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Oh boy, Morris cultivates Knoxville (?) sound

By Joel Bernstein, July 1997

You've heard of the Nashville sound and the Bakersfield sound. There's the Austin sound and the Memphis sound.

But you've probably never heard of the Knoxville sound. If R.B. Morris has his way, you will. Morris, signed to John Prine's Oh Boy label, now lives in Nashville, but he is a very proud son of the eastern Tennessee city of Knoxville. In fact, Morris's hero is Knoxvile native James Agee, who Morris describes as "the father of modern journalism." In fact, Morris wrote a play about him.

The musical group that represents Morris's idea of Knoxville music is the Amazing Rhythm Aces, of "Third Rate Romance" fame. Every reference book you can find will list the ARA as a Memphis group, but according to Morris, the band actually formed in Knoxville and hung around there for several years in the early seventies. "I was a kid hanging out," recounts Morris, "They liked the songs I wrote. They kind of took me under their wing. They'd buy me a drink."

ARA bass player Jeff Davis now works with Morris part-time, filling in on gigs when his regular bass is unavailable.,.When it's suggested that his own musical eclecticism is similar to that of the Aces, Morris says, "I consider that a Knoxville approach. It's a major city with a university, but it's surrounded by the mountains and all that traditional music. It's also kind of in the Bible Belt, so it has a big dose of gospel music."

Morris's love of the region is also manifested in the one cover song on his debut album "Take That Ride," an album whose songs work individually but also as a story arc. In part of that arc, Robert Mitchum's "Ballad of Thunder Road," which mentions Knoxville and other southern cities, "brings you into the South," says Morris. "The next song, 'Take That Ride,' speaks of James Agee, who's from Knoxville. Then, 'Roy' is a true story about a guy who lived in Knoxville."

Morris adds "Most people who do 'Thunder Road' do it as a rave-up, because it has a very distinct guitar lick. What people often miss is the quality of the lyric."

Morris' press material makes it a point to call him a "poet," as opposed to a "singer/songwriter."

What is the difference? "It's kind of all the same," says Morris. "They get a handle on something, and by the third telling it takes on a whole new significance. Walt Whitman, the originator of the American voice, calls some of his poems 'song.' Poets of the last generation or so have all been songwriters. Poetic voices have more effect on people when backed by music. It's an older tradition than the printed word, revived after the beat poets hooked their way onto jazz. Then Dylan came in, getting as much from Ginsberg as Guthrie. Today, most kids couldn't name a favorite poet, but they can recite a lot of song lyrics."

Morris as poet often appears in his live performances. "In my band shows, I might read or recite poetry for a while." But he takes umbrage at suggestions by some people that he is not really a singer. "I sang in school, and in bands. I was a soloist in 7th and 8th grade choir. I do think of myself as a singer." Then he turns the tables on the interviewer, asking "Does it have to be one or the other?"

Although Morris did a lot of travelling, Morris basically lived in Knoxville until 1994, when he finally ventured to Nashville. He fell in with the emerging alternative country scene on Lower Broadway.

He became friendly with Lucinda Williams, who would invite him onstage to sing and also brought him to her "guitar pulls" (a Nashville term for a bunch of songwriters getting together to perform informally), including one that did a low-key tour in Tennessee and North Carolina. John Prine saw Morris perform a few times, became a fan and signed him.

Pleased that his albu achieved instant success on Americana radio (where it shot into the Top Ten), Morris says, "I've got to like what's there. If I don't like it, I don't want anyone to hear it. But I'm not some purist. If I can sell a few records, people will let me make another one. But if (selling records) becomes the top priority, then you start compromising yourself. I don't think that's what audiences want. They want artists with their own vision. Then they can accept it or reject it."

"I try to stick to my own path. You do that work, and do the best you can, and move on to the next expression."