When Todd Steed and R.B. Morris sit down for a guitar pull on Tuesday at Sweet P’s Downtown Dive in Knoxville, the two men will share more than just songs.
There’s also a whole lot of history between them, both personal and musical. They’re arguably two of the East Tennessee music scene’s titular figures, but before they made a name for themselves — Morris with his bands, solo works, poetry, plays and historical advocacy, and Steed with his own projects (Smokin’ Dave and the Premo Dopes at the top of that list) and his current career as a jazz advocate and radio host — they were a couple of dudes just trying to get by on the Cumberland Avenue “Strip.”
It was about 1980, Steed recalled this week, when the two met for the first time. Morris was in the band Shaky Little Finger; Steed was part of a short-lived punk band called The Real Hostages, and at the time, the scene — centered primarily in and around Knoxville’s Fort Sanders neighborhood — was on the cusp of a musical revolution.
“When I first started playing on ‘The Strip,’ I was 16 or 17 and still in high school and already writing songs about Knoxville, and the attitudes of the older musicians were, ‘Oh my God. You guys are terrible’ — and they were right,” Steed said. “They were like, ‘You really shouldn’t play guitar in public at that level.’ I wouldn’t say people were mean, but there was definitely a hierarchy, and you were definitely made to feel that if you were not a pretty good musician, regardless of the context of the songs, that you were on the bottom.”
By that point, Morris — who’s since served as both a writer-in-residence for the University of Tennessee and the city of Knoxville’s official poet laureate, as well as a songwriter whose work is admired by such men as John Prine (who even covered one of Morris’ songs) — already was on his way to the status he occupies today. Unlike some of his older contemporaries, he greeted up-and-comers with enthusiasm, Steed remembers.
“I met him at Ramsey’s Cafeteria, on White Avenue in Fort Sanders. It wasn’t a great place for eating well, but it was a great place for eating cheap,” Steed said. “I had seen R.B. play, and I knew all about him and had read stuff he’d written, but I’d never met him. I remember he was eating lunch with his girlfriend, and remember thinking, ‘It would be much cooler if we could have a beer together, but maybe we could have green beans together.’
“So I just sort of stalked him, and I just watched until they were finished but not ready to leave, and I walked over and introduced myself. I guess he knew who I was, too, to some extent, so we sat down there and had cornbread or something, whatever was left at the end of the meal, and he was one of the first of those people who was like, ‘Yeah! Keep doing it! It’s so great to see people singing about local things!’ To get that sort of enthusiastic validation that you’re on the right path, that you shouldn’t stop, that it’s OK if you’re out of tune and that you should keep writing and playing — for me, it was a real, real great moment. He was so excited, and it made me excited.”
In the subsequent years, Smokin’ Dave and the Premo Dopes became one of Knoxville’s biggest alternative bands, a witty and self-deprecating outfit that drew equally on college rock jangle-pop and Frank Zappa. Morris penned tomes of poetry and put out searing albums of personal and social introspection and got name-checked by Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle as a personal inspiration. They crossed paths numerous times (Steed remembers one particular “Save the Rainforest” concert at the now-closed Planet Earth in which Morris came out with a chainsaw), and when he conceived of the plan for his 2002 release, “Knoxville Tells” (credited to Todd Steed and the Suns of Phere), Morris was tops on his bucket list of collaborators.
“A few people, when I told them what my plan was — to make a whole record about Knoxville — were generally encouraging, but a lot of them said, ‘Really? A whole record? Not just a couple of songs?’” Steed said. “But when I told R.B. about it, of course he said, ‘Yes! Finally! Do it!’ He leads the record off, and there’s a reason he leads it off. This is the guy who really turned the eyeglass back on his hometown — the microscope and the telescope and the gyroscope and all the scopes. That’s why I wanted him to be the first voice on the record.”
Speaking of, there’s a rough plan to have a new Smokin’ Dave record out by the end of the year. It’s been in the works since 2014, but life has a way of getting in the way of the best-laid plans.
“Dave (Nichols) has a couple of kids, and Dug (Meech) lives in Nashville, and I’m lazy,” he joked. “But we’ve been getting together, and it’s going great. It’s going to be an incredibly weird record, and we’re actually making real progress. The giant stone horse is moving, and it’s not falling apart.”
And while the Premo Dopes always have done their own thing, local scene hopefuls can’t discount that Steed and Morris (who will be joined on Tuesday by Greg Horne and Bob Deck) might collaborate again, at some point down the road, on a future recorded effort. Something Knoxville-centric, perhaps. It would, after all, be fitting.
“From the beginning, we were good,” Steed said. “We were in the same tribe. Or maybe R.B. was telling me, ‘Welcome to the tribe.’ One of the things we all loved about R.B. is that he was able to see it all and get into it all. He wasn’t beholden to a genre of music; he was and is beholden to art.”