From his home base in Fort Sanders, R.B. Morris swaggers through downtown with the regal certainty of a man who takes ownership of the very ground he treads.
His clothes are often rumpled, as if pulled from a heap on the bathroom floor moments before bolting out the door, and his hair appears unkempt—though some level of calculation may be involved—as if he ran shaky fingers through greasy locks moments after rising from the sofa. And yet characteristics that would come off as unassuming or just plain disarrayed in other men seem fashionable and self-aware in R.B. Morris.
In conversation, he holds forth with a formidable, learned intelligence, and he issues some of his pronouncements with the sort of gravitas usually reserved for prophecy—most often after a pint of Guinness or other libations. As his longtime friend, the local artist Eric Sublett, puts it: "When he's in his cups, he gets grandiloquent." One might even ascribe it all to the "Morris Mystique."
But while the sure step, the just-so hair, and the erudite ramblings may be outer vestments of R.B. Morris, poet and performer, they leave a lot unsaid. They say nothing of the hard choices he's made, trading a normal life for that of a respected, but sometimes struggling musician. And they say nothing of the fact that Morris grew up the son of a God-fearing railroad man in North Knoxville.
Who the hell is R.B. Morris? Friend and fellow poet Marilyn Kallet sums it thusly: "He may put on a persona of being dangerous, slightly edgy. But he's actually a kind, good guy. A lot of poets are bastards. He's not scary. He's a mensch, a man of character."
Morris dismisses the notion that he has any special charisma. "Mystique? I wonder what that would be?" he asks. "The thing is, to be crazy, or whatever qualifies for that, to be that about your work, or about the life you have to live in order to do your work, that's the point. The rest is just mental problems, or just posing. Forget that stuff. I don't try to be difficult. I'm just serious about certain things."
In other words, in terms of his life, his career, and his persona, Morris is a tough nut to crack. "A riddle wrapped in an enigma stuffed in a time bomb"—that's how Morris summarized his then-delayed forthcoming record, Spies Lies and Burning Eyes, when he first sat down to deconstruct it roughly a year ago, though he might just as well have been talking about himself. His previous two major musical releases, 1997's Take That Ride on John Prine's Oh Boy Records and 1999's Zeke and the Wheel on New York's Koch Records, have earned him the friendship and respect of Lucinda Williams (who once called Morris "the greatest unknown songwriter in the country"), Tom T. Hall, and Steve Earle. Legendary rock journalist Dave Marsh is also a fan. Yet for all the promise of a wider recognition, Morris remains a perennial outsider in the music biz.
But there's more. Morris is also expecting his second child, a daughter, on March 24—some 21 years after the birth of his first, daughter Frances, now a straight-A student at Vassar. Says Sublett, "As well as Frances has turned out, if it was me I'd say go for it again, too." He and his wife, artist Karly Stribling, have been together close to a decade, though they married just over two years ago.
How all of this affects his episodic, self-described "lifelong journey," which began around age 19, after a year or so of college when Morris "dropped out, headed out, took off for the high and wide," remains to be seen. Hard enough to figure this mysterious Morris cat on the front end—mensch, poet, prophet, playwright, academician, handyman, boutique recording artist, civic activist, and father at 57. But what's under that irregular aura?
Morris and Stribling live in a multi-tiered layer cake of a house on the east side of Fort Sanders, all pastel colors and dark trim and peeling parchment. It's guarded by a motley cluster of small trees and bordered on one side by a small garden Stribling tends in the summer, and a nicely masoned stone wall on the other, which Morris built for the landlord last year. Morris shows the wall off proudly; he's picked up a number of trades over the years, a necessity of living an artist's life, making ends meet with quick jobs in lean times when art isn't paying the bills.
The couple's apartment is in the uppermost reaches of the building, reachable by an outdoor stair; it's a warm, unassuming space, full of guitars and art projects, its central main room set about with satellites—closets, a baby room, work rooms for both Stribling and Morris. Daughter Frances still has a room open; she and Morris are close, and she stayed there entering Vassar. The couple sleep downstairs, beneath a quilt Karly sewed together from R.B.'s old shirts.
Around Stribling, there's not a trace of the Morris Mystique. Rather, he's sweet, deferential in the way of a preternaturally well-read schoolboy. They met after one of his shows in her hometown Louisville, and the chemistry was seemingly inexorable.
"I don't know what she'll say," Morris says, addressing questions about their first encounter, and the relationship that grew out of it. "Are you sold on me yet?"
"I guess I am," Stribling says sweetly. She's a pale-skinned woman of close to 30, but could probably pass for 21, and she has for years worn her sandy hair in long, thick dreadlocks. "I was sold pretty quick."
"I don't know," Morris replies with a dubious grin. "It takes a while to do a sale."
