The first time I chatted with Roscoe Morgan, he and I were both relative newcomers to Blount County.
Back in 2003, he’d called this area home for about four years. We talked to promote his new album at the time, “Streets of Cincinnati,” and he told me at the time that “it doesn’t sound like anyone in particular. It’s kind of like Tony Rice meets James Taylor, with one really strange instrumental tune influenced by the greatest rock band of all time, King Crimson. That’s a piece that shows the influence from that King Crimson art-rock kind of thing. It’s just something I always wanted to do.”
Reminded of that quote this week, he laughed and stood by it. After all, Morgan may love bluegrass — or “The Blue Grass,” as he often refers to it on social media — but it’s not the only genre from which he draws inspiration. Whether it’s prog rock or metal (he once cut a Del McCoury-style take on Mötörhead’s “Ace of Spades” on a dare from yours truly) or contemporary indie rock, he’s always a sucker for a well-composed song that challenges his fingers as well as his ears.
Unfortunately for “Streets of Cincinnati,” it didn’t get a lot of traction upon its release. Morgan had just stepped away from the popular bluegrass outfit Pine Mountain Railroad, and supporters expected a solo project to have a similar sound.
“It didn’t really do very well, because the people I counted on to support me in it, were counting on a bluegrass record,” Morgan told me this week. “I never really had an audience locally for this stuff — or so I thought. But I’ve still got people asking me to do them. I’ve still got people saying, ‘I love this song, and this one, and this one,’ and I’ve even written what you might call sequels — not to the songs, specifically, but to the idea.”
In figuring out a direction for Saturday evening’s show at Vienna Coffeehouse, he decided to revisit the 16-year-old record. It’ll be the first solo show he’s played in a good minute, given that much of his time over the past 18 months has been playing with his teenage daughter, Bethany. They bill what they do as “acoustic New Wave,” but with school responsibilities and other interests, she won’t make it on Saturday, which leaves the show as a solo Roscoe endeavor.
It’ll make for a nice challenge after being used to playing as part of a duo for so long, he added.
“I have to pay closer attention to what I’m doing, because it’ll feel like I’m only playing with one arm,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve always enjoyed interacting with the audience and talking perhaps to a fault, and doing the solo stuff is going to give me a chance to be a little more intimate. It’ll be less like a formal concert and more like sitting in a living room together
“It’ll also change the songs I can play. With Bethany, she’s a powerful player and singer. We can sound like three or four people, and we can make a lot happen, but when it’s down to one, it changes everything that I do and every way that I do it.”
That said, there will also be more time for Roscoe to tell the stories behind the songs. Every tune will be an original, and his Cincinnati upbringing was, like most childhoods, a complex time. Sixteen years ago, he had come out of a tumultuous period of his life and had yet to lean on his faith for spiritual grounding. Now, the songs feel different, because Roscoe is different.
“I used to jokingly call myself a tumbleweed, because I just kind of blew into Maryville, but I’ve been here 20 years now, and it’s been very gracious to me,” he said. “I’ve kind of been fat and happy for a while, and Maryville is home. I’ve settled into contentment in a lot of areas now. I’ve had a teaching career for 21 years, and I’m singing from an entirely different perspective.
“I don’t believe anything quite the way I believed it 20 years ago. I’ve just learned that I’ve got to be kinder, and that if I want to lead people into whatever the truth is, then kindness leads the way.”
He’s even found acceptance for the bluegrass career that seemed to pass him by. He’s been part and parcel of any number of projects that have propelled others to greater heights, and for a number of years, he struggled with resentment toward the business and even the genre itself. No more, he said — and that’s done more for his peace of mind than anything else.
“Bluegrass was always the girl who promised me a date and would never go out with me, but now I’m an old man and don’t care anymore,” he said. “I’ve written a song called ‘Old Dog on the Porch’ that I’ll play on Saturday, and I think it describes this thing perfect.”
With a wife, two kids, a teaching career and a community of players that think highly of him and vice-versa, he’s found his niche. And while there are plenty of new songs that might wind up on a “Streets of Cincinnati” redux or even a new project, even if that doesn’t happen, Roscoe will be alright.
“I get to make a living by teaching, and I adore my students, and I have enough money, too,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if I sell a CD or not, because I’m rich in life experiences.”