Few long-term recording artists remain as enigmatic as Van Morrison. The Belfast, Ireland-born creator of countless classic albums and songs is notoriously media-wary and prefers to focus his energy on a prodigious recording output since leaving the ranks of the influential Northern Irish beat band Them in the 1960s.
More than 36 years after his 1970 breakthrough “Moondance,” Morrison, 60, continues his tireless exploration of his musical heritage. March 7 saw the release of “Pay the Devil” (Lost Highway), a collection of a dozen covers of his favorite vintage country songs plus three new, complementary compositions.
On the eve of a performance at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on the album’s release day — his first-ever visit to the city — Morrison gave Billboard rare insight into his current work and future plans.
Why make a full-on, old-school country album now?
I have done some country stuff before in the ’70s, it just didn’t come out. But it seems like the right time to put it out, and we’re having fun. But on “Tupelo Honey” , a couple of songs on there were straight country: “When That Evening Sun Goes Down,” “Starting a New Life” and “Tupelo Honey” itself is very country.
You cover such artists as Hank Williams and Webb Pierce on “Pay the Devil.” Did their music hold a special mystique for you growing up?
No, I was lucky because it was in my household. My father had the records. He also had jazz records and blues and gospel… I was hearing this music all the time when I was a kid.
I call it being brainwashed in the right way. Also, a lot of my friends in the area had various music: There was the pop music of the day then, people like Louis Prima, which was a different take on rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues. Johnnie Ray was like the backdrop, hearing his music on the radio during that period, and a lot of people were playing country then too. We tend to forget there wasn’t a lot of electric music going on then… If someone had an electric guitar, that was a major event.
Is Hank Williams a particularly significant artist for you?
He’s very important because he influenced not only country people, he influenced a lot of black artists too, which is what a lot of people don’t realize.
Why is it that you have never even visited Nashville before?
It just never came up before, or it came up but it didn’t happen. The thing is, I don’t really tour… I stopped touring for all intents and purposes, in the true sense of the word, in the late ’70s, early ’80s possibly. I just do gigs now, I average two gigs a week. Only in America do I do more because you can’t really do a couple of gigs there, so I do maybe 10 gigs or something there.
When you play live, do you feel obligated to play your best-known songs?
Of course you do in certain situations, especially with bigger gigs, [but] I’m not really a big-gig act. [At] some of the larger places outdoors in the summer, I feel obligated to play [hits]… If you get into introspective blues or something where you’re stretching out a bit, large audiences don’t respond to this, so you have to give them what they want basically.
What comes next for you?
I’ve got unreleased stuff that I’ve been mixing for years, it’s endless… There’s country stuff in that, I might put out some of that next. But I’m just thinking about this at the minute, I’m just thinking about today, tomorrow, next week. That’s as far as I can go at the minute.