The Ringmaster

Shilah Morrow keeps The Mavericks whipped into shape

"When I was 7 years old, my mom took me to Roger McGuinn’s house for his birthday party,” Shilah Morrow says, sitting in the offices of Mono Mundo Records. The room is scattered with records, merchandise, and memorabilia of the cosmopolitan country band The Mavericks, but Morrow isn’t focused on her present employers as she continues the tale from childhood.
     “In retrospect, that party was mind-blowing,” she says. “Bob Dylan was there. Kristofferson was there, and everyone was just sitting around playing music. It was just a big party for all these people who were part of the Southern California music scene in the early ’70s, but they were my mom’s friends. I didn’t care about them. Where was I? Roger had a room dedicated to his pet ferrets. All I wanted to do was eat cake and hang out with the ferrets. It wasn’t like that every day, but I guess you could say I had an extraordinary childhood.”
     Morrow laughs at that bit of understatement. It’s a hearty, vivacious laugh that fills the room, perfectly matching her personality. Throughout her life, Morrow has been at the locus of music scenes. Whether in Los Angeles, Austin, or Nashville, she’s been drawn to and found herself surrounded by musicians, working in almost every aspect of the music business.
     Now she’s taken up the reins as “chief wrangler” of The Mavericks, comanaging the group’s business affairs and their label, Mono Mundo Records. It’s the perfect job for someone who has survived the slings and arrows of the music biz with a smile on her face and a hearty laugh. Or as Morrow would put it, “It’s all about surviving the dream!”
     Morrow grew up in the sun and psychedelic scene of Los Angeles in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Her mother, Heather Woodruff, was a Miss California, actress, and singer. As a contract player for Screen Gems, Woodruff appeared in small parts on Petticoat Junction, Bewitched, and The Monkees, along with scores of other TV shows and commercials. A singer and autoharp player, she also was a fixture of the Southern California country rock scene.
     “My mom met my real father while she was performing in Vietnam with the USO,” Morrow says. “As a single mother she took me along with her everywhere. I grew up hanging out on sets and backstage at concerts. Mom ran with some amazingly talented people. She knew Gram Parsons really well; I grew up with Polly, Gram’s daughter, and I was the flower girl at Dickie Betts’ wedding when I was 7. There’s been a Cosmic American Music thread to my entire life.”
     Although show business was in Morrow’s blood, it never manifested in a desire to perform. “People would ask me if I wanted to be an actor or singer like my mom,” Morrow says. “I would say, ‘No!’ I was fascinated by the people behind the scenes. I wanted to be the person pulling everything together. By the time I was 12 or 13, I decided I wanted to be a sound engineer.”
     After graduating from high school, she attended a two-year program at a sound engineering school where she was the youngest student and the only woman. “My teachers advised me to pursue being a producer instead of an engineer because of my social nature,” Morrow says. “I also realized I could hire a much better engineer than I would ever be, but it was a great experience because I learned to speak the language of recording.”
     While still in school, Morrow began working for Warner Music in the company’s LA warehouse, picking and shipping records, CDs, and cassettes. Working her way up the ladder over the next 15 years, she learned about music retailing, distribution, and marketing, eventually becoming national product development coordinator for the Atlantic group of labels.
     As a music fan in the 1980s, Morrow had leaned toward the twangier side of punk through such bands as X, Lone Justice, Blood on the Saddle, and The Gun Club. As that style transitioned into “alt-country” in the early ’90s, she worked with bands like the Bottle Rockets, Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies, and others, strengthening the bond between the music of her childhood and her teens.
     “I worked a lot of records that pretty much blew my skirt up, and one of them was Jim Lauderdale’s Pretty Close to the Truth,” Morrow says. “When people ask me how I eventually got to Nashville, I like to say all roads lead back to Lauderdale. He fully brought me back into the music that I grew up hearing.”
