Years ago, at a party, I made the mistake of introducing John Morthland with his resume line items: “John here worked at Rolling Stone when it was great, at Creem when it was great, the Country Music Magazine when it was great, and now he freelances and works at Texas Monthly.” Emboldened with a cocktail in hand, I added that he interviewed the Rolling Stones in the early sixties, when he was still in high school. I looked back over to John, assuming he’d be flattered, and he had daggers in his eyes. I’m still unsure what that was about. My hunch was that he resented the name-dropping, or maybe he didn’t like the bragging on his behalf. Maybe he didn’t like career highlights that were decades old; maybe he was just hungry. In any case, he turned on his heels and walked away, and I felt like I’d just turned him in to the feds.
Which is why I’m going to skip over the details of his esteemed bio (you can read about that here and here), and I’ll share only what I knew, though some knew him better and many knew him longer. We became friends after I started at Texas Monthly eighteen years ago, and the then-twelve-year veteran of the magazine became a mentor to me, always trying to make me feel like a peer even when I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve written down “John Morthlunch” on many months of calendars and spent hours watching Round Rock Express baseball games I didn’t care about, just to soak him up. His enthusiasm for music criticism rubbed off and made my life infinitely richer. If I didn’t “get” an artist—despite my attempts—he’d usually find some appropriate entry point (though I can report no success on the Frut). He had an ability to help people hear better, which is no small gift. And he had a knack for finding interesting, eclectic stuff beyond music. Inevitably, during some get-together, I’d scribble down his recommendations for books and road trips.
Maybe this is how I should introduce him to those who didn’t know him or his writing: John longed for authenticity in the things around him. He trusted his own ears over any “buzz.” Since he despised celebrity, dishing from his big interviews was usually out (which killed me sometimes), but anything rooted in tradition and place was in. And it didn’t absolutely have to be old to get his approval; it needed to be itself, and the modern world was looking up as of late. A few weeks ago he wrote on Facebook that he was looking forward to seeing a “Seattle raunch pop group” during SXSW’s music conference: “So far I’ve found two contemporary rock bands I want to see this year at SXSW, which is, I believe, a new record for this roots music geezer.”
During his time at Texas Monthly (he penned his first story for us in 1979), John was an adventurer. He wrote about barbecue, alligator hunting, minor-league baseball, wild hogs, peyote, and Dr Pepper. He wrote a piece about fried food called “Grease” that found him eating a chicken-fried antelope. No shock, he wrote about music: El Paso bluesman Long John Hunter, San Antonio conjunto queen Eva Ybarra, and Austin yodler Don Walser among many others. One of my personal favorites was his interview with songwriter Cindy Walker, then “an effervescent graying strawberry blonde in a yellow pantsuit” living back in her hometown of Mexia.
John’s passing in his home this week leaves a huge hole in many lives. He had a sixth sense for knowing when a person needed company and he could sit in silence bearing witness to the mood without any awkwardness. I’m sure this trait made him a successful interviewer, and it was certainly a quality I appreciated. But today his silence is breaking my heart.