Others have taken note of their marital bliss; longtime friend and musical collaborator Hector Qirko, who's known Morris since the mid-'70s, says this is "the happiest I've ever seen R.B."
Stribling is the inspiration for Morris' forthcoming volume of poetry, keeping the bees employed, to be published on his own Rich Mountain Bound imprint. The title poem is a plain-spoken paean to domesticity. "That poem kind of paints a little bit of a picture about Karly and me without saying too much," Morris explains. "A lot of the other poems kind of fill in that picture. There are lots of couples, all kinds of loves. But what we have, it's a lucky situation. I want to put that book out, and dedicate it to her.
"The language I used in these poems, it's more direct, more point blank," he continues. "My early stuff was influenced by Rimbaud and Ginsberg, more of a spectral, faster, speeding bullet kind of thing. But nowadays, it's simpler. It's not trying to be elusive or obtuse."
By contrast, Morris' new self-released album features some of his most lyrically and thematically complex work to date—the fever-dream prophecies of "Big Wheel"; the powerful rolling wordplay of "Buddha in European Clothes"; the angular verbal stabs of "Vertical Horizons (The Irish Sea)"; and the ineffably graceful metaphor of "That's How Every Empire Falls," one of the prettiest songs in the Morris catalog, first introduced on his 2007 EP Empire.
"The songs and the lyrics versus the music, the music is anything but ornamented," Morris says, addressing the apparent dichotomy. He points out that several of the songs feature poetry, or at least spoken-word pieces.
"I felt freer to add poetry and spoken word to the mix on this one, make a different kind of album. Prior to that there was a worry, we've got to make this a little more regular, keep the corners on things so we can plug it in.
"This record is what I would call an art record," Morris says, pointing out that several songs deal with writers from various eras and mediums, including Dylan ("Buddha in European Clothes"), Rimbaud ("Vowels"), and Plato ("Plato's Perfect World"). "It's not really what's the musical currency nowadays."
R.B. Morris has a way of saying things—illustrating a point, stating a case, asking for an extra ramekin of salsa—that is beyond the ken of ordinary souls, a grandness of presentation that at least in part defines his mystique. And it's in full force now as he lurches over a half-finished Guinness at a cocktail table, gesticulating at key moments, his trademark soul patch bristling. He's explaining the meaning—and non-meaning—of his myriad influences.
"It's true I'm influenced to some degree by Dylan and all these other great artists," he says. "But as soon as it hits print, it becomes half a lie. Some people are influenced by them biblically. They try to sound just like them. They haven't gotten into their own thing. But I don't feel like I'm under the wing of any of them. I'm from East Tennessee and I'm writing my own story."
It's an interesting point to ponder, in that for every artist who fancies him/herself the peerless avatar of dozens of seamlessly melded influences, Morris really is the All-American jukebox—but one with an added button set to "puree." He's a hillbilly transcendental symbolist Dylan-folkie Beat-rocker, who picked through the leavings of the British Invasion and American post-psychedelia, filtered it all through the inspiration of James Agee and Charles Bukowski and Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits.
"R.B. is one of those rare artists who truly appreciates other artists," says good friend and fellow Knoxville songwriter Scott Miller. "Lots of people in this business act like mean high-school cheerleaders protecting their turf. R.B. has always been encouraging and genuinely interested in what someone is trying to do. And he learns from it."
His education began as a kid living off Washington Pike, singing in church, watching Cas Walker on TV and listening to his mother's Marty Robbins' records. Then there was high school and pop and rock radio, discovering Dylan and The Band; and older brother Chuck, who introduced him to the Beats and Bukowski and Arthur Rimbaud.
Upon graduating the old Holston High School and completing a lackluster year at the University of Tennessee, he hit the road. The next few years brought adventure—travel to Florida, Canada, Mexico, the West—and important life skills; he learned trades, carpentry and construction, railroad work like his father, work that would sustain in him through the lean times of life as an artist.
Morris eventually migrated back to Knoxville. By 1973, he played in some "old timey" bands with childhood pal Jimmy Rector. Then rock instincts took over: See Rock City, followed by Shaky Little Finger, Knoxville bands of the middle and late '70s.
And then he dropped out, around 1979, after the death of a friend. He made a clean break from everything and spent a year in the most distant mountain reaches of Cocke County, the self-professed "last man in Tennessee," in a log cabin with no power and no electricity. He logged and worked sawmills for a living; he also read, wrote, and picked on an ancient guitar.
His year of seclusion ended when he headed West; eventually, he found his way to San Francisco, where he met many of his Beat-era literary heroes, including renowned New York tough guy Gregory Corso, the youngest of the Beats, who befriended Morris his first day in town.
