Merely Players: Bluegrass band The Matchsellers reformat their latest album for the theatre
When the Matchsellers’ Andrew Morris started writing songs for the bluegrass band’s latest album, The Wishful Thinker’s Hall of Fame, he didn’t intend for it to become the project it did, although fans of the band’s music shouldn’t be surprised.
The Matchsellers have gone above and beyond with their music in the past, such as 2018’s Bluegrastronauts, whose shows saw the group dressing as time-traveling space rangers and telling stories in between songs about the future in outer space. There’s also Morris’ 2020 solo album, One Fine, Sweet & Sunny Day, wherein the musician created a podcast to tell the story of a machine becoming a sentient being and attempting to kill him.
On this latest recording with Julie Bates (fiddle/vocals), Brian McCarty (mandolin), and Brandon Day (bass), Morris didn’t want to make an album with an arc or a story or a concept.
“I was getting burnt out,” Morris says. “I sort of didn’t wanna do it anymore. I wanted it just to be a bluegrass record.”
As things go in life, it didn’t quite work out the way Morris was planning. When he was hanging out with his buddy, Hank Tilbury, who did the album art, Tilbury explained to Morris that he’d actually made a Facebook business page for The Wishful Thinker’s Hall of Fame.
“I started talking with him about this whole concept and was like, ‘Man, that’s great, that’s so cool, that’s such a great idea,’” Morris explains. “That opened up the wormhole, and it was like, ‘All right, I gotta do this one more time. I gotta try again to make this whole multimedia concept thing happen.’”
Thankfully, Morris says it wasn’t that difficult to come up with the different characters who populate the titular hall. He describes the process as a surreal free association between his childhood growing up in Indiana and the Matchsellers’ touring on the road.
“We met all sorts of weird characters,” recalls Morris. “We toured full-time for about seven years and stopped at all sorts of weirdo little places. It was kind of nice to be able to do the project because all of the characters—these people that I had met on the road or these interesting places like Sehnert’s Bieroc Cafe in McCook, Nebraska—I was able to not let those places remain just a fog of memory.”
Morris says that part of the appeal of taking The Wishful Thinker’s Hall of Fame from just a regular album to a conceptual multimedia piece was being able to revisit some of these characters and people and things and give them a new life.
Given that this was based on an idea Tilbury had nearly three years ago, Morris made sure to get his blessing, and the artist gave the musician free rein to do whatever he wanted to do, which was crafting an album that now includes portraits of the inductees, QR codes to visit some of the places mentioned, and a one-weekend-only performance of a play in which an induction ceremony contains “a rift in the fabric of reality between the real and the irreal.”
That play, which takes place at the end of October in a secret location, looks to be something quite unlike anything Morris has heretofore attempted, although it’s not been without growing pains.
“We did a little test run of trying to do it live where I would read from the booklet, and it just didn’t quite connect sort of how I wanted it to connect,” Morris says with some regret. “It just felt like I was up there just reading from this book.”
Given that the test run was done with a small crowd of only ten people, and it just didn’t quite go the way Morris wanted it to go, one has to expect it would go even more poorly with a large crowd. So, the musician went back to the drawing board and wrote what is now a play.
“It’s gonna be this award/induction ceremony, and we are gonna have these big blowups of the characters,” explains Morris. “It makes sense: it’s a wishful thinker’s hall of fame. All these people wanted to come to the induction ceremony, but they just couldn’t quite make it.”
Each of the blowups will feature a mask of the character, and the three other members of the band will all rotate, reading a character’s story, and then one person will go out and take the mask off of the giant picture of the person, and then assume the role of that person and act out their life story.
“That’s only gonna get us halfway there,” Morris stops to clarify. “You do that enough times—that’s novel for maybe a third of the way through the play, but then it starts to get a little old, and I wanted it to go somewhere.”
Morris continues to explain the rest of the performance of The Wishful Thinker’s Hall of Fame in a way that is definitely “a little bit complicated,” but essentially, what happens is these characters start to be different shades of Andrew Morris, and then True Lions’ Alison Hawkins swoops in as a witch character called the Arbiter of Irreality, and then things get very heady.
“Us trying to create this wishful thinker’s hall of fame; it’s kind of like a paradox,” Morris says. “A wishful thinker would never actually go through with making a hall of fame, so we are creating something that should not exist.”
Morris is pretty frank in admitting—as a reason for straying from his original plan—that it’s knowing and attending performances of other musicians like Dimension Bill Edwards, Freight Train Rabbit Killer, or Calvin Arsenia, who frame their music and present it in a way where you just want to go see it.
“I think I was just a little tired,” Morris says. “Everybody gets a little burnt out doing stuff. But you know, once the idea’s there, I feel like I kind of have to do it. I have a bit of responsibility because it’s like, ‘If I don’t do this, it’s just not gonna exist. Man, that’d be so cool. It just would be a real bummer if it just didn’t exist.’”
Before Hank Tilbury gave Andrew Morris the idea for The Wishful Thinker’s Hall of Fame, the plan was just to make a regular old record and play some bluegrass. Now, here we are with an art project, backstories for characters, and an impending two-night performance. It’s more than Morris originally planned, but as he says at the conclusion of our call, once you have the idea and it’s a good one, you have something of a responsibility to that idea to make it happen.
The Matchsellers’ The Wishful Thinker’s Hall of Fame is out Oct. 28. You can purchase the album along with tickets for the play at thematchsellers.bandcamp.com
Performances take place at a secret location on Saturday, Oct. 29, and Sunday, Oct. 30.