Richard Bruce Morris is an old friend of mine. People who know that have every right to be suspicious of anything I have to say about him. But now, at least, I’ve got some backup.
You may know that R. B. has spent most of the last year or two impressing some impressive audiences in Nashville. Michael McCall, music writer for our alter ego, The Nashville Scene, noticed Knoxville’s Local Man last November when he played at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe. In the 10 months since, McCall has written about R. B. Morris several times for Guitar-City audiences: Morris’s music, McCall says, “glows with the scruffy intellectualism and choice, concise wordplay of Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, and other literary renegades.”
This past summer, McCall wrote a column about rare originals in that town known for its formulaic approach to country music. He singled out Morris as a special exception to the oppressive Nashville rule. “Morris is a scruffy, soulful poet who enjoys wrapping his multidimensional wordplay in earthy, roadhouse arrangements,” McCall wrote. “Morris has an inventive way of wrenching open the structure of a song to indulge his oblique and dynamic wordplay.”
McCall concluded that R. B. and one other singer-songwriter in Nashville “speaks well of the future of Music City and its potential for embracing the musically adventurous.”
It’s an irony that Morris strikes some as Nashville’s Hope, when Morris is so thoroughly Knoxvillian. There’s a hillbilly impertinence about his work, frayed with a decadent melancholy of a sort that lives on this side of the Cumberlands. His lyrics are provocative and memorable, his tunes are solid, his voice works, aging into an easy baritone with just enough rasp to make it sound lived in. And 20 years of performing before live—and often drunk—audiences have left him with a confidence about taking weird chances with music—and an instinct for taking the right ones.
This Friday night, he’ll play a venue he’s played before—in fact, he was long a close neighbor and confidante of the century-old Laurel Theater, in Fort Sanders at Laurel and 16th.
He emerged here in Fort Sanders, leading a blues/country band called Shaky Little Finger. In the early ’80s, Morris did some traveling, geographically and spiritually. He grew fascinated with words, and for half a decade, Morris concentrated on poetry without accompaniment, putting his guitar aside to produce a nonpareil tabloid arts journal called The Hard Knoxville Review. He also wrought an unlikely miracle in organizing some lively and even popular poetry readings. And he started working on his one movie, a one-man screenplay based on the tortured life of fellow Clinch Avenue native James Agee called The Man Who Lives Here is Loony. (Copyright difficulties have prevented the film from being publicly shown more than once, at the Bijou in 1992.)
All of his efforts were impressively unique. But somewhere in there, someone talked R. B. into doing what he does best—that is, writing and singing songs.
He holed up and worked up a new act, new songs, and returned to the stage, often backed by the Irregulars—a.k.a. Hector Qirko’s blues band. Morris’s unpredictable shows combined poetry-as-performance-art with original songs that ranged from pure country to pure blues, which are, of course, roughly the same thing. Curves thrown just to keep us slack-jawed were occasional operatic pieces, breezy reggae, and punk-influenced rock ’n’ roll. The sum offers a strong impression of a man who has wrestled with angels and learned how to deal with being pinned.
Morris has followed a wild road lately, curtailing his once-frequent local performances. This is only his third Knoxville show in the past year or more, and his first in six months. He’s typically in his home town for a couple of days each week, but wearing out the tires of his big red pickup on Interstate 40 between here and Nashville—where he’s been using his time well.
Nashville isn’t corrupting this local man yet. “I’m not trying to fit in there,” Morris says. “I’m not putting on any cowboy hats or anything. I’ve just got some intellectual property I’m trying to rezone commercial.”
Morris has one distinction he might not admit to his hard-drinking, music-outlaw henchmen in Guitar City. MTSU has invited Morris, the poet, to be an honored guest at a writers’ conference next month, to share a dais with three other nationally known authors, including award-winning short-story writer Lee Smith and renowned biographer Peter Guralnick.
So far the recording contract Morris has deserved for half a decade is still just around the bend. He’s had publishing offers that may include a recording package, but so far he hasn’t settled on one.
Morris is a performer who’s perpetually arriving. As long as he keeps arriving back in his home town, we can’t complain.