Singer-songwriter R.B. Morris readies new acoustic solo album, Clayton Center show
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Singer-songwriter R.B. Morris, an East Tennessee character if there ever was one, is picking up the pace these days.
After taking 11 years to release a new album — last year’s Spies, Lies and Burning Eyes,” his first since 1999’s “Zeke and the Wheel” — he already has another in the chamber. It’s the result of some gentle prodding by close friends “up in the hills,” he told The Daily Times this week — the friends, neighbors and family who call home the stretch of mountains on the Tennessee/North Carolina line where Morris also owns as plot of land.
“‘Iron’ John Webb approached me and said, ‘All of our favorite songs of yours, you never put on a record,’” Morris told The Daily Times this week. “He said, ‘You need to document some of those songs.’ I’ve got quite a few I never recorded anywhere, so that’s how it started. John arranged the sessions (at the studio of Nathan Milner in Asheville, N.C.), and I wrote up a big list of songs. I went over to Nathan’s and said, ‘Let’s flip it on.’
“I laid down 53 songs, said, ‘Let’s just keep playing.’ I had this list in front of me, and that was the project right there, just to get them down. And then we said, ‘Let’s put out a record of a dozen of these.’”
The new album — tentatively titled “Rich Mountain Bound,” taking its name from Morris’s publishing company — will be a stark contrast to “Spies,” which featured poetry, spoken word and the backing instrumental work of his long-time band, the Irregulars. This one, he said, is a solo album in the true sense of the world.
“I don’t mean exactly like (Bruce Springsteen’s) ‘Nebraska,’ where I play all the instruments and it’s more of a minimal thing,” he said. “It’s just all guitar. There’s not an overdub on the whole record. The guitar is coming through the vocal mic, and the vocals are coming through the guitar mic. It is what it is.”
That’s welcome news to many long-time fans, some of whom will no doubt be in attendance Friday night when Morris performs as part of the “Friday Nights Live” series at the Clayton Center for the Arts on the Maryville College campus. He’s been a regular in Blount County over the years, having performed at both Brackins Blues Bar and The Palace Theater, and the long-gone Down Yonder bar in downtown Maryville was the location of one of the last shows — if not the last, he said — by his late ’70s band Shaky Little Finger.
That’s just one small slice of the history he’s cut through this area, from the local music scene to local stages to offices at the University of Tennessee, where he served as writer-in-residence for several years. His distinguished turn as a man of letters is a stark contrast to his occasionally boozy, sometimes confrontational, always fascinating late-night persona, when he might brood quietly over a guitar or read poetry with all the fiery aplomb of a tent-revival preacher.
Many East Tennesseans may have a passing knowledge of Morris as a musician, but most don’t realize just how much he’s respected by his peers. Singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams calls him “the greatest unknown songwriter in the country,” and country-rock maverick Steve Earle says Morris “is the reason I started writing poetry.” Born at Fort Sanders, Morris has always made Knoxville his home, despite his occasional wanderings. He’s spent time in San Francisco, collaborating with the biographer of Jack Kerouac, and in Knoxville he’s considered an expert on novelist and Knoxville native James Agee.
In concert, he’s a force of nature. His songwriting, and his spoken-word poetry, is starkly beautiful and haunting, and his solo acoustic shows usually hold audiences spellbound. There’s a melancholy sadness to his acoustic songs, and a shot of adrenaline to his rockers, all of which make up his previous records. But given his time in and out of the spotlight — from his days as a figure disappeared into the wooded hills of his beloved Max Patch in the early 1980s to his tender, poignant performances in intimate venues for serious listeners — “Rich Mountain Bound” may well be the truest representation of his artistic heart.
“It’s crazy — totally different, completely different,” he said. “They’re all really old country songs, with a mountain twinge to them. A lot of them are songs I wrote many years ago, and I used to play live way back when, but I let most all of them go over the years — ‘Taking the Old Road,’ ‘Once in a Blue Moon,’ ‘Going Down to Hot Springs.’ They’re country songs with a little mountain influence.”
He’s feeling good, he added, about having two albums out in less than a year, and this weekend’s Maryville show may well be his only East Tennessee performance until a fall date at The Laurel Theater in his beloved Fort Sanders. He’s working on ironing out the publishing details for his Agee play, and he’s tinkering with a few songs, a poem here and there and living life as a father and a husband.
“I’ve been up in the mountains off and on, working on my property, and I’ve been doing a little bit of writing on the side — only it’s prose this time instead of poetry,” he said. “I don’t know where that ends up, and there’s no telling how long that might take.”