longbow – there’s something about doing that. I might even talk to (Fejes) about doing a hunt next spring.”
One of Morris’ other passions is as a benefactor for servicemen and -women. He’s a regular partner with, among other organizations, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, which helps veterans suffering through PTSD effects by taking them out into the field. Morris hopes to eventually start his own nonprofit organization to help troops. He hosted four wounded veterans for a Colorado fly fishing trip at his ranch in the summer.
Gary’s father Stanley Morris served under General George S. Patton during the liberation of Europe in World War II, so he thought it important to honor his father’s military background.
“I was in the Vietnam era and I was in the first lottery and got No. 12. I went to get my physical. And for the only time in my life I had high blood pressure, so I guess I worried myself out of it,” Gary Morris says.
“And since then, I don’t know how many shows I’ve done for the military, from Kentucky to Italy, and gone through the Caribbean and Central America on small bases. I’ve been to Germany and the Middle East. It’s just basically saying, ‘Thanks for keeping us safe.’”
IN SEPTEMBER, MORRIS RELEASED a new album, called Sense of Pride. He recently told the website Digital Journal that “the songs almost spewed out of me.”
One such track filled with sentimental overtones is a ballad he titled “I’m In Church.” It’s an ode to the joy the outdoors brings him throughout the seasons. Some of the lyrics are hauntingly beautiful, the perfect tribute to nature for a man who’s appreciated the impact it’s provided, particularly in Alaska.
“Fall grabs me by the collar, these mountains make me smaller.”
“Pines and aspen blind me, elk above and deer behind me.”
“All these moments still unwind me.” ASJ
Editor’s note: For more on Gary Morris, check out his website, garymorris.com, where you can purchase his new album, Sense of Pride. You can also find it on various music platforms like iTunes and Spotify. Follow on Twitter (@GaryMorrisTour) and like at facebook.com/garymorrismusic.
SMALL WORLD IN THE LAST FRONTIER
Gary Morris has never performed a public concert in Alaska. But that doesn’t mean he’s completely unknown in the Last Frontier. Two small-world moments on separate trips provided some nostalgia.
“I went into a bar up there (during a trip) and quite a few friends of mine who lived in the Lower 48 had moved up there, including one woman who had been a babysitter for me and had been living in Anchorage,” Morris says. “And she happened to be in that bar the night I went in.”
On a hunting trip with longtime guide Sam Fejes, he and Morris stopped in a Cordova restaurant. Morris and Fejes began chatting about his fame as an acclaimed country music singer.
(Fejes) is a cocky guy and says, ‘I don’t think anybody up here knows who you are.’ I said, ‘Well, maybe.’ ‘They know Randy Owen (lead singer) of Alabama, but I don’t think they know you.’ I said, ‘That’s fine; I don’t care,’” Morris recalls.
He ordered a bowl of salmon chili from the server, who soon returned to the table.
“Sam said, ‘Do you know who this is?’ She looked at me and said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘That’s Gary Morris.’ She said, ‘OK.’ I had shaved my beard off and I always had a beard on my record (covers). She goes back and brings our order out, and she pulls out her wallet with a picture. The picture is of me and her mother from a place called the Belle Starr in Dallas. And Sam just freaked out.” CC