Cashavelly Morrison fuses a liberated vision to an old sound

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Cashavelly Morrison is the vocalist and lyricist at the center of the project, but her husband Ryan MacLeod is an integral partner. (photo by Jordan Green)

When Cashavelly Morrison wrote the songs that make up The Kingdom Belongs to a Child, she said she “was cutting the umbilical cord” to her family back in West Virginia.

“There was a tremendous need for their love and approval,” Morrison said during a recent interview at Finnigan’s Wake before a performance with her band at the Garage up the street in downtown Winston-Salem. “I had to turn and not seek it out anymore. It was such a hard journey, and it took four years. I can’t live that way. I had to disappoint them.”

Morrison’s decision to break with her family’s expectations crystalized when she read a quote by the early 20th Century philosopher Martin Buber about how ultimately it’s impossible to help anyone else until you first help yourself. She realized it wasn’t possible for her to accept a life where she was relegated to a supporting role.

The name Cashavelly Morrison, adopted as an artist moniker, pays tribute to generations of Appalachian women whose voices have been suppressed by an internalized code of submission and sacrifices to support the dreams of their men. Morrison is known to her family and friends as Melissa MacLeod. Her husband, Ryan, plays an integral part as an instrumentalist and composer, similar to David Rawlings’ musical partnership with Gillian Welch, but the focal point is Morrison as vocalist and lyricist.

“Cashavelly is my grandmother’s — my father’s mother’s — maiden name, and Morrison is my mother’s maiden name,” Morrison explained. “I think my mother and grandmother had to sacrifice a lot as women. I thought it would be empowering to reclaim their names because they had a lot of creativity, but they didn’t have the opportunity to express it.”

Morrison’s haunting soprano conveys both strength and sorrow with a melodic structure that reflects the tightly knotted hills of her native West Virginia. Nowhere does her voice come through more piercingly than on the lead track of The Kingdom Belongs to a Child, a song called “Long-Hared Mare.” The refrain, “Take the long-haired mare and go far, far away,” underscores the price paid by a woman driven to murder a man who has sexually abused her daughter.

If the songs sound as if they were sung a hundred years ago, that’s likely because Morrison wrote them while she was trying to finish a novel set in West Virginia coal company town in the early 20th Century. She listened to a lot of Gillian Welch while she was writing, and later realized she was absorbing a musical training. During that period, she came to discern her true vocation as she found herself writing songs as a way of procrastinating on the novel.

A former ballet student at UNC School of the Arts, Morrison had taught herself to play guitar and write songs in fits and starts from her late teens through her early thirties. Her husband Ryan had studied classical guitar at the School of the Arts, but had put the instrument aside because his instructor’s emphasis on technique drained him of joy. Initially as a favor to his wife, Ryan MacLeod would help her with the songs by filling in guitar parts where she was stuck. Ryan’s enthusiasm for the songs motivated Morrison to keep working on them. “He was really floored, and that was a confidence booster,” Morrison said. “I saw that he was truly impressed. He wasn’t just being nice to me.”

An improbable journey that began with an MFA student writing songs on the side while trying to finish her novel reached the final leg with the birth of the couple’s first child. “I realized that I’m not just here to be a mother,” Morrison recalled. “That’s a big part, but there was this other part that was unsatisfying. It was in 2013 around the time of our anniversary. I had this wall that I hit, and I realized if I don’t record this music I’m going to die.” She researched recording studios, and in short order booked time at Echo Mountain in Asheville. The engineer responded enthusiastically to the songs, Morrison said, and urged her to add full instrumentation. Meanwhile, Ryan MacLeod had picked up the telecaster and found himself falling in love with music again.

In April 2016, several months after the release of The Kingdom, Cashavelly Morrison opened for the country artist Lera Lynn at Phuzz Phest in Winston-Salem. Lynn performed a handful of songs she had contributed to the second season of “True Detective.” MacLeod, who had started playing a baritone guitar, took inspiration from Lynn’s set to explore a new country noir sound.

MacLeod has taken a more prominent role in writing the music in a batch of songs for the couple’s forthcoming second album, Morrison said. She said the sound reflects more of a western geography, with musical space and a sense of possibility that the first album doesn’t have. Fitting perhaps for the advent of the Trump era, the new songs that the couple plans to record next month at Echo Mountain tap into social issues like gun violence and racism.

Cashavelly Morrison’s Nov. 10 gig at the Garage showcased an ace backing band that seamlessly extended the couple’s sound. It was the group’s first performance at the venue, but most if not all of the individual players — who included drummer Aaron Bachelder, bassist John Ray and guitarists Daniel Seriff and Luke Payne — had appeared on the stage in different permutations.

Forging a musical partnership with his wife has made them closer, MacLeod said, although sometimes the creative process feels like a trudge.

“One of the new songs is a version we’re not going to put on the album,” Morrison said. “It’s fun to do live. I like it, but my heart doesn’t resonate with it. We might decide that another song doesn’t make the cut, so we’ll deconstruct it, and part of it will go in another song.

“It doesn’t come easily at all,” she added. “I feel like having the pressure of a recording date is what we need to finish these songs. Otherwise, we would work on them for years.”