The gesture stunned Mark Erelli.

He was just about to go on stage at One Longfellow Square in Portland, opening for the songwriter Bill Morrissey. The two were chatting behind the curtain, working out a possible duet for later that night.

“Anything you want help on, I will be happy to accompany you,” Erelli told his mentor. “He said, ‘I hear you do “Birches.” You should sing it in your set.’ ”

Erelli couldn’t believe it. “Birches” was probably Morrissey’s best-loved song, the one that fans most expected to hear Morrissey sing that night. Instead, he asked Erelli to sing it in his set.

“I was so honored, but it was also really sad that he felt he couldn’t do it anymore,” Erelli said from his home in Melrose, Massachusetts. “I sang the song, and he sat there watching. It’s something I will always have, but it’s very sad and very poignant.”

That was June 2011. A month later, Morrissey was found dead in a Georgia hotel room at age 59.

Erelli, who will be back at One Longfellow Square on Sept. 28 opening for Lori McKenna, has just released a record that features mostly Morrissey songs. The only Erelli original is the title song, “Milltowns.” He wrote it as a tribute to Morrissey.

In it, he recounts his friendship with Morrissey and that fateful night in Portland. It was the last time Erelli saw his friend.

He wrote the song the day he heard that Morrissey had died. He wasn’t surprised by the news. Anyone who knew Morrissey understood that he suffered personal demons that involved alcohol. Morrissey didn’t look good that night in Portland and fumbled his way through his set.

The song attempts “to make sense of the guy I knew. It’s not like I never saw him in a bad place. He definitely broke my heart a few times to see how in poor health he looked,” Erelli said. “But other times he made me feel so proud and honored that he treated me as a colleague and a friend. I tried to square those conflicting emotions.”

For “Milltowns,” Erelli chose a dozen songs that he knows well. “Birches” is the first track, telling a sad story about a newlywed woman who understands the romantic fire isn’t going to last. “These Cold Fingers” talks about tangible things lost – a love, a happy life, a sad-eyed dog.

Morrissey was born in Connecticut and lived in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

He wrote about mill towns, ice-fishing and the happy-hour crowd. He wrote about the Canadian Pacific Railroad, Great Northern Paper and the local IGA, often in stark, desperate terms. His characters always seemed on the edge of something. But he also had a famous sense of humor, and wrote many hysterical songs.

Erelli covers the gamut on “Milltowns.”

He wasn’t planning to make a record. He used Morrissey’s songs to experiment with recording techniques in his basement studio to use for his next CD. The Morrissey songs just came out. He recorded a dozen of them in a day, all of which ended up on the record.

Erelli, 40, graduated from Bates College in Lewiston in 1996. He met Morrissey in 2001. They were friends for a decade.

“I wouldn’t say we were the closest of friends, but music forges an intimacy,” he said. “People who are in it are in the same boat a lot. He had warm and encouraging words for me every time I saw him, and I felt affectionate toward him.”

That affection is evident on “Milltowns.” Erelli treats these songs with tenderness and care.

He hopes this record reminds people of all the good music that Morrissey accomplished in this world.


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