R.B. Morris – The world owes him
R.B. Morris’ fiery set had just taken the chill out of the air behind Yard Dog, the site of the folk-art gallery’s second annual Saturday afternoon SXSW beer bust in Austin, when legendary songwriter and raconteur Bob Neuwirth ambles over. He’s got a wild look on his face.
“I gotta kill him,” Neuwirth says, referring to Morris. “He’s too good. I gotta kill him,” he repeats. “But I gotta wait ’til New Year’s Day.” Then, looking me squarely in the eyes, on three fingers of one hand, Neuwirth counts off the names: Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt, R.B. Morris.
It’s too soon to tell whether Morris belongs in the company of tortured song poets Williams and Van Zandt, each of whom died on January 1 (1953 and 1997, respectively). And yet listening to Take That Ride, Morris’ expansive, visionary debut for Oh Boy Records, it’s clear that Neuwirth’s point was more than just dramatic.
From the stray cat strut of “World Owes Me” to the gospel harmonies of “Glory Dreams”, Take That Ride encompasses Woody Guthrie, the Swan Silvertones, Jack Kerouac, Tom T. Hall and The Band. (R.S. Field’s dense, layered production even evokes the epochal late-’60s albums of the last.) Add a Whitman-like embrace of nature and experience — by turns Dionysian (“Riding With O’Hanlon”), mystical (“Pot Hole Street”), proletarian (“Hell On A Poor Boy”) and prophetic (“Big Black Hull”) — and you get an idea of the moral and artistic reach of Morris’ music.
Born in Fort Sanders, the bohemian neighborhood in Knoxville, Tennessee, that also produced author James Agee — about whom R.B. has written and performed a one-man play — Morris remembers “makin’ stuff up” before he could write. “When I was a kid, I was Huck Finn and Tarzan and Davey Crockett,” he said, before adding, with a wink, “right up until I was Bob Dylan. You gotta do your time with all of those guys, you know.”
And yet as much as the characters of folklore and legend, Morris immersed himself in the mountain culture of Upper East Tennessee — first in church, where he learned to sing, and later in the backwoods honky-tonks, where, as a young performer, he saw everything from stabbings and shootings to cockfighting and white lightning. (His exposure to the latter no doubt inspired his incendiary cover of the Robert Mitchum classic “Thunder Road”.)
“They used to push a pool table out of the way and tie a rope off when we’d play,” Morris recalls of the roadhouses of rural Cocke County. “We would pack ’em in because we had a really hot fiddle player, and you can raise the dead with a fiddle player up in the mountains. The first song I ever played in this one place, somebody jumped the rope. Our main guy, a big burly red-headed dude, reached forth and grabbed him by the ankles and ears and threw him back over, and the song kept goin’.”
After his baptism in the blood and whiskey of the honky tonks, Morris spent a year alone in the mountains, where he built a cabin, before heading west to Portland and San Francisco. Inspired by the people and places he encountered on his travels, he thumbed his way back to East Tennessee and founded The Hard Knoxville Review, a poetry and graphic arts journal he co-edited for nearly six years with painter Eric Sublett.
Somewhat surprisingly, especially given his peripatetic leanings, Morris didn’t venture across the Cumberland Plateau to Nashville until 1994, and even then without musical aspirations. “When I first started comin’ over here I didn’t want to perform,” he said. “I’d just been through a divorce and was kind of down on my luck. Besides, compared with Knoxville’s hard-core art and music scene, Nashville’s like sellout city. And that’s the image that Nashville carries, obviously, in a lot of places.
“But when I came over, I met Lucinda Williams early on, and Bo Ramsey was in town then. So I started playing around a little bit and discovered all these musicians. I’d go down to Lower Broadway and hear Greg Garing play,” Morris says, reminiscing about the earliest days of Nashville’s most recent hillbilly music revival. “Garing was always having Lucinda up there to sing. Lucinda got me up to sing one time and it went over pretty well. After that, whenever I was around, Garing would usually have me up to sing. And it just sort of grew from there.”
Williams soon invited Morris to be part of a touring guitar pull she’d organized with Bo Ramsey and Steve Young. The foursome played some low-key dates in Tennessee and North Carolina that still have people talking, as much for unveiling the material that will appear on Williams’ long-awaited American Recordings debut later this year as for exposing audiences to Morris, a poet and writer who, like Agee, expresses himself with singular passion and insight.
Indeed, on the title cut and centerpiece of Take That Ride, Morris explains how, in Agee’s case, “the life that he was living and the gift that he was giving were all one” — that is, how Agee wouldn’t, or couldn’t, separate art from life. The same is true of Morris. Be it the heartache of “Take Time To Love”, the alienation of “Hell On A Poor Boy” or the affirmation of “Glory Dreams”, there’s never any distance between who Morris is and what he’s singing about.
And yet, when, in “Take That Ride”, he avers that he doesn’t want to die like Agee — or Hank Williams — lost and alone in the back of a rented car, Morris acknowledges the toll that engaging the world head-on can take. In other words, he knows what lies ahead if, as Bob Neuwirth good-naturedly suggested, he one day joins the ranks of those hillbilly Shakespeares named Williams and Van Zandt.