He returned to Knoxville in 1981, to a city that seemed to him on the verge of a "cultural renaissance." Morris rented a room next to Eric Sublett's art studio and began putting out the Hard Knoxville Review, an arts and literature tabloid that came out irregularly, six issues over two years. He helped Sublett open, then run, the Sublett Gallery in the Artists Colony, seven Victorian houses on the World's Fair site. Then came another getaway year, in 1986, to Table Rock Mountain, S.C., only this time with his girlfriend, artist Danielle Mahanes. The year off saw Morris pen The Man Who Lives Here Is Loony, a one-man play on James Agee.
Why a play on Agee? What has consistently resided at the heart of Morris' abiding admiration for the writer with whom he has perhaps become most identified? "Agee is the purest example in his work and his life of the modern artist," says Morris. "He brought his vision to bear in poetry, fiction, non-fiction, film screenplays, you name it, but he was most known as a film critic during his life.
"Critics—usually, they were eunuchs at the orgy. But I personally see them as very valuable. Art can't rise without a scene. Without a milieu of expression and creativity. You have to have critics who are commenting and getting things stirred up. Agee made it an art form. He was a prodigy writer who said, ‘Here's an art form nobody likes. I'll bring my talent to bear.' And it was an incredible thing he did."
Morris' play would eventually become a video production. An offer from local promoter Chuck Burnley actually set those wheels in motion and brought him back to Knoxville in 1987. Once in town, Morris opened his own gallery, the Lost Pavilion. He and Mahanes married; their daughter, Frances, was born in 1988.
His music asserted itself once again, through performances with local blues guitarist Hector Qirko's band, as R.B. and the Irregulars. Morris hosted exhibitions, poetry readings and concerts, finished the video production of his play, founded and headed a local arts organization.
All of which came to a shrieking halt when he and Mahanes divorced in 1993, followed by depression. "When my marriage started coming apart, I dropped out of everything," he says. "I quit performing. I just backed out."
He found solace in Nashville, of all places; he had friends there, and opportunities to play music away from the too-familiar faces and haunts of Knoxville. On an early trip, he saw Lucinda Williams play the Bluebird Café. "I got to know her, and we stayed up all night playing songs," he says. "I played one song after another for her. She was really fascinated. And at dawn I had to head back to Knoxville."
It led to a short tour with Williams, which in turn led to his meeting Prine—and eventually, a deal to record for Prine's Oh Boy Records. Morris' debut, Take That Ride, came out on Oh Boy in 1997, followed up by Zeke and the Wheel, on Koch Records in 1999; the label switch was initiated by Morris when Prine became ill, he says, and Oh Boy's management took an unfavorable turn.
Even with its tumbling sequences of cultural reference and dense philosophical outpourings, Take That Ride is a nearly perfect record, touched with authentically essayed throwback country, blue-eyed soul, Irish dance, even a spirited cover of Robert Mitchum's "The Ballad of Thunder Road."
Zeke is more challenging. With its poet-as-prophet metaphorical overtones and quasi-biblical patois, it occasionally threatens to collapse under the burden of its weighty subject matter. "Of course, I was getting way too heady for my own good; I know that," Morris says.
"But that's where I resided. And people could only look at it and say, well, can you dance to it? But that was my statement then, and I feel good about that statement. You're always guilty of maybe going over the line. That's the thing you've got to watch. Try to be heavy, try to put too much in a song, and it'll fall through the floor. Songwriting is a wild craft. Anyone can write one, but it's a tough thing to get away with a lot."
The irony, perhaps, is that once the lofty manifestos have been dispensed and assimilated, the album proves just as digestible—and full of just as many moments of stark, ruminative beauty and blistering roots rock epiphany—as his first platter.
The difference, presentation-wise, between Zeke and his latest record, is that Spies Lies and Burning Eyes is a bit less apt to show its hand, thematically, than the latter, which opened with the grandly articulated, prophecy-themed title cut, and which featured an apocalyptic piece of free-form prose in the CD gatefold.
But many of his colleagues say it's more than just a cosmetic difference, that Spies Lies and Burning Eyes represents the best work of Morris' career. "This latest record is even stronger than anything he's done, and that's strong," says Scott Miller. "And if you don't believe me, you ask John Prine, or Tom T. Hall."
When R.B. Morris has had a few drinks, he sometimes enters a zone that fellow local musician Todd Steed describes as his "jazz, stream-of-consciousness mode." It's part of his performance style, too, but it comes out offstage with a little help from the right social lubricant.
"R.B. is almost like a verbal version of Thelonious Monk," says Steed. "It's like jazz, verbal riffing, full of stops and starts and turns and spontaneous humor."
And nothing sets him on a tear quite like the subject of the music business: its vagaries, its damnable inconstancy, its loathsome perversity, its debasing shallowness.
