Picture this: You're seated comfortably in an airliner that's cruising along at 30,000 feet. The reassuring voice of the captain comes over the intercom, saying, "The weather looks great in Dallas, and we should be arriving on time."
Then, almost as an afterthought, he adds, "And as soon as I can put this thing on autopilot, I'll be back to play a few licks on my guitar."
Excuse me? A guitar-playing airline pilot? Absolutely. His name is Steve Morse, and he's appearing Sunday night at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.
Morse's career as a commercial pilot--which lasted only six months in 1987--never actually included the scenario above. But until the lure of music returned him to guitar playing, he gave serious consideration to flying as a full-time job. Morse maintains his license and usually pilots his own plane while he is touring. And, he says, there are occasions when--if the weather is good and he's flying by himself--he might pull out his guitar for some high-altitude strumming.
"But I won't be going back to working as a commercial pilot," he explained. "I pretty much burned that bridge when I retired--after six months. Resigning from a job is not a particularly good thing to put on your resume. But I found that as much as I enjoyed the flying, the rest of it--wearing a uniform, keeping up the paperwork--was just a job. I missed the unpredictability of a music career."
The 37-year-old guitarist's continuing love of the air, however, was reflected in his acquisition, last year, of a home in Ocala, Fla. "It's great," he said. "The house is right there--there's not even a taxiway. I'm even setting up my hangar with a remote-control door so I can land, taxi off the strip and take the plane right into the hangar--just like a car."
To the thousands of young fans who know him as one of the founding members of the energetic Dixie Dregs (which evolved into the Dregs), as well as the leader of his own trio, Morse is one of the guitar heroes of the last two decades. Nominated five times for Grammy awards, named Best Overall Guitarist five times by Guitar Player magazine readers' polls, and inducted into the periodical's "Gallery of Greats" in 1986, Morse clearly had ample reasons for keeping his flying activities a high-tech hobby rather than a profession.
Morse, praised for his work with the Dregs, was never completely satisfied with the musical possibilities the group provided. In 1984, he recorded his first solo album, "Introduction."
"I wanted to do guitar playing that was beyond just rhythm playing," he said. "I wanted to do more interesting things, like playing contrapuntal lines with the bass. One of the things I missed in the Dregs was the opportunity to have more instrumental responsibility. In fact, it seemed for a while that I was writing tunes in which the violin and the keyboards always took the main part of the melody, while I was just a doubling or harmonizing voice.
"With this trio--with Dave LaRue on bass and Van Romaine on drums, I've got more control. Sure, I'd like to have 80 people available on stage for different pieces. But we've got lots of stuff we do to open up the sound. On some tunes, Van plays chords on these electronic drum pads he has; on others, Dave foot-pedals with his bass to add extra counter-melodies. And I use the guitar synth to supplement things here and there, sometimes to string sounds and orchestral timbres to accent and expand the music."
Morse's program at the Coach House comes near the end of an excursion that began in June. "It's been absolutely spliced in with the Dregs' reunion tour too," he said. "After we play San Diego, I'll be going home, and the guys will be coming to my place for a few days to rehearse--and that's my time off."
With revived Dregs concert bookings and recordings in the offing, further traveling with his own trio, and special appearances as a soloist, Morse's daybook is filled. Fortunately, he has the right vehicle to maintain a punctual schedule. Neither Morse's voice nor his guitar will be heard on the intercom of an airliner anytime soon, but he'll continue to make the passages between gigs a little more pleasant behind the controls of his own plane.
"Flying is the thing that fills out my life. Being up there really gives you a sense of the bigger view," Morse said. "And, maybe best of all, there's something about it--maybe it's that bigger view--that helps put the heart in my music."
Steve Morse and T Lavitz play Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $19.50. (714) 496-8930.