     In 1995, she joined Giant Records as head of sales, a position that led to a short stint in New York City. When she moved back to LA, she discovered that a fixture of the Southern California country and rock scene had met its demise.
     “While I was living in New York, The Palomino shut down in LA,” Morrow says. “It was heartbreaking. I started promoting a monthly showcase called “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” as a way to promote the type of music The Palomino had booked and get my creative ya-ya’s out. It was also a way to build musical relationships beyond the record labels. I could see where things were heading with the record business, and at some point I said, ‘I don’t know how much longer I’ll be in the record business, but I’ll always be in the music business.’ ”
     That prediction proved correct when Giant Records merged with Warner Music in 2000, leaving Morrow out of a regular job, but with plenty of other musical irons in the fire. Over the next seven years, Morrow became a master of the gig economy before the term was invented, working for independent labels, music publishers, and more, while promoting showcases and festivals. She also became a regular traveler to Nashville, promoting the annual “Sin City Social Club” showcase during AmericanaFest week. In 2007, she relocated to Austin.
     “I didn’t run from LA; I ran to Austin,” Morrow says. “LA had become too expensive on an independent creative salary. I really connected with Austin musically, and Polly Parsons and a few other girlfriends all joined me there within six months of each other. I loved it because it was a music town, but not a music industry town, but it eventually got really difficult to Scotch tape together a living there, too.”
     A move to Shreveport, La., in 2015 to manage singer-songwriter Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s business affairs didn’t turn out as expected. “The musicologist in me was excited, but I ended up hating Shreveport,” Morrow says. “I didn’t know if I wanted to go back to Austin or LA, or I could go to Nashville and start a new adventure. I knew all these people in Nashville — Jim Lauderdale, Todd Ohlhauser, Ken Coomer, Keith Gattis, Mike Grimes. I finally decided to try it, and it was a soft, beautiful landing. People had seen me so many times over the years; they would say, ‘We’re so glad you moved back to Nashville,’ and I had never lived here!”
     Although she was still working for Shepherd long distance, she soon received an offer she couldn’t refuse from one of those old Nashville friends. “I had been here just a few months when Raul Malo called me up and invited me to lunch. We met at Marché and were catching up as friends do. He told me The Mavericks had cut ties with their management company, and he thought I would be a great fit to help them manage themselves.”
     After meeting with the other Mavericks, most of whom Morrow knew through her various musical adventures over the years, she became the official chief wrangler working to keep all the various aspects of The Mavericks’ business galloping along — their record label Mono Mundo, live bookings, tour merchandise, music publishing, and more.
     “I stand in the middle and get the people we work with the tools they need to do their jobs,” Morrow says. “It’s phenomenal to be able to work with people who are truly your friends and allies and to know that we all have each other’s best interests at heart.”
     The business philosophy of Mono Mundo and Morrow’s management style is embodied in the office space for the label and associated business. Housed in the Edwardian office building on Eighth Avenue South, also home to Grimey’s records and indie free-form radio station WXNA, it’s a casual space with comfortable and stylish mid-century modern furniture, her faithful “chug,” Chica (a Chihuahua/pug mix), and no desk — just a simple table with chairs. When you meet with Morrow, whether it’s business or casual, she’s not talking at you, you’re sitting down to chat with a friend.
     “I love being in Nashville,” Morrow says. “To me Nashville is all the people I’ve met on this adventure. I live in East Nashville and many of the neighbors I’ve met have become my best friends.”
     Across the hall from Mono Mondo’s office, a young band has been blasting the rawk, on a live appearance in WXNA’s studio. With crunching guitars and pounding drum beats, it’s the type of distraction that would annoy many business people and prompt complaints to the landlord. The band finishes playing and starts loading out their gear. Morrow heads for the hallway.
     “You guys were great,” Morrow says, as Chica follows her into the hallway, also ready to meet new friends. “What’s your band’s name? Where are you playing?” Making friends and building musical relationships, it’s just standard operating procedure when you’re surviving the dream.