Alumnus and veteran journalist cures ‘mid-life crisis’ with bluegrass music

Jonathan F. McVerry
November 14, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.— Journalist turned bluegrass songwriter David Morris says newswriting and songwriting have a lot in common. There’s hard work, rhythm and storytelling in both.

“It’s like being a general assignment writer for a wire service,” said Morris, who graduated from Penn State with a journalism degree in 1973. “I spent a lot of years going to work not knowing what I’d write about that day. Songwriting is a lot like that.”

“Music was my mid-life crisis.”

-- Penn State alumnus David Morris, 1973 journalism

 

Morris grew up in Berwick, Pennsylvania. He wrote for his high school newspaper and, with a keen interest in history and social studies, he enrolled at Penn State to study journalism. A summertime visit to The Daily Collegian offices, then located in the Carnegie Building, started a 40-year journalism career. Morris began writing in the Collegian’s sports department but, as a result of the Watergate scandal, he moved over to news.

“In the summer of 1974, the Watergate hearings were going on, the president resigned, all of these serious things were happening,” Morris said. “I decided to pursue news when I graduated, and spent my career covering the biggest sport of all — politics.”

Morris remembers writing in the Carnegie Building thinking about how cool it would be to work in Washington, D.C., covering historic events. A mix of hard work and luck got him to the nation’s capital where he experienced his share of history. Morris covered the Middle East peace talks and the “overtime” presidential election in 2000. He was also with President George W. Bush at a Sarasota elementary school when the events of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred.  

“You can do great work, but if you’re not at the right place at the right time, nobody will see it,” he said. “One of my early editors, in an evaluation, wrote that I wasn’t the best writer, but no one worked harder than me. I decided working harder than everyone else was a way to get ahead. It helped me dig in, and it helps me in my songwriting too.”

"Something About a Train"

Written by Bellisario College alumnus David Morris, and recorded by Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike. The track reached No. 1 on the bluegrass charts and was the winner of the 2015 Merlefest songwriting contest. 

Over four decades, Morris reported for three Pennsylvania newspapers and the Associated Press. He has covered every presidential election since 1984. He is an expert in exit polling data and still consults with ABC News about elections. He was the chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and retired as the managing editor of The Kiplinger Letter in 2017.

“Pesky day jobs,” Morris calls them.

In 2005, approaching his 50th birthday, Morris started to look past his reporting career at the idea of becoming a songwriter.

“Music was my mid-life crisis,” he said.

Goodbye ‘pesky day job’

Morris’ journey to award-winning bluegrass lyricist was a slow burn. In a small act of rebellion, he and his wife Jodie hired a bluegrass band to play their wedding in January 1981. Disco music was very popular at the time, and they knew they didn’t want it at their reception.

“We didn’t know much about bluegrass, but it seemed like the antithesis of disco,” he said. “We had a blast, and after that bluegrass was always around.”

Twenty-four years later, as he was turning 50, Morris knew that if he was ever going to get serious about music, he needed to get to it. He wanted to learn an instrument and landed on the stand-up bass. However, the lone bass instructor in town only taught jazz and bluegrass.

“After that, bluegrass became an all-encompassing thing for me,” Morris said.

In 2008, Morris wrote his first song for his goddaughter and sang it at her wedding. In 2011, he wrote his first song to get recorded. Soon, Morris was using vacation time to take regular trips to Nashville to write songs with others. But when an opportunity to write with a big-name artist in Nashville came up, he hit a snag.

“I had no vacation time left,” Morris said. “It really frosted me that I couldn’t do it.”

April 14, 2017, would be his last day at his “pesky day job,” and Morris has been writing bluegrass songs full time ever since. Two of Morris’ songs, “Weeds” and “Something About a Train,” have reached No. 1 on the bluegrass charts. Other tracks have reached the top 10. “Something About a Train” also won at the 2015 MerleFest, a premier national songwriting contest.

Still flexing his journalism skills, Morris was named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Writer of the Year early this year as a contributor for Bluegrass Today, an online publication that covers bluegrass music. Morris is also working on a book about Seldom Scene, an influential and still-active bluegrass band that will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021.

“It’s not autobiographical. It’s bluegrass.”

One Easter, Morris’ mother sat him down for a talk. She let the other family members head outside for an Easter egg hunt, and she wanted to ask her son a few questions.

“She asked me, ‘Are you and Jodie OK? I’ve been listening to your songs and they’re about cheating and drinking and dying,” Morris said with a laugh. “I told her, ‘Mom, it’s not autobiographical. It’s bluegrass.’”

Morris says his songs are known for being unpredictable. They have stories and details a listener might not expect. Not too different than being a journalist, he said writing music has become a 24-hour-a-day job. He always carries a notebook and is often jotting down what he hears throughout the day.

“It could be in a coffee shop or a grocery store or a barber shop,” he said. “I will kick it around with who I am writing with at that time and we find something that resonates.”

Some songs write themselves in a matter of hours, Morris said. Other ideas never leave the notebook. Eighty percent of his songs are written with others. Fifteen have been recorded by bluegrass groups. Nine more songs will be licensed and released in a few months.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a song, a letter, or a short story … good writing is good writing,” Morris said. “That’s how songwriting has helped my journalism, and how journalism has helped my songwriting.”

  • David Morris, Bellisario alum

    Bellisario College alumnus David Morris strums a guitar. 

    IMAGE: David Morris

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 14, 2019