Music News & Reviews

R.B. Morris is sustained by his music, his writing and his family

R.B. Morris said he always has enjoyed opening for John Prine. The audiences, he said, "are very much a songwriter's audience" who expect great songs.
R.B. Morris said he always has enjoyed opening for John Prine. The audiences, he said, "are very much a songwriter's audience" who expect great songs.

Some performers seem as if they were all but born onstage. Take 1-year-old Oona Pearl Morris. She made a grand entrance last month at the Singletary Center for the Arts on the shoulders of her father, Knoxville songsmith R.B. Morris.

It was Dad's gig, though. Well, it was John Prine's show. The elder Morris was, as he has been numerous times during the past two decades, Prine's opener. But judging by the applause and generous vocal sighs at Singletary, young Oona Pearl was the show-stealer.

"That was my little girl," R.B. Morris, 41, said proudly. But she has several years and several thousand miles to go before she catches up with the kind of roadwork her dad has clocked. And even with several recordings, books of poetry and a stage play credited to his pen, his name ignites mostly cult-size recognition centered on Prine fanatics and loyal Knoxville listeners.

"The artistic life is definitely what it is for me," said Morris, who returns to Lexington for a rare headlining show this week at Natasha's Bistro & Bar. "Totally, it is. My wife is an artist, too. She's a sculptor, metalworker and blacksmith. So she works on commissions and stuff. I still make a living out of playing live. Together, we're raising a young family and keep doing what we love doing.

"It's not like a big living. And we're certainly not getting rich in the monetary sense. But it's a very rich life overall."

Morris played the old Lynagh's Music Club about the time his albums Take That Ride and Zeke and the Wheel surfaced in the late '90s. He also has been a guest of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. But much of his fan base stems from the numerous times he has shared local concert bills with Prine, an artist whose literary approach to songwriting often mirrors Morris' approach to composing.

"There's no doubt about it," Morris said. "I may open the show, but those audiences are there to hear John Prine. But they are very much a songwriter's audience. To be a John Prine fan is to really love a great song. And as John is a master songwriter, you're talking about an audience that has been schooled in great songs. And at these shows, they are in the mood to hear great songs. So it is a great, great experience to play for Prine's audiences."

In many ways, Morris' songs follow a great tradition of storytelling writers. He has performed throughout Canada, Mexico and, of late, Europe, but a sensibility of songwriting born out of playing alongside Appalachian bands and old-time players figures prominently in his music.

And sometimes, one of his songs finds its way to an established voice. Veteran pop chanteuse Marianne Faithfull covered Morris' song Empire on her new album, Horses and High Heels. Prine interpreted the same song as a bonus tune on 2005's Fair and Square.

"Songwriting is a bit of a mystery, to tell you the truth," Morris said. "There is a certain amount of craft and tradition that one is schooled in at work. In other words, whenever somebody is saying something, you can immediately visualize it in your mind. You can shape it into a song, so to speak. And when somebody tells a story, you can move through with certain images because of your knowledge of the song's craftsmanship.

"But it's hard to know what totally triggers the writing because you're also playing against that craft at times. I think it was Jack Kerouac that once said, 'Craft is crafty.' So you just learn to keep an eye on that. You want something fresh and honest to supersede the form even though the song often anchors that form and familiarizes it for people."

Morris newest recording, Spies, Lies and Burning Eyes, is a mix of the new and the familiar. The album was recorded mostly in East Nashville with a pack of longtime friends, including guitarists Kenny Vaughan, whose credits include work with Lucinda Williams and Marty Stuart; and Hector Qirko. But the theme and musical mood also journey to new territories. The songs abound with European inspirations (as in Amsterdam and Buddha in European Clothes), while the music reflects less of the folkish vibe of Morris' concerts and more of a sleek, electric groove.

"It's different than a lot of records," Morris said. "It's certainly different than a lot of Americana records or folk-rock records. "Those sessions in East Nashville were just amazing. They had a great feel, which made the whole record sound really live and really open.

"That said, there is also this power to playing solo at my shows. It's a different sort of moment that's created between the audience and the songwriter. It's a different kind of space."