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Former UI volleyball hitter Laurie Morvan making sweet music

The News Gazette, Champaign, IL - July 25, 2008, Entertainment Guide Cover Story
By Melissa Merli
   

Blues guitarist Laurie Morvan - file photo

Photo by Susan Morvan

"Laurie Morvan is as good with the guitar as she was on the volleyball court."

"Is there anything blues guitarist Laurie Morvan can't do?"

Finish a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois? Check.

At the same time, study and earn at the Institute of Aviation her private, commercial, instrument and multi-engine pilot's licenses? Check.

Walk onto the UI volleyball team, eventually win a full-ride scholarship and wind up being voted the team's MVP as well as winning two major awards for scholar-athletes? Check.

Become one of the leading blues guitarist in California now on the verge of a national career, who writes and sings her own songs in a voice compared by at least one critic to Christine McVie's of Fleetwood Mac? Check.

Morvan doesn't consider herself extraordinary. "I just get interested in things, and I go do them. I don't feel there are ever limitations. I just go do them," she said last week in a telephone interview from her home in Lakewood, Calif.

One of her latest things to do: Her first tour of the Midwest with the Laurie Morvan Band, which performs Sunday evening at the Highdive in Champaign. Her parents from Plainfield will be there, and so will 50 coaches from the Illini summer volleyball camp, among them UI head coach Don Hardin. He heard Morvan, then Laurie Watters, strum her acoustic guitar more than 20 years ago when she was a middle hitter on the team he helped coach.

"Her playing back in the '80s was nothing like what she does now," Hardin said. "That was for fun. She's in another zone now. In this "zone," Morvan and the Laurie Morvan Band are racking up the awards. After competing against more than 230 other groups, her group was named the "2008 Blues Artist on the Rise" by Blues Festival Guide magazine. It was a finalist in the 2008 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Its latest CD, "Cures What Ails Ya," was a finalist for the 2008 Best Self-Produced CD.

In addition, the Laurie Morvan Band was selected to be on the "Best of Southland Blues" compilation CD of Southern California blues bands. And two years earlier, Morvan was named Female Artist of the Year by Blues Marketing Network, a Southern California group of blues music insiders and professionals.

She's getting good press as well from guitar magazines, which comment on her distinctive sound, which she describes as a little cleaner than most blues guitarists, with chicken picking and clear, ringing tones. The critics also describe her style as exhilarating and Morvan as a complete performer who takes her music seriously.

Hardin said Morvan's rise has been far from effortless. "She's had quite a life, and she's earned it all the way," he said. She has not only self-produced her CDs under her Screaming Lizard label, but also arranged dates and tours and done all the promotions.

Hardin calls Morvan a rare individual who is able to harness her energy into positive directions while at the same time lifting up everyone around her. The 47-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist comes from what she calls humble beginnings in rural Plainfield near Joliet. Morvan says her mother and stepfather were great parents, though, and she had a really good high school guidance counselor as well. He noticed she was good in math and science and suggested engineering as a career.

At the same time, college volleyball coaches were expressing interest in Morvan, who played the sport in high school. She didn't pursue that avenue, figuring that as an electrical engineering major she would have no time to play. Once she arrived at the UI, though, she realized she missed athletics. She also realized she needed money for her education.

During her sophomore year, she asked Hardin, then an assistant coach to Mike Hebert, whether they needed more players. For the rest of that year, she practiced with the team. At the end, she was offered a full-ride scholarship. She began playing officially in the third of her five years at the UI.

Hardin called her a tremendous athlete who helped turn around the then-foundering program. The team voted Morvan most valuable player. She also won, from the Alumni Association, the George Huff Award, given to outstanding scholar-athletes, and the Department of Electrical Engineering A.R. Buck Knight Award for scholarship and participation in student activities.

As for the guitar, Morvan had fallen in love with it when she was 18. As soon as she learned three chords, she began writing songs. And she took her acoustic to college and on team travels. "If we were stuck at an airport because our flight was delayed, my teammates would say, 'Laurie, get out your guitar.' It really was an innocent, fun exploration of the guitar," she said.

After graduating in 1984, Morvan headed to Los Angeles and worked at an aerospace company, designing digital hardware signs and test-set software. Realizing she wanted to be a musician, she worked as an engineer by day and played in cover bands by night.

After three years, she quit her day job to devote herself full time to music, supplementing her income by teaching math at the college level – after moving to California, she earned a master's degree in applied mathematics. Along the way, she married and later divorced Patrick Morvan, now the bass player in the Laurie Morvan Band, which she formed in 1994. Patrick Morvan's wife handles all the band merchandise.

"We're a really happy band. We're like a little family," Laurie Morvan said. "We all care about each other and go to each other's events and have dinner together. That's one of the reasons people enjoy seeing the band. People are always telling me, 'I can tell how much you guys like each other.'"

Another reason listeners respond to the Morvan Band might be that its frontwoman views the profession of music as a privilege.

"Every minute I'm on stage is precious to me. It's a real honor to share your music with people. It's the sharing of the music and seeing people's reaction to it. It's huge. It's a huge, wonderful thing to do in life."

 
 
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