The first time Cashavelly Morrison worked in a recording studio, she was nervous and unseasoned. The same was true of her husband and musical partner, Ryan MacLeod.
“If that had been a really crappy experience –” he began, before Morrison completed the thought: “We probably would have quit doing it.”
Fortunately, the sessions went extremely well. Now Morrison has an acclaimed second album getting attention from national media, and she will share the stage with Martha Bassett and Dan River Girls at The Ramkat March 16.
The show will be Bassett’s first time performing a full concert at The Ramkat and the first time she has played a bill with Morrison.
“Her music is awesome and she seems really awesome,” Bassett said. “It’s gonna be a girl-power night.”
Cashavelly Morrison is a stage name that combines the born names of the singer-songwriter’s grandmothers. Her real name is Melissa Bickey MacLeod. Her second album, “Hunger,” came out late in 2018.
Rolling Stone named Morrison one of “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know” in November. David Menconi, former music writer for the Raleigh News and Observer, wrote about “Hunger” for the magazine.
“Morrison sings in a coolly emotive croon that conjures up a cinematic vibe, and it’s a just-right fit for the finely detailed mini-dramas of her lyrics,” Menconi wrote. “.... There are lots of wide-open twangy spaces on the duo’s second album, ‘Hunger,’ which employs beautiful sounds to tell spooky tales with a staggeringly high body count.”
Morena Duwe wrote about Morrison’s 2017 debut album for the Huffington Post.
“An emotive album full of prose and poetry, ‘The Kingdom Belongs to a Child’ is a vessel in which she sets sail the pain of her personal tragedies,” Duwe wrote. “Having suffered a miscarriage in 2010 and the death of her father in 2014, she combines the agony of loss with her deeply held values to create an Americana classic that oozes with the blood of her Southern heritage.”
Morrison never shies away from writing about painful personal subjects. MacLeod hears others talk about difficult personal matters in his work as a marriage and family therapist at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, though of course he doesn’t write about them.
“I knew I needed to have a day job, but one that wasn’t gonna suck me dry,” he said. “I had to do something that was artistic, but I also really like people, and I like conversations. I was like, ‘What can I do that the world needs, something I care about, something I’m pretty good at?’”
Morrison is as an adjunct teacher at an alma mater she shares with MacLeod: UNC School of the Arts.
“It’s also not much pressure on the music, and that’s been nice,” she said. “There’s not that financial pressure. Everything that happens is like, ‘Bonus!’”
She and MacLeod first met in 2005 at a gathering of mutual friends in Winston-Salem. Morrison grew up in Beckley, West Va., where she channeled her artistic energies into ballet. She explored multiple creative outlets before settling into music.
Morrison pursued a dance career in New York City for awhile and earned a master’s degree in writing from Hollins University in Virginia. Her attempts at writing a novel kept inspiring songs instead.
MacLeod grew up in a musical family in Raleigh, working for a time at a music store his father managed in Cary. His life changed the day one of his teachers brought his classical guitar to school and played it for MacLeod’s class.
“I thought, ‘I cannot believe someone just did that with their hands on a guitar,’” he said.
He studied classical guitar in high school and at UNCSA before shifting his focus to the roots music he grew up hearing with his family. He was a big fan of Hank Williams, and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and started playing with Luke Payne, a friend from UNCSA who now plays in Morrison’s band.
MacLeod and Morrison married in 2008, but didn’t start making music together until 2010. They served as each other’s biggest cheerleaders as they developed their respective crafts. Morrison remembers showcasing new songs for MacLeod during a period when he was commuting to Charlotte to earn a therapy degree from Pfeiffer University.
“He would get home so late, and I would say, ‘Hey, I wrote this song,’” Morrison said. “And I would play it or shakily sing it for Ryan, and he was always like, ‘That’s amazing. It was so incredible.’ It wasn’t incredible! But it was good to hear.”
By 2014 they were ready to try recording some tunes. They chose Echo Mountain in Asheville, an old church that has been converted into a studio. A number of artists from North Carolina and beyond have made records there, including Caleb Caudle, the War on Drugs, Phil Cook, Town Mountain and Time Sawyer. Morrison found the studio via a Google search.
“We were terrified,” Morrison said. “We thought we were gonna get laughed out of the place.”
“Or just tolerated,” MacLeod said. “Quietly tolerated.”
Instead they were rewarded with a steady stream of low-key enthusiasm from a couple of men working as engineers at Echo Mountain at the time, John Ashley and Evan Bradford. The terror quickly gave way to a flood of inspiration.
“The studio itself is beautiful,” MacLeod said. “It felt like a very inspiring space, like, ‘There’s a lot of wonderful magic that’s happening here.’ I just felt that; I was writing little tunes. That was one of the first times I felt that inspired in music.”
That inspiration has now carried through an EP and two full-length albums, with MacLeod’s inventive, atmospheric guitar work creating a strong foundation for Morrison’s dark narratives.
“With good songs, the music gives you an experience in addition to the lyrics,” MacLeod said. “Creating a mood, creating a landscape that supports this story.”
Plans for The Ramkat show call for multiple collaborations between artists. Winston-Salem rapper TuKool Tiff will join Morrison to perform the song “Iodine.” Bassett plans to have Deep River Girls perform some with her and her band. One of the Dan River Girls, Fiona Burdette, is a member of Bassett’s band.
Bassett looks forward to playing a set of her own music and showcasing songs from her forthcoming album “Hot Pepper Queen,” scheduled for release in May. Bassett and her band stage “The Martha Bassett Show” most months at the Reeves Theater in Elkin, which has a format more focused on guest artists.
“Since we started ‘The Martha Bassett Show,’ we don’t get to play our own shows as often,” she said. “We’re always learning other people’s music and backing other people up. It’s unusual to get to have our own show.”