"Think of Kenny Chesney," he says. The Guinness is roaring. "Kenny Chesney has won every damn award they've got to give him, and they're trying to invent new ones to give him all the time. As soon as they think something's happening, they all run to it. This is just the nature of the beast. You know, I don't even want to be associated with all that stuff. I don't want those awards.
"People have a hard time believing that. Why else are you into writing music? I don't know if Kenny Chesney ever writes any music. I don't know what his thing is. If he was standing in a line at some karaoke bar with a dozen other regular folk off the street, I don't know that he would stand out a bit. What would be his great gift?"
For his part, Morris says he walked away from both of the labels with which he has recorded because the business wasn't good. And a would-be deal with Columbia, around the time he signed with Oh Boy, fell through when he wouldn't surrender publishing rights to all of his songs, he says.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining why Morris held back for a decade before finally growing weary of the waiting game, looking for the right label and the right time and the right producer. That isn't to say he's been dormant—the decade has seen him release three books of poetry; serve four years on the UT faculty as the Jack E. Reese Writer in Residence; and shepherd the effort that built James Agee Park in Fort Sanders, where he and Stribling were married in what became an outdoor party. The park effort, in particular, took years of impressive, sustained effort from Morris in an area far removed from his normal sphere of expertise. Securing the land for the park required negotiating a cooperative effort between UT and the city under former Mayor Victor Ashe—a sort of civic analog to the Hatfields and McCoys.
But Morris recruited other notables—like the late author Wilma Dykeman and UT professor Paul Ashdown—and spearheaded a steering committee, formed alliances, and eventually saw the project through to completion when many in local government told him the park "would never happen."
"He is not an insider," says Laurel Theater soundman Lou Gross. "Yet somehow he got the city and the university to turn this land into a park."
Some of this unexpected influence could be chalked up to his carefully maintained persona of the beatnik artist. Up to this point in our interviews, he's denied the phenomenon even exists. Now, as he rages frothily against the Nashville machine, he tosses out a little bone, an explanation that squares well with the facts already on record.
"I have approached my life as the life of an artist, the life of a poet," he says. "On the one hand, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that. But on the other, I do take that seriously. I've made my choices. I've given up a lot of what the rest of the world stands in line to get. I passed on a lot of thing just to do what I wanted to do, and that does make you a little different, apparently.
"There are plenty of art students, young people coming in with great passion and exuberance. That's good. But when they find out no one's gonna make them famous or give them a lot of money, how long will it take for that to dissipate? How long will they keep banging their head against that wall? Because the history books are full of artists from different eras. But in the present, they don't give you jack shit. It's all a con. So if you stick with it, if that's your deal, it probably gives you some—I don't know if it's a mystique, but it's a little strange, a little different, I would guess."
In one particularly vainglorious fit of beery pique, Morris pronounces that, on his new album, he has written "the definitive song on Allen Ginsberg, the definitive song on Arthur Rimbaud, the definitive song on Plato…"
All of which may well be true. It's certainly hard to dispute that he's written another collection of exceptionally well-crafted, intellectually challenging songs, rendered by his longtime crack ensemble (Kenny Vaughan, Hector Qirko, Paul Griffith), who indeed know how to make Plato pretty and Rimbaud rock.
And there's the rub; the demand for hyper-literate rock music is a limited one, even if it's—no, make that, especially if it's very good hyper-literate rock music. The very fact that Morris' music is surprising, challenging, subtle, clever, is what will keep him from reaching a wider audience that typically prefers pop music that is familiar, digestible, direct.
Morris seems to be aware of this. And yet he continues to rail against it, though he had in principle been forced to come to grips with it many years past.
With the birth of his daughter drawing near, Morris says he's planning a series of tour dates on the West coast in early February. After a few weeks with his wife and new baby, it's back on the road again, in April. Morris says his lifelong journey is still ongoing, new fatherhood notwithstanding.
"There's a new dimension to it all," he says. "You become a father and you do have a sacramental attention toward anything you have to protect. But you know, just like you get older you don't start playing classical music or something. Woody Guthrie had lots of children. Dylan has children. Springsteen has children. It's part of the world. I'm not afraid to live, or to love. I'm approaching things the way I always have. I just try harder."
And yet: "These tours, they're only two or three weeks anyway. No one is that interested in what I do. Nobody is interested in the work. I was listening to an interview with a guy inside the business the other day. He was saying the music is the last consideration. It's a meat market. It's McDonald's. It's a beauty pageant. Let's send somebody up the flagpole, and if they hit, we'll run 'em up a bigger pole.
"I don't live in that world. And the few chances I had I either walked away from it because I saw what was going to happen or I went ahead and looked in the door and butted heads with someone and said forget it. That's a different life, and it's not mine."