Back onstage: Lynn Morris reuniting with band at bluegrass festival

By Jessica Wiant — jwiant@nvdaily.com
WINCHESTER –  Pioneering the way for female bluegrass musicians, meeting the love of her life, advocating for animals, surviving a stroke: Lynn Morris’ story has many chapters. At this year’s Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, in the midst of the usual carnival food, parades, celebrities and attractions, for Morris, the page is turning once more.

Morris, along with members of her former band, will return to the stage — like she hasn’t done since her stroke in 2003 — at Sunday’s 22nd Annual Apple Blossom Bluegrass Festival.

It’s been a long road to get there.
Morris, a native of Texas, first got into bluegrass music, picking the banjo, while she was in college in Colorado, her husband and bandmate Marshall Wilborn said earlier this week, sitting by his wife in their Winchester home.

“I loved the banjo,” she said.

These days, Morris often asks her husband to explain things or finish her thoughts. Even when she doesn’t say so, he recognizes when she needs help and chimes in.

Morris’ stroke occurred during a hospital stay for knee surgery in spring 2003, two weeks after the Lynn Morris Band released its latest bluegrass album on Rounder Records.

By then, Morris and her band were a force to contend with in the bluegrass world. Morris was the first woman to ever win the National Banjo Championship in 1974. She’d also taken home International Bluegrass Music Association Awards for vocalist of the year and song of the year, among other honors, according to a biography on the CMT network’s website, CMT.com.

Anyone will tell you, Morris was still a rising star when she suffered her stroke.

Immediately after that fateful event, however, doctors would make no predictions about how much Morris would recover, or whether she’d even pull through, her husband recalled.

She couldn’t speak at all in the following days, Wilborn said. The doctors eventually told them Morris had two years to make as much progress as possible, and at that point her recovery would halt.

“It was a pretty dark and testing time, for quite awhile,” Wilborn said.

As a result of the stroke, Morris has aphasia, a condition that affects her ability to communicate with words, both speaking and listening, and reading and writing.

As for that two-year expiration date on her recovery, Morris has no problem speaking the words “They’re wrong.”

She’s made remarkable progress, her husband said, and is still speaking new words all these years later.

When Morris and Wilborn met, at an open mic night at a club in Austin, Texas, Wilborn was already a fan.

And when Morris heard Wilborn, the upright bass player, sing, she thought he had a good voice. She liked him.

Of course, Morris was on her way to join a band in Pennsylvania. When she left Texas, they kept talking.

“He called me almost every day,” she said.

When the band lost its bass player, she convinced them to hire Wilborn — and she convinced him to take lessons.

They married several years later.

“I love him,” Morris said. “He’s a good man.”

Another band brought them to the Washington area, and they chose Winchester for a home, Wilborn said. They’ve been here since 1986, and have come to love their old, creaky house that they share with several cats, Wilborn said.

In 1988 they started the Lynn Morris Band.

Somewhere along the way, Morris took up with the SPCA in Winchester, and the band’s jingle “Spay Your Pet,” and national involvement with animal welfare followed.

After a five-album run, things were slowing down for a brief period during 2003, and Morris was going to take advantage of the chance to get a much-needed knee replacement. On the third day following the surgery, while she was still in the hospital, the stroke hit.

“My brain died,” she said.
Morris counted off the days of her supposed two-year recovery period like there was a death sentence at the end of it, according to Wilborn. Music was kind of out of the picture for them both.

Then, in 2006, Wilborn and Morris found themselves at the Stroke Comeback Center in Northern Virginia.

Morris started driving herself to the center weekly, and she still does.
“I can write a letter,” she said. “I’m better every day.”

“It nowhere near stopped in two years,” Wilborn added of his wife’s progress.

The center, its founder Darlene Williamson explained recently by phone, is a nonprofit that takes up where insurance leaves off, allowing stroke victims to continue with therapy beyond what they could typically afford.

Members participate in group therapy once a week, she said.

When Morris first showed up, she was settled into a pattern of “This is as good as I get,” Williamson said. A big part of her therapy was making her believe that she could continue to progress and heal, she said.

Aphasia patients still have all their intelligence, but have difficulty accessing the words they need to communicate, according to Williamson. She likens it to finding what you want in a kitchen drawer full of clutter.

In Morris’ case, she also never lost her acute musician’s ear, according to Williamson, making her unique because, unlike some other stroke victims, she recognizes her errors. It made her more critical of herself, but also made it easier for therapists to work with her.
That Morris had so much talent made her stroke devastating for both her and her husband, according to Williamson. There is no cure.

“She won’t be the Lynn she once was,” Williamson said.

But, along with keeping her ear, Williamson said, she also believes Morris kept the spunkiness that made her so successful in bluegrass.

Morris was working toward being able to sing again all along.

On Sunday, Williamson will be taking 50 other Stroke Comeback Center members on a bus to Winchester to see the Lynn Morris Band perform.

Williamson is nervous for her, and guesses that Wilborn is too.

“Lynn is all set,” though, she said.

Back in Winchester, Wilborn and Morris have been rehearsing for the show, Wilborn on his bass and Morris on guitar.

Her left hand is all there, but her right hand isn’t, Wilborn said.

“It’s a mysterious thing, what strokes do,” he said.

Morris will also have the lyrics in front of her on concert day.

The other members of the band, including Wilborn, have been working with other bands that are also booked for the festival.

It was about three years ago that Wilborn, who has earned his fair share of IBMA awards also, hit the road again, this time with Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper — and at the insistence of his wife.

In fact, he admits he’d never have been the musician that he is without her encouragement.

As for the Lynn Morris Band, Jesse Brock and Tom Adams, who also play along with Wilborn in Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, and Ron Stewart, who is now with the Boxcars, will all be reunited when they get behind their mics on Sunday.

They’ll be coming in just for the show, so there will be no rehearsal.

Morris is confident in their ability, though, and excited to grace the stage again.

“I love the stage, and I love the people,” she said. “May be the first time, may be the last time, I don’t know.”

“We’re going to have a good time doing it,” Wilborn said.