Drunken Prayer’s new songs shaken loose by current events
Morgan Geer, who performs and records under the name Drunken Prayer, used to draw pictures of Elvis when he was 5 or 6 years old. Music is a part of his earliest recollections, such as a memory of sitting at the feet of his mother, a folk singer, as she performed on Louisiana public television.
“My first performance was singing ‘Hounddog’ a cappella in a talent show in Pittsburgh when I was in 4th grade,” Geer said. (He won.) Another early hobby indicating his future direction: Geer made cardboard cutouts of Fender Stratocasters, for enhanced air-guitar hot-dogging.
“It was an extension of playing a tennis racquet,” he said.
Now based in Asheville, Geer had been living in Winston-Salem for a few years until last fall. (His mother, Bebe Kern, lives in town and still records and performs spooky, spectral outsider-folk with the Dixie Al-Rites.) Geer returns to the area to play Monstercade on May 4. The show comes not long after a run of touring overseas, the successful conclusion of a $6,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund the recording and pressing of a new record, and work on that record, which is now about halfway completed.
“I hate what they did to my town, so I moved to another town,” sings Geer on “Cordelia Elsewhere,” the relentlessly hooky title track from the record he’s assembling. It’s a song about restlessness, resignation and about houses that seem to want to be haunted by past that’s otherwise up and gone.
Geer, 47, was born in San Francisco. His parents had left the South (Florida and Alabama) and moved out West in the late ‘60s. They eventually ended up on a commune in Oregon. Geer lived all over as a kid — Mobile, Pittsburg, Western Massachusetts, Black Mountain and Asheville. He knows a little bit about restlessness.
I should mention that I’ve known Geer for about 30 years. We met in college. He lived across the hall from me and introduced me, upon its release, to the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. We were housemates for a year or so in the ‘90s. I’ve joined him on stage a few times to provide minimal drumming behind him. He’s someone whose intelligence, wit, charm, drive and talent have seemed like they’d propel him to bigger arenas and wider audiences. And they have. Geer’s been touring and recording as a guitarist with the band Freakwater for the past four years, opening many of their shows with Drunken Prayer solo sets. This year, Drunken Prayer toured the United Kingdom for the month of March, opening for the Handsome Family.
After the years of cardboard guitar cutouts, Geer sort of soaked up the roots of rock ‘n’ roll. He was into Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and the early pre-LSD Beatles. He started out playing drums but moved to guitar since it could be practiced in a small apartment without irritating neighbors.
“I taught myself how to play by listening to the Stone’s Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out,” Geer said.
All of that early listening gave Geer a baked-in taste for the blues, not necessarily limited to the genre, but embracing the form and the aesthetic in all its manifestations, as blues harmonies, blue notes, and blues structure worked their way through gospel, rockabilly, jazz, country, rock and even punk and new wave.
“Anything that had a remotely bluesy edge to it, or R&B, or where you throw in a 7-chord, made my ears perk up,” Geer said.
After playing in bands around Asheville in the ‘90s, Geer went to Nashville for a year to sharpen his guitar chops. Then he headed out to Sonoma County, California, playing every blues open-mic he could find. Eventually he ended up in Portland, Oregon, releasing the first Drunken Prayer record in 2009.
Geer’s songs have a big American sweep to it, with displaced characters, God, flowing rivers, hellraisers, fate, loss, grace and wandering. You can hear country, early rock, Bakersfield twang, the blues and old-time all sifted through the music, but there’s also a delicate songwriting sophistication, with jazzy turnarounds, surprise modulated bridges and sudden stops. Drunken Prayer will likely bring to mind the Band for a lot of listeners, with the sense of history and tradition. But Geer’s songs and his singing often suggest a kinship with artists like Bobby Charles or Doug Sahm, musicians with Southern roots, with a yip and break to their voices, and notes of sadness offset by a sense of humor.
These days, Geer’s sense of humor might serve as a coping mechanism. Geer said that many of the most recent batch of songs were written in a state of anxiety about finding a new home and about the political climate in America. Moving back to Asheville and grappling with how to contend with the Trump era “shook a few things loose,” Geer said.
Geer said that much of the spirit of the last 18 months has been one of “waiting for the other boot to drop.” The treatment of undocumented immigrants is just one of many developments that stood out and hit close to home.
“We had 11 families here in my neighborhood that have been picked up by ICE,” Geer said.
Geer doesn’t really make gloomy music though. He’s more of a play-on-through-the-apocalypse kind of guy.
If one is inclined to suggest that there’s hope to be found in the idea that the world hasn’t ended, Geer says this: “It kind of has [ended], but just not with a mushroom cloud.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.