When John Fusco — writer, producer, musician and all-around Renaissance man of the Mud City neighborhood in Morristown — first met Sarah Morrow, one of the world’s foremost trombonists, she was vetting him as he approached Dr. John on a flight from the Burlington airport.
One of Morrow’s duties as the elder statesman of the New Orleans scene’s music director was to keep him from potentially unwanted interactions. When Fusco introduced himself as a fan, her “mama bear” instincts kicked in.
But Fusco, congenial and charming, struck up a friendly conversation with the bluesman, and the chance encounter also kicked off a relationship with Morrow that would eventually blossom into an enduring musical collaboration.
“John, he’s so amazing. He’s really amazing not just at his craft, but also as a person, and he knew what to do. He knew how to introduce himself with who he was and what he did,” Morrow said.
After all, that wasn’t the first time Fusco and Dr. John had met. The two had a brief run-in the nineties, when Fusco was sharing a night out on the town in Chicago with John Goodman during the production of a Blues Brothers movie.
Fusco is full of such stories after an action-packed life spent on the road, on stage and on set in locales across the globe. A natural storyteller, Fusco was, in his youth, a rambling musician touring the South, an experience that played into his early screenplay and breakthrough hit movie, “Crossroads.”
The longtime Stowe-area resident, in the middle of a successful and ongoing movie career that includes “Young Guns,” “Hidalgo” and “The Highwaymen,” Fusco also returned, by chance, to music and has, since 2018, carved out a successful voice for himself in the world of roots and blues music.
While shooting “The Highwaymen” in New Orleans, Fusco took a trip upriver for an impromptu recording session with members of southern rock band North Mississippi Allstars, resulting in John Fusco and the X-Road Riders (2018), an album that established him as a new voice in the blues genre.
The project, largely animated by Fusco’s booming lead and finely-honed narrative sensibility, is supported by a cast of talented musicians. Morrow, who had kept in touch with Fusco after their initial encounter, joined the cast for Fusco and the X-Road Riders’ second album, “John the Revelator,” in 2020, which was nominated for three Blues Music Awards.
“We’ve just kind of slowly gotten to know each other and have developed a great working relationship and friendship,” Morrow said.
“It’s always exciting to work with her,” Fusco said. “Her jazz ideas are so refreshing.”
Morrow got her start with Ray Charles band, becoming the first woman member of his orchestra in 1995 after making a big impression on The Genius of Soul during what was supposed to be a one-night performance with him in Dayton, Ohio.
Her historic start with Charles’ band turned out to be just the beginning of an eclectic, remarkable career. After touring with him for a few years, she then worked with Foley, a funk bassist best known for his work with jazz legend Miles Davis, which then led to steady work throughout the funk world.
During this time, Morrow also began releasing solo material and pioneering exceptional new styles and sounds for the trombone. She signed a record deal and moved to Paris, where she lived for years while continuing to collaborate with the likes of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Dee Dee Bridgewater while touring globally.
One night, well after midnight, Morrow received a call from the voodoo-inspired king of New Orleans blues, jazz and rock and roll, Dr. John, who had gotten ahold of one of Morrow’s albums.
“You’re a bad motherf-----,” he told her, “and I want to work with your a--.”
This late-night phone call led to a long and fruitful collaboration between the two that lasted until Dr. John’s death in 2019. As his musical director, Morrow was not only in charge of arrangements and direction of the band, but also became his right-hand woman and a prominent part of his renowned live shows as her persona, “The Bone Doctor.”
Morrow uses the trombone as an extension of the human voice and pushes the boundaries of traditional horn playing. She makes use of effects pedals more often seen paired with guitars and employs all the subtle inflections the instrument offers.
“They say there are seven positions on the trombone, right where your notes are, but actually, the possibilities are infinite,” she said. “There’s all kinds of sounds you can create in all of those spaces between the notes.”
Dr. John’s death was followed quickly by the pandemic, a difficult time for any musician. Morrow was left stuck in Nashville, where she lives.
“I always just thought music was what I did, but now the pandemic has shown me it’s who I am. And without it, there’s a big hole that needs to be filled with other things. I think going through this time period only makes us stronger,” she said.
With an invitation from Fusco, Morrow jumped at the chance to play live again, particularly in a safer, outdoor environment.
Along with her second-ever performance in Stowe, Morrow is arriving in town early so she and Fusco can do some songwriting for an upcoming solo album of Morrow’s that he’ll be producing at the Muscle Shoals recording studio in Alabama.
Fusco currently has his own third album in the works, in collaboration with Stowe-based musician George Walker Petit and others.
Along with Morrow, he’s been preparing for the show with the local members of his band in his rehearsal space, a barn where he once cared for horses after their appearance in his films.
“Blues to the Bone” will also feature the Burlington-based DonnCherie and Mohawk bluesman Jimmy Wolf. Proceeds from the show will benefit Lamoille Community House, a local shelter that serves the homeless.
John Fusco and the X-Road Riders features Fusco on vocals and Hammond B3 with Morrow leading a horn section composed of Vermonters Josh Clinger, Bradley “Baby J” Jewett and Dan Alario. Guitarists Kurt Pierson and Jared Wigget will join them along with Spencer Perry on drums and Denny Diego on bass. A gospel-style choir featuring locals Cassandra Machia, Julia Simons and Rosalie Wasser will round out the performance.
Fusco’s longtime friend Jo Sabel Courtney is overseeing the production.