Where are the girls with guitars?
Here's one who has traded engineering for a Stratocaster
There are generally two ways to meet Laurie Watters Morvan (BSEE '84) if you're ever in southern California. One is to enroll in her applied mathematics class. Another is to hang out at the nearest blues club, where sooner or later she's bound to show up with her electric guitar and maybe blow the roof off the place.
Though Morvan leads a double life as college instructor and blues band leader, there's no doubt where her true love lies. Through grit and devotion, she's forged a sound that draws comparisons to musical legends such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt. Morvan and her band perform on nights, weekends, and all summer - all while maintaining lofty standards at her day job at Cypress College in southern California. She loves her music too much to support it by lowly jobs or half-measures.
"If I'm going to do something that takes me away from music, then it's going to be something that helps people," she said. "At least I'm going in and helping people achieve their dreams."
Morvan, 48, knows about chasing dreams. Ever since she picked up a guitar as a young woman, she's considered the instrument the "most wonderful thing that ever existed" and built her life around playing it. After studying electrical engineering at the University of Illinois, Morvan picked up an engineering job in California in order to move closer to the music scene. After a couple of years, the Illinois native quit engineering to start playing in cover bands full time - once performing 32 nights in a row - before earning a master's degree and a teaching job to finance a shot at recording. Since 1997, the Laurie Morvan Band has released three CDs (the first under the name of Backroad Shack).
She's still confronted with the old attitude that electric guitars are a man's plaything, but Morvan overwhelms doubters with characteristic style. When she played volleyball at the U of I, Morvan, at 5 feet 10 inches, was short for a middle hitter, but she made up for it with athleticism and passion, earning the team's MVP award. Along the way, she earned her pilot's license and graduated in the top quarter of her class.
Coach Don Hardin ('84) recalls how Morvan broke out her guitar and led the team in song during road trips. A blues fan, Hardin now has all of Morvan's CDs, and he recently watched her perform when she visited Champaign. "She plays the guitar like an athlete," Hardin said. "It's a very physical performance." Morvan has been known to leap on bar counters and let loose fiery solos on her 1956 reissue Fender Stratocaster. "I feel the vibe," she said. "Fortunately, I have a great band that can follow me wherever I take them. I'll make a left turn in the song, and the band just follows right along with me."
Morvan writes all of her songs, tapping into her own reflections and vulnerabilities for numbers ranging from the raucous "Kickin' Down Doors" to the disappointed "Where Are the Girls with Guitars?" to the sentimental "Family Line," which describes regret over never having had a child. "My albums cover the whole spectrum of happy to sad to mad and celebration and heartbreak," she said. "The human experience is this unending palette of inspiration."
Songs from her latest CD, Cures What Ails Ya, released in 2007, helped usher the band to the finals of the Blues Foundation 2008 worldwide competition for best self-produced CD. Music reviewers have since spared few adjectives in praising Morvan's talent, and most recently, she was named 2008 Blues Artist on the Rise by the Blues Festival Guide. Morvan, meanwhile, has kept her rising fame in perspective. She knows the key to her success is the same as always. "You just go out and make sure you're great every time you go on stage. That takes care of everything," she said. "You just go out and let your guitar do the talking, and that's how you win people over."